Two journalists are facing 75 years in prison for covering the Inauguration Day protests.
Aaron Cantú of the Santa Fe Reporter and New Inquiry and photographer Alexei Wood were among a group of at least seven journalists arrested whiled covering the J20 protests. While prosecutors dismissed the felony rioting charges against most of the reporters within days of their arrest, Cantú and Wood are still facing trail after being charged eight counts of rioting and destroying property.
Sam Menefee-Libey, a member of the D.C. Legal Posse, which is supporting the protesters, told Circa the reason Cantú and Wood's charges weren't dismissed is because they are both independent journalists so they're not afforded the same protections as reporters from major outlets.
“For instance there was a reporter at Evan Engel whose written very eloquently about his experiences in the kettle and in lockup who was reporting for Vocativ and because he was there through a recognized outlet, his charges were dropped. He later actually quit Vocativ because he was so dissatisfied with the way that they tried to prevent him from telling your story and reporting his experience.”
Engel described his experience in an article published by the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
According to report by Adam Johnson in the LA Times Wood and Cantú were merely in the proximity of window-smashing and brick-throwing while covering the protests for work.
“Wood and Cantú are charged with felony rioting, but it seems they were merely in the proximity of window-smashing and brick-throwing while covering the Jan. 20 unrest. The cliche “wrong place, wrong time” doesn’t even apply –– they were in exactly the right place at the right time, doing what reporters are supposed to do, covering a story of major import on the ground. (Prosecutors initially brought and then dropped charges against six other reporters, though how their cases differ from Cantú and Wood’s is unclear.)”
<h2>Here's everything you need to know before the trial begins on November 15th.</h2>
On January 20th, 2017 thousands of protesters took to the streets of Washington, DC to protest Donald Trump's inauguration.
Between 9-10a.m some demonstrators marching in McPherson Square began attacking nearby apartment buildings, banks, and gas stations and a group of people smashed the windows of a Starbucks, forcing customers to scramble for shelter.
According to multiple reports, police responded by attacking protesters with rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas and “sting-ball” grenades before using a mass-arrest tactic called “kettling” to surround everyone within the entire city block.
230 people including protesters, activists and journalists got caught in the kettle and were arrested on felony riot charges.
DC passed legislation to protect free assembly following a series of wrongful arrest allegations brought against the city for it's response to the IMF/World Bank protests in 2002. The inauguration day arrests were the first time kettling has been used since these reforms.
In February the DC Office of Police Complaints filed a report requesting an independent consultant to investigate DC Police conduct on Inauguration Day.
"When MPD corralled people, at 12th and L Streets, [the protesters] were not allowed to leave," the reports states. "In addition, there is no indication in witness reports, nor any observations by OPC monitors, that any warnings were given either before or after the police line cordoned off those who were later arrested."
<h2>Does the punishment fit the crime?</h2>
Since their initial arrest, 217 defendants have racked up additional felony charges, including inciting or urging to riot, conspiracy to riot, and five counts of destruction of property.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe penalties possible in all cases. The Department of Justice claims that anyone in the vicinity of violent demonstrators is a political conspirator and enemy of the state.
In May the Baffler published an article explaining why the charges against the J20 protesters were so shocking.
"Mass arrests are not uncommon at protests that spark vandalism, and individuals found to be liable for destructive acts likewise can expect to face serious charges. What is happening to the J20 protesters, though, is far from normal. Felony riot charges are rare. Felony riot charges brought against more than two hundred people are practically unheard of."
The ACLU, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the National Lawyers Guild have condemned the severity of the charges, claiming that they "set a terrifying precedent for handling dissent in the age of Trump."
DC attorney Jeffrey Light told Alternet, “I have been representing protesters for 13 years now, and I have never seen felony rioting charges in Washington, D.C. It is not one of the standard laws that they tend to use. This is unusual. It is rare to use that charge.”
For reference check out ESPN's list of the most infamous sports disturbances in history. The average punishment for a rioter in those cases was less than 30 days in jail and community service.
We asked Menefee-Libey how the results of this case could have a life changing impact for all American's, he said everyone regardless of their political beliefs should be concerned.
"One of the things at the core at this is that folks can be arrested for being the proximity of criminalized behavior and held liable for that criminalized behavior...that's terrifying," he said. "That means that if there's a march that folks don't like that they can break a window and get everyone in the area arrested. That's terrifying. That sounds pretty dystopian to me and it sounds pretty out there but the prosecution's pretty out there so its hard to know what's reasonable to assume."
“Actions like MPD’s that punish journalists for being near the action will inevitably chill freedom of the press and, with it, First Amendment rights not only of the journalists themselves, but of all of us.”
In April a grand jury brought a superseding indictment of eight felony charges against both reporters along with over 200 other defendants.
The Nation reported that the prosecution's case against Cantú was built solely on his presence at the protest and his decision to wear a black t-shirt. "Cantú moved in proximity to the march—something that would be necessary in order for him to do his job as a journalist," they wrote. "But prosecutors have additional evidence against Cantú: He wore the color black."
Scott Michelman, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU warned that the MPD’s actions during the Inauguration protest arrests "that punish journalists for being near the action will inevitably chill freedom of the press" and will impact "First Amendment rights not only of the journalists themselves, but of all of us.”
Wood's trial starts on November 15th and is expected to last about two weeks.