Things began today in court for the J20 Defendants. Here’s a primer.
The first of the trial proceedings began today for the nearly 200 people facing charges as a result of protesting at the Inauguration on January 20, otherwise known as J20 defendants. The Defend J20 Resistance against these charges is an important struggle to oppose the dangerous march toward fascism in the United States. Here’s a rundown of important things to note as the trials begin.
1) Wait, What the Heck is Happening This Week?
The first group of J20 defendants began their proceedings today. The trials of 192 defendants are occurring in blocs or waves, with each bloc consisting of a group of people. There are about 20 trial blocs and each bloc has about 8-9 defendants.
Today’s first bloc of trials include seven defendants: Jennifer Armento, Oliver Harris, Britt Lawson, Michelle “Miel” Macchio, Christina Simmons, Jayram Toraty, and Alexei Wood. The jury selection process began today. After the jury selection process concludes, these seven defendants’ cases could be heard as early as next week.
The next trial bloc after this one is scheduled to begin December 11. Baffling everyone, charges for the seven defendants in the December 11 bloc were reduced from felony charges to misdemeanors, meaning the maximum sentence was reduced from up to 80 years to under two years, and the trials will be held not in front of a jury but in front of a judge. This move affects only these seven defendants. There has been no explanation as to why the prosecution made this change, but it clearly is a hopeful sign for those seven defendants.
2) Top Enemies are DC Police Chief Peter Newsham and Assistant US Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff (Rhymes with Jerk-Off)
Brutal DC Police Chief Peter Newsham is the one who ordered the mass arrests. He’s ordered mass arrests in Washington DC before, when he kettled and hog-tied about 400 protesters in 2002, leading to settlements getting paid out.
Assistant US Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff is leading the effort to throw the book at J20 defendants. She’s been widening the definition of “riot,” leading the charge on the invasive investigations, and orchestrating the desperate attempt to get plea bargains. She was quite flustered in court when vital details about her appeared on a local DC cop watchdog page, Swine Flu. And yes, one can’t help but notice that her name rhymes with jerk-off.
3) This is a Move Towards Fascism, and Could Dramatically Chill Protest and Dissent
A lot is at stake here. If the state succeeds in their aims, they could re-define what it means to protest. The prosecution is trying to actually set a legal precedent that pushes us toward a strict application of the DC Riot Statute.
If J20 defendants lose, it could allow cops and the government to apply super-strict laws to future protests, defining them as “riots,” which are criminalized. Bingo. No protest. Fascism.
As noted in a press release on the Disrupt J20 website, the charges represent “a chilling legal maneuver attempting to broadly define conspiracy and implement a problematic DC Riot Statute. The U.S. Attorney’s Office not only seeks to put hundreds on the line for a few acts of vandalism—they are also attempting to criminalize political organizing and attending a protest as conspiracy.”
The cases could very well have a chilling impact on protest, as noted by law professor Tim Zick in an interview with VICE:
“Across-the-board riot charges for so many people, including journalists, are unparalleled in recent US history, according to College of William and Mary law professor Tim Zick. Prosecutors typically target individuals, rather than the whole group, with offenses alleged at mass protest like this one, he said. “The dangers for protesters and free speech and assembly are serious,” Zick, who specializes in First Amendment rights, told me via email.
He added that if the riot theory succeeds in this trial, it could be used to target marches with “far less serious or even minor” damages. “In that event, the threat of felony charges and possible conviction could hang over many large-scale public protests,” he told me. “This could result in a significant chilling of protest activities, as individuals may be reasonably concerned that they could be falsely charged (i.e., through misidentification) or subject to prosecution for merely associating with ‘anarchist’ groups.””
4) Right-Wing Snake James O’Keefe Spied On J20 Meetings, Generated Shoddy “Evidence” Used in Investigations
It is wrong, sneaky, and duplicitous. The right-wing snake James O’Keefe spied on J20 organizing meetings, collecting a number of secretly-taped videos. At times, people in the videos sensed that they were talking to a mole, and altered their behavior. At times they didn’t.
James O’Keefe has operated for a long time in white supremacist circles, as documented by One People’s Project. O’Keefe could be called a muckraker, but he’s not very good at getting muck. What he and his group Project Veritas is good at getting is everyday people doing their jobs, then they twist it and present it as if those people are doing something wrong. That’s what he did with his ACORN and Planned Parenthood videos. He released his videos of us, and tried his usual strategy with the J20 organizers, but he failed to convince any real reporters that his videos showed us committing any actual wrongdoing. So he turned his videos over to prosecutors hell-bent on finding any shred of evidence they could. They needed to justify their arrests and expense, after all.
Federal prosecutors have presented these shoddy video compilations as evidence of “conspiracy,” as if planning a protest weren’t a Constitutionally-protected activity, and they have been used to press charges against J20 defendant and local DC organizer Dylan Petrohilos.
5) These Lawsuits Have Nothing to Do With the Burning Limousine
Take the limo out of the picture. I thought I would mention, just for good measure, that these arrestees had nothing to do with the limo.
A popular misconception is that these charges are for an event that resulted in a few broken windows and a burned limousine. No, the limousine was burned about five hours after these 200 or so people were trapped in a police kettle. Despite this obvious fact, Police Chief Peter Newsham, who ordered the arrest, used the burning limo to justify his move – because the sun will shine, the grass will grow, and cops will lie. The Defend J20 website has a handy timeline to help people understand the sequence of events. The event involved windows, not the limousine.
So the J20 defendants have a pretty solid alibi that they were not the limo-burners. They were already detained by police.
6) The Trump Administration Will Pay Millions to Prosecute J20 Protesters
As public education, healthcare, and environmental protections continue to see their budgets threatened, the Trump Administration is finding plenty of funds to fulfill their fascist dreams of quashing dissent. The prosecution is costing the federal government millions of our tax dollars, according to the Defend J20 website.
In addition, the Washington DC City Council allocated $150,000 in city funds to enable a firm to investigate police misconduct on Inauguration Day. But it was later publicized that the firm they hired, “The Police Foundation,” routinely rules in favor of the police. So there is little hope that this firm will find the DC cops at fault.
“Everyone stood up to Trump and his administration in the belief he represented more policing, more militarization of marginalized communities,” Dylan Petrohilos, a defendant in the Inauguration Day case, told The Intercept. “Now, the MPD’s violence against us is being investigated by a PR firm for the police.”
(There was also a $300,000 price tag on the shiny new weapons used to physically assault protesters on Inauguration Day – the sting ball grenades, pepper spray, less-lethal ammunition, and so on.)
7) There Other Lawsuits Involved Here, Too
Yep, there are at least three other high-profile lawsuits to be aware of related to the J20 defendants.
The first is the lawsuit filed with the help of the ACLU by four of the defendants to sue the police for their misconduct before and during the arrest. The police violence included sting ball grenades, the use of pepper spray, and beatings with batons. People who were kettled for mass arrest were kept in the cold without access to food or bathrooms for up to eight hours.
The second is a FOIA request to get the communications of police by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, submitted earlier this year. The request was for police communication such as reports written on the day-of, details on orders to disperse, and arrest warnings, as well as use-of-force reports.
The third is a case involving warrants that the federal government obtained to search two individual Facebook accounts and one Facebook page. One of the individual accounts belongs to yours truly, the author Lacy MacAuley, and it’s a desperate fishing expedition to try to find evidence against the J20 arrestees, since I was part of the J20 organizing body. With the help of the ACLU, we have been fighting tooth and nail to keep the federal government from prying into our personal lives. Any compromise on privacy rights is a move towards fascism.
8) This is Another Face of the Repression that Law Enforcement Doles Out Every Day
“Mass arrests at demonstrations have been a key tactic of militarized protest policing for decades. And overcharging defendants to coerce plea deals is routine practice for criminal prosecutors,” wrote Sam Adler-Bell in Mask Magazine.
Yes, protesters have been targeted for police repression for a long, long time. Of course, marginalized communities, such as black people, Muslims, immigrants, poor people, people in the LGBTQIA+ community, and others are under threat of police violence and police repression every day of their lives.
As documented by Emily Yoffe in a seminal piece in The Atlantic, the plea bargain is a big part of the everyday repression doled out by law enforcement and the criminal justice system:
“The United States is experiencing a criminal-justice crisis… By accepting the criminalization of everything, the bloat of the criminal-justice system, and the rise of the plea bargain, the country has guaranteed that millions of citizens will not have a fair shot at leading ordinary lives.”
The government was relentless in getting the defendants to accept plea bargains. In a beautiful display of solidarity, however, the defendants held their ground, did not take the deal, and are bringing their cases to trial together.
“Unlike more than 90 percent of criminal defendants in this country, my co-defendants and I have chosen to take our cases to trial. I can’t speak to all of their motives, but I was unwilling to capitulate to a system dominated by petty tyrants willing to win at any cost.
But more important, this is no isolated injustice from an unusually malicious prosecutor. Similar stories play out across America, often in communities where people lack access to adequate legal assistance, or the personal resources to fight a protracted legal battle. It’s time for us to confront the true implications of our society’s promise that we are innocent until proven guilty.”
9) Ways to Help the J20 Defendants
Donate Funds. The number one request that the J20 defendants have made is for money to help pay for travel to DC, food, lodging, missed work, and other expenses.
Statement of Solidarity. Get your group to sign on to the Statement of Support for J20 Defendants.
Drop the Charges. Call or e-mail the US Attorney’s office and jam the lines to tell them to drop the charges against J20 defendants.
Get a Tattoo. Yes, for real. This Saturday in Washington DC.
Connect on Facebook. Share events, updates, and campaigns with your social networks.
**NOTE: If there are other important items that you would like to see included or elements that you would like to see changed in this article, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.