In the days following the Inauguration Day protests, one of the most widely circulated scenes was that of a limo on fire. The photo continues to be a frequent accompaniment to any article on the ongoing prosecution of protesters, however the limo burning has no factual relevance to the case.
This incident was also referenced by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in the original charging document used to justify the mass arrest and to support the charging of 234 individuals with felony rioting on January 20. It stated that: “Members of the group also caused a limousine to be set alight, which destroyed the vehicle. The damage caused by the group was in excess of $100,000.”
More recently, USA Today wrote that the “anarchists and activists tore through the streets for 16 blocks, tossing bricks at police officers, setting trash cans and a limousine on fire,“ during the Anti-Capitalist/Anti-Fascist march. Aside from their print edition featuring the limo fire on the front page, USA Today also created a graphic stating that the limo was set alight as part of the march:
The limo fire makes for a dramatic image and appears to lend legitimacy to the government’s claim that the Inauguration Day protests were a “riot” and that those mass-arrested are deserving of the charges they are currently facing. However, the fire happened nearly five hours after people were in custody.
While protesters were kettled at 12th and L streets in DC, protest actions continued all over the city. In the proximity of the kettle, protesters gathered to observe the police action and were soon pounded with pepper spray and pushed down the street by police. Flash bang grenades were used throughout the area. Police used these weapons aggressively against those both inside and outside of the kettle. While protesters were detained at the corner of 12th and L, unknown individuals set fire to the limo.
Six months later, after it was well-known the indicted protestors could not have conceivably started the fire, MPD Chief Peter Newsham appeared on the September 13, 2017 episode of the Kojo Nnamdi Show. Newsham stated that the J20 defendants were responsible for the limo. Newsham has made no effort to correct this error, as it captures the attention of the public in the way that his mass-arrest orders have not. Newsham’s strategy is clear: he will use false information to justify the arrest and prosecution of the Inauguration Day protestors.
Police mass arrested 234 people on Inauguration Day amidst a situation exacerbated by police tactics. These tactics were inconsistent with MPD codes of conduct and targeted people indiscriminately. The District of Columbia Office of Police Complaints filed an initial report raising concern about police abuses on Inauguration Day and are now undertaking a formal investigation. According to FOIA requests by the NLG, DC police spent 300k dollars on different “less-lethal” weapons” “From an estimated security budget of $200 million for the inauguration weekend, the DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) spent more than $300,000 to militarize its police force. MPD purchased equipment such as 1,000 gas masks ($171,610) and 500 batons ($38,935), and spent more than $42,000 on “less-lethal” munitions, including 140 Stinger Rubber Ball Grenades, 140 Rubber Baton Rounds, 140 Stinger Rounds, and 20 smoke bombs.”
Police Chief Newsham’s decision to misinform the public was an intentional effort to reinsert false information onto an unprecedented legal case. Similar to the style of the arrest he ordered, it was imprecise and unjustifiable. The statements on Kojo intended to create the appearance of victory on Inauguration Day, which helps to rationalize a war-zone atmosphere at protests and secure substantial budgets for the future.