In a couple of weeks, nine people will be charged for their alleged involvement in the “J20″–January 20–incidents on inauguration day in which protesters smashed windows, fired off projectiles, and set cars on fire.
But those six defendants did not participate in the destruction.
They were merely journalists who just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time.
If convicted, they face up to 70 years in prison.
On November 15, freelance photojournalist Alexei Wood is due in court in Washington, D.C., one of the first of over 200 people to face charges stemming from protests around President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Wood traveled to D.C. from San Antonio, Texas to document the events of that day, live-streaming protests on his phone and recording them on camera.
But things turned chaotic.
Some protesters adopted black bloc tactics, concealing their identities, causing minor property destruction.
Alex Stokes, another arrested journalist, observed:
“The cops didn’t seem to have any control over the situation.”
Stokes stated the crowd advanced through the city “with no real coordination” until they arrived at the intersection of L and 12th streets. Police, without ordering the crowd to disperse, then employed a tactic known as “kettling” to trap protesters before rounding them up for arrest.
“The cops blocked one end of the street and then followed us in from the other side.”
Stokes, Alexei Wood, and other journalists and observers, were caught in the kettle, and got swept up in arrests.
“It was indiscriminate. Journalists, lawyers, the average protester: Those are the people they kettled, arrested, and charged with felony riot.”
After 36 hours in lockup, Wood faced a felony charge. While detained, he heard the government possessed a list of misdemeanors with which the protesters were going to be charged.
On April 27, a grand jury handed down a new indictment that added an additional 13 counts.
According to civil rights groups, the U.S. government is attempting to use conspiracy to riot charges as an umbrella under which to hold the defendants responsible for any crimes they are accused of committing during the protest.
Sam Menefee-Libey, spokesperson for the Dead City Legal Posse, a support network for J20 arrestees that provides housing, and court support, is concerned about the peaceful by-standers being punished for crimes only a minority of protesters committed.
Menefee-Libey said about the incident:
“[It would be a] radical departure [from a basic understanding of the law]. Individuals can only be held responsible for their own behavior.”
Shana Knizhnik, attorney for the D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said:
“Even if we take the government at their word, that members of the protest had unlawful goals. It’s undeniable they also had lawful goals.”
“Under the law of conspiracy, people agree to commit unlawful acts and form a group based on that agreement. And then if they commit unlawful acts in furtherance of that agreement, they can be held liable for the acts of the entire group.”
Police confiscated Wood’s recording equipment when he was arrested, and he has yet to recover it.
The government intends to use his documentation in the trials.
Charges against Alex Stokes, however, were dropped.
“They held onto the video until my case was dismissed. Then they gave it back.”
Alexei Wood’s lawyer, Brett Cohen, told The Intercept the court will rule on Wood’s motion to be tried separately on or around November 8.
The government provided an omnibus opposition brief, or a single response, to several arrestees’ motions to separate their charges from the group.
Because of his video footage, though, Alexei Wood receives his own section.
The government brief states:
“The Defendants [sic] severance arguments fails to acknowledge that the government intends to use the Wood Video, in its case-in-chief, in every trial, regardless of defendant Wood’s presence at the trial. The Wood Video is admissible against every defendant as it captures, in real time, the words and actions of participants in the ‘black bloc’ during the riot and captures the destruction and violence during the riot. It is direct evidence of the crimes charged against every defendant.”
On October 17, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) motioned to file an amicus brief with the court, arguing defendants’ goals were at least partially based on the First Amendment.
The court denied that motion two days later.
Details of this case suggest the charges and possible sentence against Wood and the rest of the defendants are meant to send a message.
Alex Stokes said:
“Nobody knows what to expect. I don’t know what kind of mental gymnastics they’re going to have to perform in the courtroom to make that seem reasonable. You could murder someone — if somebody walked into downtown D.C., pulled a gun out, and shot a cop in the head — and you could get less time than what these people are facing. There are approximately 200 people facing 70 years, going to trial for six broken windows. This is insane.”
First-degree murder charges in D.C. carry a minimum sentence of 30 years.
Imagine, 70 years in prison for being in the vicinity of six broken windows.
Image credit: wlos.com