Decades in Prison for Protesting Trump?

A Year and a Half Later, the J20 Repression Continues

Right now, four people are on trial accused of multiple felonies related to protesting at the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017. They are part of a group of 59 accused who face up to sixty years in prison if convicted. Some 230 people were arrested on January 20 (or J20), 2017, when the police kettled an anarchist and antifascist protest, surrounding a city block and arresting everyone they could get their hands on. Naturally, plenty of bystanders and even some rightwing bloggers were caught up in the kettle. Police let some go based on their appearance, whereas another group escaped the kettle. Everyone remaining was accused of forming a conspiracy and carrying out rioting, blamed for the windows of major businesses that were smashed along the protest route.

If this sounds like an attempt to create a legal precedent for collective punishment, that’s because it is. According to the prosecutor and the cops, anyone who took part in an anarchist protest was part of a conspiracy and responsible for whatever damages occurred next to or near the protest.

Initially, over 200 arrestees were facing charges and serious prison time. The first group of six people went to trial last November, including some who were acting as medics or independent journalists (whereas a journalist with fascist ties who was on the scene was not arrested and never threatened with prosecution). The prosecutor argued that their mere presence was enough to constitute a conspiracy. After a jury acquitted them of all charges, 129 defendants were dropped from the case, and the state focused on the remaining 59. 58 are on trial now or will be going to trial over the next few months; people who have to put their lives on hold, to wake up every morning and go to sleep every night with the threat of sixty years locked in a cage hanging over their heads.

The prosecutor, Jennifer Kerkhof, who makes a considerable salary locking people up in cages, wants to sell the idea that the remaining defendants are the ones truly responsible for the damages caused during the riots on J20, even though the worst damages occurred after they had already been arrested. After getting burned with acquittals after their initial overreach, the prosecutor’s office is backing away from the principle of collective punishment, but it’s still at the heart of their case. They are still using participation in the organization of a protest as evidence of guilt. In an underhanded move designed to win a precedent, they have stacked the current trial group with three defendants charged with specific acts of destruction—on the basis of grainy videos in which their faces can’t be seen—and one whom they accuse as an organizer.

I’m not going to say that this is a political trial, because by now we should realize that all trials are political. Anarchists who damage corporate property and organize community gardens are repeatedly treated as terrorists, whereas members of the extreme Right, which has racked up a higher body count than domestic jihadists, get slapped on the wrist. Police media spokespersons regularly claim that antifascists who advocate community self-defense are as bad as the racists who shoot up black churches and burn mosques. Some drug dealers get life sentences, while others, responsible for far more deaths, continue to get corporate bonuses.

Anarchists who organize a protest in which corporate property is damaged are charged with conspiracy: everyone who was there is guilty, the prosecutors argue. Fascists who organize a protest in which they promise in advance to crack skulls and brutalize their enemies, who end up killing one and injuring around fifty, are treated as legitimate protesters, and only a small portion of those responsible for the multiple acts of brutality are arrested. Cracking down on the smashing windows or the burning of limousines is made a Justice Department priority, while the industrial disasters and workplace “accidents” that kill thousands go unprosecuted. Don Blankenship, the coal baron who made millions in large part through practices that endangered workers and destroyed the environment, was one of the few to go to prison. He killed twenty-nine workers and went to minimum security for one year. Marius Mason is doing twenty-two in supermax for carrying out sabotage actions against the property of people like Blankenship.

On January 20, 2017, the political class rolled out the red carpet to welcome their new chief executive, an outspoken racist and misogynist with ties to fascist groups. Republicans and Democrats would forget their principled rejection of the man who supposedly was ethically unfit to occupy the Oval Office. In no time, they would learn to play ball, eager to get campaign financing or to get their pet legislation passed. The media would use him to sell papers and ad time, lambasting him but at the same time normalizing the spectacle. And on the day of the inauguration all the hotels and restaurants, owned by people who were soon to get a big tax break, opened up to capitalize on the crowds.

Several thousand people decided that protesting but accepting this new reality was not enough, given everything that Trump was doing to normalize overt racism and gender violence. Some wanted to take the streets and voice their anger in an uncompromising, unpermitted way. Others blocked entry points to keep the Trump supporters from enjoying their parade. Some attacked a few of the businesses that would profit under the new president. And many people covered their faces to hide their identity, in order to protect themselves both from police surveillance and repression, and from the doxxing that the Alt-Right systematically engages in, publishing their enemies’ personal details in order to expose them to harassment and assault.

In fact, the dangers of police repression and neo-fascist attacks go hand in hand. Police departments across the country have been collaborating with extreme Right racists, protecting their gatherings while directing their violence against the anti-racist counterprotestors. From Charlottesville to Sacramento, they have charged the victims of fascist stabbings or beatings with assault. Right-wingers, however, get light “assault” charges for shooting protestors, as in Seattle. And police in California were caught working together with neo-fascists to identify, prosecute, and attack anti-racist demonstrators.

Police and prosecutors in the J20 case have also been collaborating with fascists and racists. The DC police department gave the names and addresses of all arrestees to an extreme Right organization, which put it online, allowing for harassment and possible attacks. And the unscrupulous Kerkhoff submitted as evidence an edited video by the far Right Project Veritas—famous for a number of manipulations, including a failed sting intended to produce false abuse accusations and discredit the #MeToo movement.

The black bloc and the other uncompromising protesters on January 20 rained on Trump’s parade. It is no coincidence that the Justice Department is making these prosecutions a costly priority. Yet while the media have positioned themselves as guardians of democracy, jumping on Trump for other improprieties and producing dozens of articles every time he gets on Twitter, they have not made a huge fuss about this case. The Washington Post has mentioned the trial several times, but primarily from the perspective of prosecutors. They have not criticized the Justice Department’s overreach or detailed police collaboration with the extreme Right and other shocking elements of the case.

There certainly has been no shortage of newsworthy elements, as when prosecutor Kerkhoff tried to get permission for anonymous expert witnesses to testify about the criminality of anarchist black bloc protests. A hypocrite of the first degree, Kerkhoff argued that the witnesses need to protect their identities to avoid harassment. This is the same prosecutor who claims that the protesters’ use of masks to maintain their anonymity is proof of a criminal conspiracy deserving 60 years in prison.  And while public figures face criticism when they hurt people with their lies, anarchists and other protesters actually do need protection. They have to protect themselves from monsters like Jennifer Kerkhoff and the cops who want to lock them in cages for decades on end, and from the neo-fascists who have systematically been harassing those whose views they don’t like, even making home visits and threatening people’s children.

There has been a growing and multifaceted assault on our right and our ability to remain anonymous, whether on the street or in our communications. The government and the corporations that shape our lives, like Facebook and Google, regularly break their own rules or rewrite them in order to spy on us in every way imaginable. In fact, science fiction from just ten years ago was incapable of imagining all the new ways they would be spying on us. And if there’s one thing the powerful can’t stand, it’s when those on the bottom insist on defending themselves. That’s the reason why democratic governments on multiple continents have increasingly been criminalizing the wearing of masks. This insistence by a crowd of people on protesting anonymously is what the prosecutors see as a conspiracy deserving decades behind bars. These constant assaults on our freedom are not going away. Under Trump, they are accelerating.

That is why it was vitally, historically important for the celebration of Trump’s victory to be interrupted by police sirens and marred by the smoke of burning limousines. Classic fascism may be a thing of the past, but there can be no doubt that Trump is trying to normalize an even more authoritarian style of governance than his predecessors, with even more racist, misogynist, and classist policies.

It’s clear that the actions of the J20 black bloc do not represent majority sentiment on the Left. I would, however, challenge the media-conditioned aversion to combative street tactics. At the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, where white supremacists killed one and injured dozens with an ISIS-style car attack, and hurt many more with mob beatings throughout the town, progressive and Christian pacifists were brave enough to put their bodies on the line and try to resist the klansmen and neo-nazis. Some of them, like Cornel West, were also brave enough to acknowledge that, despite their tactical differences, it was those anarchists brave enough to arm themselves and go toe to toe with the fascists who saved many lives that day, defending the crowds and shutting the white supremacists down.

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, there has been no end of left-wing, progressive, and activist organizations, clinics, and offices that have turned to anarchist groups to help them with digital and physical security. Anarchists gave that help without complaint. That’s the spirit of solidarity: in the face of powerful, sadistic, remorseless enemies like nazis or the FBI, we stick together. And though criticism between different tendencies in a social movement is vital, those opposed to black blocs and other combative tactics have often crossed the line from constructive criticism to snitching and authoritarianism, expelling people from protests or movement spaces, and even collaborating with the police to aid in their arrest. (Some, like the unscrupulous journalist Chris Hedges calledthe black bloc a “cancer,” in shockingly fascistic language). In the anti-police movement that emerged between the protests in Oakland in 2009 and those in Ferguson in 2014, such activists often stood with the forces of law and order, protecting businesses rather than standing with people from the most affected neighborhoods.

But in 2017, when activists of any stripe realized that they also faced a lethal threat, they turned to the same anarchists they had attempted to turn into bogeyman. From internet security tools to experience in self-defense, anarchists gladly and freely shared their resources with the rest of the movement. But they only had that experience and those resources thanks to the use of controversial tactics like the black bloc over the prior years. People like Hedges are invulnerable in their ivory towers, but grassroots activists have realized that, if the police aren’t out to kill them, the alt-Right just might be. Not so many years elapsed between the Greensboro Massacre and Charlottesville. Hopefully this next time, our movements will have better collective memory, and we won’t forget.

Another historical lesson that is significantly older in its origin is that in the face of fascism, appeasement doesn’t work. Nonviolent and democratic tactics were already attempted, exhaustively, to stop the spread of fascism in the 20s and 30s, and they were an abject failure. When a political party embraces openly white supremacist and misogynist ideas and maintains visible contacts with neo-fascist networks, that is more than enough reason to cause problems in the streets. Politicians are opportunists at their core, and if they don’t receive any negative consequences, political discourses and tactics that had been taboo become normalized. The black bloc was carrying out an intelligent, historically grounded strategy when they took to the streets in January, 2017, to demonstrate that the new direction the government was taking was intolerable.

I say all this because, even though any given protest tactic must be subject to critique and the J20 black bloc is no exception, we also have a collective duty to defend and support those who are facing trial, because they are up there in the courthouse for all of us.

And in that courthouse, there is no meaningful justice. Even if all the defendants are acquitted for lack of evidence, their punishment has already been meted out. The process is the punishment. The initial assault by police with tear gas and concussion grenades. The lengthy lock-up in inhuman conditions, the insults, the rough treatment, including sexual assault at the hands of police in a few cases. The anxiety of an attack by white supremacists after the police doxxing. The sure knowledge that the guardians of law and order in this society, whom we see on a daily basis, work hand in hand with white supremacists and will treat us like public enemies the minute they run our IDs. The months and months, going on a year and a half, faced with the threat of extreme punishment, the obligation for the defendants and their loved ones to put their lives on hold, to lose jobs or halt studies and move to a rapidly gentrifying, increasingly expensive Washington DC to wait for a trial that has already been delayed numerous times. Meanwhile, the cops, the prosecutors, and the judges won’t get punished for the very real harm they have caused. No, they’ll get paid.

Collective punishment, even though democratic jurisprudence rejects it as a hallmark of totalitarian regimes, is a systematic element of the present system. Every time you steal someone away and lock them in a cage, you are harming their broader circles. Families and friends also suffer imprisonment. A more honest, empathetic society would recognize the truth in the assertion that prison is torture. But hundreds of thousands of cops, bureaucrats, lawyers, and judges make their money off of the prison system. The vast majority have never even spent a week in prison or done anything else to get a sense for the kind of harm they are inflicting on their victims. Sending people to prison is our kneejerk response to crime. Yet crime is a reflection of systemic problems, decisions about what constitutes crime are always political and elitist, and governments are becoming increasingly vindictive in punishing those crimes that are intended to stop a greater social harm.

But they are least likely to do so when there is massive public support. And such support is vital to keeping the government from carrying out its worst atrocities. Remember, it was the massive blockades shutting down nearly every international airport in the country that delivered the Trump agenda its first setback. And earlier, under the Obama administration, it was the wave of protests and riots from Ferguson to Baltimore to Oakland—and not the President—that forced this country to start talking about police murders. The media have tried to turn judges and FBI agents into the heroes and protagonists of the movement to stop white supremacy and xenophobia in this country, but this is absurd. Their hope is that we wait for elections to change things, but if they see that there are no negative consequences for playing ball with Trump, either as his courtiers or as a loyal opposition, then Trump’s political style and discourse will become normalized and legitimized.

Everyone who opposes what Trump represents is on trial in that DC courtroom. Everyone who thinks we should be able to protect our identities from the police and neo-fascists, everyone who thinks we have a right to defend ourselves, has a stake in the outcome of the trial. We need to support all the remaining J20 defendants, making sure they and their communities are not isolated, and that the people in our circles remember what this trial represents.

Peter Gelderloos has participated in various initiatives to support prisoners and push the police out of our neighborhoods. He is the author of several books, including Anarchy Works and The Failure of Nonviolence.