The inauguration of Donald Trump saw a massive protest in Washington DC that resulted in over 200 people being arrested. In a chilling attempt at discouraging political protest, the authorities threw the book at them, as Yael Bromberg and Eirik Cheverud write:
On the morning of President Trump’s Inauguration, police trapped and arrested over 230 people. Some were anti-Trump demonstrators; some were not. The next day, federal prosecutors charged them all with “felony rioting,” a nonexistent crime in DC. The prosecution then launched a sweeping investigation into the defendants’ lives, demanding vast amounts of online information through secret warrants.
Prosecutors eventually dropped a few defendants, like journalists and legal observers, but simultaneously increased the charges against everyone else. The most recent indictment collectively charged over 200 people with felony rioting, felony incitement to riot, conspiracy to riot, and five property-damage crimes — all from broken windows. Each defendant is facing over 60 years in prison.
Compare this crackdown to the government’s response to the pre-planned, armed violence and rioting by white supremacists and private militia groups in Charlottesville, VA. Instead of a sweeping online dragnet to identify organizers who conspired to plan, promote, and carry out violence in Charlottesville— violence against people, not property; instead of rounding up participants and charging them with felony conspiracy to commit rioting; and instead of charging all the participants as accessories to Heather Heyer’s murder, federal prosecutors have done little to nothing. Online activists exposed the identities of a few white supremacists, leading to charges from local law enforcement due to public pressure. But there have been no felony rioting charges, no charges of guilt-by-association, no police raids, no sweeping investigation.
How do prosecutors decide when to dust off the rioting statutes and whom to charge? Apparently, the reasons for the alleged rioting are important. Sports riots are “people letting off steam.” Riots by white supremacists evidently occur with no criminal consequences. And why should law enforcement behave differently? Neither scenario threatens the state itself. When people stand in opposition to the government, like the demonstrators did on January 20, the analysis changes; suddenly conduct becomes “rioting,” deserving of a lifetime in prison.
To adapt an old cliché, it is not how you protest but who you protest that matters.
But in a welcome move, a jury in a Washington DC court has cleared the first six of 194 protestors of rioting charges.
The six defendants, including a medic and a photojournalist, were not accused of breaking windows or damaging vehicles. Instead, the prosecution said they participated in and encouraged a riot in being near a protest where other people had shattered windows. A conviction on all counts could have meant 60 years in prison, and new threats to freedoms of assembly, speech, and press.
Lawson and Wood were at the protests in their capacities as a medic and a photojournalist, they testified. Neither they, nor any of their co-defendants were observed damaging property. Still, they were each charged with five counts of felony property destruction, one count of misdemeanor rioting, and one count of misdemeanor conspiracy to riot.
Prosecutors argued that, even though they did not directly engage in illegal activity, the defendants encouraged property damage and clashes with police.
The prosecution attempted to characterize Wood not as a journalist but as a rioter with plans for violence. Wood’s monopod, a tool used to stabilize a camera, was entered into evidence as a “baton.”
That same prosecutor also attempted to portray Lawson’s basic medical supplies as suspicious. “What do you need a medic with gauze for?” the prosecutor asked Lawson, the oncology nurse who was volunteering as a medic. “I thought this was a protest.”
Medical volunteers are common at demonstrations. Multiple protest participants and observers required medical treatment after their interactions with police, who deployed pepper spray and stun grenades against a large crowd, which included legal observers, medics, and journalists. Some of those people are suing police for alleged brutality at the protest.
There are 19 more trials scheduled, all designed to chill political protests by threatening to jail people up to 60 years just for being present at or near a demonstration where violence breaks out.