Solidarity Wins: As J20 Trials Resume, Protesters Hope Mass Defense Works Again
Alejandro AlvarezUS00:23 12.05.2018(updated 00:32 12.05.2018) Get short URL
Whistleblower Chelsea Manning joined protesters in Washington, DC, Friday as they rallied ahead of trials beginning Monday for four demonstrators arrested while protesting US President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The defendants are among 54 still facing charges over the protest, during which there was a mass arrest of 234 people.
On January 20, 2017, the nation’s capital was flooded with people seeking to make their voices heard as Trump assumed the nation’s highest office. In the morning, J20 protesters (so dubbed by the date of the action) targeted 11 checkpoints into the official inauguration rally and blocked some of them by linking arms and refusing Trump supporters entry. There was a “Festival of Resistance” and a number of other demonstrations throughout the city. The anti-capitalist march, however, which saw the arrest of 234 people, dominated the narrative of the day.
“They’re my friends. I mean, I live in Maryland, so these are people that I know, they’re people that I care about,” Chelsea Manning, who once faced 35 years in prison prior to her pardon by former President Barack Obama for blowing the whistle on US troops’ extrajudicial killings in Iraq, told Sputnik News.
Most of the people arrested on the corner of L and 12th St NW in Washington, DC, were charged with felony rioting, which carries a maximum of 10 years behind bars. However, 10 days after the arrests, the United States Attorney’s Office under the US Department of Justice issued a superseding indictment against most of the defendants, excluding most journalists who were also caught up in the mass arrest. The new charges brought a combined 60-year sentence, although some of them were later struck. The new total that most of the remaining 58 defendants are facing is around 50 years each.
One of those defendants is Dylan Petrohilos, who spoke with Sputnik News at the rally Friday. He was not present during the anti-capitalist march but is alleged by the US Attorney’s Office to have helped organize it. On April 3, 2017, police raided his house and seized cell phones, computers and an anti-capitalist flag. Some time later, Petrohilos was also arrested.
“On January 20 there was a large show of resistance to Trump… a couple months later, my house was raided and I later was indicted when the superseding indictment came out,” Petrohilos told Sputnik News. “So, for the past year-plus, I’ve been fighting these charges along with several hundred other people.”
The J20 march began peacefully with small acts of vandalism; trash cans and newspaper boxes were knocked over and strewn throughout the street. At some point, small groups of protesters broke the windows of such businesses as Starbucks, McDonalds and some local establishments, although insurance covered all of the damage, according to in-court testimony from the business owners from November.
“Any action that a person does as an individual to fight back, to show that you have a voice — I stand in solidarity with them because this is how we will make a difference. This is how we will fight back,” Manning told Sputnik News.
Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) pepper sprayed demonstrators more than 100 times during the day and threw more than 74 Sting-Ball grenades. Sting-Balls shoot out rubber bullets after they land and emit chemical irritants. Five foam batons and a 40mm Exact Impact round were also used, according to journalist Baynard Woods, who obtained and reported on the MPD documents detailing their deployments. The MPD spent $300,000 on equipment for the day, although it is unclear what weapons the US Capitol Police, who were also heavily present at the march, used throughout the day.
In total, police efforts on Inauguration Day cost Washington, DC, taxpayers $100 million, according to a Marketplace podcast from two days before the inauguration. According to prosecutors, protesters damaged the city to the tune of $100,000. However, some of the demonstrators’ charging documents held them culpable for damage that occured while they were in detainment.
The city also had to dole out $150,000 in taxpayer funds to investigate police actions following a damning February 27, 2017 report from DC’s Office of Police Complaints (OPC). OPC is a government agency that reviews the public’s reports of abuses by police in Washington, DC. On the day of the inauguration, OPC sent out 11 observers, dressed in “distinctive clothing identifying [them] as an OPC monitor, and found several instances of police skirting protest rules. For example, police hurled a Sting-Ball grenade at an OPC monitor, who was hit by the rubber bullets. According to the OPC, Metro Police are supposed to roll Sting-Ball grenades “to avoid having a rubber pellet strike anyone in the face.” Another OPC monitor witnessed a supervising officer order an assault on a member of the media, among other violations of standard operating procedure.
Eventually, police surrounded and trapped hundreds of protesters together on a city block with Sting-Ball grenades and pepper spray and began making a mass arrest without having given a prior dispersal warning, another violation of police procedure. Prosecutors later argued that Washington protest laws did not apply in the case because the march was a riot. Legally speaking, a riot is different from a protest in that it is considered devoid of any political purpose.
Trials in the cases began in late November 2017. The first trial group contained six defendants, including citizen journalist Alexei Wood and two protest medics. Prosecutor Jennifer Kerkhoff of the US Attorney’s Office argued that while the government did not have any evidence linking any of the defendants to specific acts of property destruction, jurists should still find the protesters guilty in the conspiracy case. She argued that evidence such as protesters’ use of masks and black clothing was meant to abett vandalism by allowing offenders to be reabsorbed into the protest and that this evidenced the conspiracy case. Data, including messages and phone call records, were extracted from defendants’ cellphones after the arrests, and were also used to prove prior knowledge and support the conspiracy charge.
After all six of the defendants in the first trial group were found not guilty on all charges on December 21, 2017, and the US Attorney’s Office postponed the rest. Then, on January 18, 2018, the US Attorney’s Office dismissed charges against 129 defendants without prejudice. The phrase “without prejudice” means that the government did not make a determination as to whether the defendant is guilty or innocent, but is merely saying that it is not interested in prosecuting them at that time. Those defendants are instead able to try to seal their cases, which would leave the government unable to re-open the charges.
“When that happened, we showed that solidarity, specifically, wins; that the mass defense of various activists allowed us to kind of stand up to state repression,” Petrohilos told Sputnik News. While the defendants are legally represented by their own public defender, a team of legal activists quickly coalesced to support the overarching legal strategy to which many defendants wanted to adhere.
According to “Drop J20,” a Twitter account run by activists in DC connected with the J20 movement, the US Attorney’s Office is reevaluating its case ahead of Monday’s trial after a ruling that attending a protest while dressed in black does not necessarily constitute participation in a conspiracy. Activists believe the ruling could have big implications going forward.
“What I think the cases end up representing is suppression of dissent in the United States. We’re seeing waves of felony charges, not just here, but in Michigan, in St Louis and in Washington, DC,” Petrohilos told Sputnik News. “What we’re seeing is anti-fascist protesters — and Black Lives Matter protesters as well — facing the brunt of political repression in the United States. Meanwhile neo-Nazis are openly calling for violence and have acted on that violence, specifically in Charlottesville.”
After the trials of these four defendants, trials for the remaining 54 will continue in successive groups. Petrohilos won’t see his day in court until two more groups have been tried.
“We need to, as people, stand together in solidarity with these people,” Manning told Sputnik News. “It’s one of the reasons I’ve been so much for dealing with support for prisoners. Prisoner support is a very important way — because we can’t forget [them] — we can’t have people go out and protest and then go to jail and have them be left behind.”
“They’re still a part of a political movement,” Manning said.
By Alexander Rubinstein, Sputniknews.com writer
DISCLOSURE: I was arrested while covering the anti-capitalist march on January 20, 2017. My felony rioting charge, which carried a 10 year sentence, was dropped prior to the superseding indictment, and was sealed based on a ruling of my actual innocence on November 21, 2017.