Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration on January 20 in Washington, DC last year is something that most of us who read rags like this try to forget. The arrest of over 230 protesters at “Disrupt J20” that same day in DC, and the charging of 194 of them with felony rioting – allegedly for their part in setting fires, hurling rocks, and creating $100,000 in property damage – is something we need to remember.
If you’ve glanced at J20 headlines, news of the defendants seems good. Last December 21, the first six were acquitted in a jury trial. Then, on January 18, charges against 129 of the remaining 188 defendants were dismissed, leaving 59 to face charges. These are the 59 people our government now names as the “smaller, core group” of anti-fascist, anti-capitalist activists “most responsible for the destruction and violence that took place on January 20.”
Offhand, that might sound fair: Let’s go after the violent ones. But beneath the prosecution’s seeming pursuit of justice is a classic attempt to divide and conquer: to separate defendants from each other, and a diverse political movement from its “extremist” elements. It’s also the kind of law enforcement that quietly divides us from an awareness of rights now being lost to us under Trump’s government.
The prosecution, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff, has spent months obsessively reworking this case. Several weeks after being charged with felony rioting, all 194 original defendants were charged with eight more felonies, including conspiracy to riot, inciting riot, and property destruction, which can incur over 70 years in prison.
As if the First Amendment never existed, J20 defendants, convicted of conspiracy, can be deemed guilty of violent acts for having worn black at a protest or yelling sensible things like, “Keep moving.” Fifty-nine people now conceivably face decades behind bars, for simply attending a protest where laws were broken.
In its January 18 “Notice of Intent to Proceed,” the prosecution claimed it is now specifically targeting protesters who carried out destructive or violent acts, as well as those who planned the Disrupt J20 event. The feds added that they’re also targeting those “engaged in conduct that demonstrates a knowing and intentional use of the black-bloc tactic on January 20, 2017, to perpetrate, aid or abet violence and destruction.”
The prosecution’s focus on the “black-bloc tactic” (wearing black and protesting anonymously) intensifies the scrutiny of behavior, dress, and speech already embedded in the felony charges. It may also lead to “a terrifying precedent,” says Sam Menefee-Libey, a member of the DC Legal Posse, which supports the defendants. In an online message to me, Menefee-Libey writes that this is a “significant escalation by law enforcement, making explicit their intent to criminalize the kind of anti-capitalist organizing and direct action that has been happening for decades. If the prosecution is successful here, we could see other cases brought against social movements, organizers, and activists to further criminalize political action.”
Reducing the number of accused to 59 does nothing to guarantee that each protester acted “violently.” According to Sam Adler-Bell in The Intercept, this winnowed group includes a professional journalist who was covering the march, other citizen journalists, medics, and an organizer who never even attended the march.
Early last year, 130 J20 defendants pledged to stand together and not make plea bargains jeopardizing codefendants. Given the prosecution’s separating nonviolent/good from violent/bad protesters, this “Points of Unity” agreement has become psychic bedrock. One of the signers was Erin [last name withheld], whose own trial was fast approaching, until January 18, when her charges were dropped.
“All the defendants have witnessed the prosecutor’s near-fanatical engagement with this case,” Erin told me. “There is no way this culling of defendants does not serve her strategy to attach criminal charges to as many people as possible…. Coming up with a Points of Unity document was essential to establish trust. It’s provided defendants with a shared purpose and agency within a legal process that’s inherently individualized and isolating.”
Further isolating is the fact that Erin’s charges, like those of all 129, were dismissed “without prejudice.” This means the government can re-file these charges any time, within six years, on legal discretion. In case you thought it was safe to wear your black hoodie at a DC protest again.
Finally, amid all the Big Headline infotainment of Russia-gate and assorted Trump fiascos, it’s important to recollect what real violence is. The Disrupt J20 protest happened on a day when a little over $100,000 property damage was done. Some McDonald’s and Bank of America windows were smashed, MAGA baseball caps were burned, cars were damaged, a limousine set ablaze. If ours were a just government, I might see the logic of spending up to $470.58 in federal funds to hold a restorative justice panel, where the folks who actually smashed things would agree to wash Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s car for a year.
But compare this $100K damage to what it costs the U.S. government to wreak its own violence. The breathtaking billions, for instance, spent daily on munitions to extinguish lives in counties like Yemen, Syria, and Somalia. Business Insider – hardly a bastion of black-bloc, anti-capitalist opposition – wrote last August that, under Trump (who, remember, got a late start), the United States now drops bombs at unprecedented levels: “about 20,650 bombs through July 31, or 80 percent the number dropped under Obama for the entirety of 2016.”
I’ll wager that each and every person who showed up at J20 – whether they threw rocks or not – is aware of this U.S.-sponsored violence; it’s why they came in the first place. These are people who felt deeply enough that they risked their jobs and security to remind us of who Trump is and what this country does.
We may not have gotten the message; we may prefer other methods of delivery. But if we let ourselves write these people off because the government calls them “violent,” we’ve damaged our own ability to rise and resist.