FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 25th, 2023
Two Journalists Awarded $175,000 to Settle Final Lawsuit Over Police Abuse During Trump Inauguration Protests
Journalists Were Among Hundreds Unlawfully and Violently Arrested by DC Police on January 20, 2017, During an Anti-fascist, Anti-capitalist March
WASHINGTON, DC – Two journalists were awarded $175,000 today, after settling a longstanding lawsuit earlier this month that accused the District of Columbia (DC) and its police chief Robert J. Contee III of violating their constitutional rights, including unlawful arrest and excessive force. Print journalist Aaron Cantú and photojournalist Alexei Wood were among hundreds of people who were unlawfully and violently arrested by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) on January 20, 2017, during an anti-fascist and anti-capitalist march against the inauguration of Donald Trump. This represents the district’s largest monetary settlement awarded to journalists for a case arising from police misconduct.
“Although this settlement award is substantial, I have no confidence that the police wouldn’t do it all over again,” said Wood. “With little-to-no oversight or accountability, it’s no surprise the DC police violated their own policy in arresting us,” continued Wood. “It just seems like they’re willing to pay the cost of repressing radical dissent.” The MPD agreed not to kettle protesters after the district was forced to pay out more than $13 million for similar “trap and detain” tactics used in the early 2000s. However, as is common with these kinds of settlement agreements, the district admitted no liability or wrongdoing for its actions.
The DC government settled two other lawsuits stemming from the 2017 Inauguration Day protests in April 2021 for a total of $1.6 million. According to The Washington Post, the district agreed to pay $605,000 to six defendants represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, and nearly $1 million to more than 200 others who were part of a class action lawsuit. Today’s award represents the final monetary settlement to be paid out by the DC government for the police response to the 2017 inauguration protests.
In response to isolated incidents of property damage along the march route in downtown Washington, DC, police beat, tear gassed, pepper sprayed, and used other less-lethal munitions against hundreds of marchers, then mass-arrested more than 230 people, violating a MPD policy against entrapping, or “kettling,” protesters. Wood also lost thousands of dollars in camera equipment that was damaged by police. You can learn more about the events of January 20, 2017 and the plaintiffs’ legal claims in their lawsuit complaint filed on January 16, 2020.
Each arrestee was charged with a minimum of eight felonies: rioting, conspiracy to riot, inciting a riot, and five counts of property destruction. Approximately 100 people were additionally charged with assault on an officer. Cantú, Wood, and the other arrested journalists, protesters, medics, legal observers, and bystanders faced decades in prison.
Months before the first trial, Judge Lynn Leibovitz threw out all of the assault charges. Wood was one of the first six defendants to go to trial, in November 2017. He and his co-defendants used a collective defense strategy and, in December 2017, a jury acquitted them of all charges. By January 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ), which prosecutes felony cases in Washington, DC, had dismissed the cases against 129 of the remaining 188 defendants.
During the second trial in May 2018, it was discovered that prosecutors had violated “Brady” disclosure rules by withholding audio and video evidence it had obtained from the far-right group Project Veritas, which was favorable to the defense. Indeed, it was malfeasance and collaboration with far-right groups that was the prosecution’s undoing, ultimately forcing the DOJ to drop all of the remaining cases.
Wood joined the lawsuit in part to expose details of the collusion between law enforcement and far-right groups like Project Veritas. Despite admissions by the DOJ, revealed in a May 31, 2018 pretrial hearing, that at least one meeting had occurred between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Project Veritas prior to the 2017 inauguration protests, Wood was stonewalled and unable to obtain any additional information through the lawsuit’s discovery process.
Wood and Cantú garnered the support of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Press Freedom Tracker, and other organizations. Wood was recently interviewed by an academic institute for a forthcoming documentary on the intersection of press freedom and police repression.
Wood, a self-described anarchist who advocates for mutual aid and abolishing the police, will be donating part of the settlement award to social justice organizations such as Stop Cop City, Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, IdaVox, Tilted Scales Collective, and Elements of Mutual Aid, as well as independent media outlets such as CrimethInc, It’s Going Down, Unicorn Riot, Sub.Media, Kolektiva, and Channel Zero Network.
While their criminal cases were active, over half of the defendants—more than 130 people—agreed to Points of Unity that included a refusal to cooperate against fellow co-defendants and committing to work together collectively to fight their charges. To learn more about the 2017 Inauguration Day protests and the repressive state response, read this article from Agency, an anarchist PR project.
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