Inauguration Day Protesters’ Trial Could Set Dangerous Precedent For Government’s Handling of Civil Disobedience


December 21, 2017

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images (Via The Intercept)

On 20 January 2017, the United States saw mass protests against the inauguration of Donald Trump as the country’s next President. Where most protest-efforts, better known as J20, were focused on disrupting the official event in a nonviolent way, over 200 people were arrested in Washington that day. Activists clashed with the police close to the White House, “in an outburst of violence rare for an inauguration,” according to Reuters. Black block anarchists smashed windows, threw bottles and rocks at the police, and set cars on fire. Police encircled a large group of protesters and thereafter arrested them. Now, almost a year later, 194 of those who were arrested face their trials in small groups, with charges including felony property destruction, misdemeanor rioting, and misdemeanor conspiracy to riot.

Salient feature in their process is that the public prosecutors never made the argument that the defendants actually broke the windows or otherwise destroyed property. To make its case against nearly 200 defendants, the prosecution is using the Pinkerton liability rule. This rule attributes every crime committed during what is judged to be a “conspiracy” to all those involved. In this particular case, by marching with those who committed violence, wearing the same style of clothes, and chanting the same slogans, the suspects “provide[d] cover for the ‘sea of black’ and those [who were actually] committing destruction,” argued assistant US Attorney Rizwan Qureshi. A conviction would mean that all defendants on trial for the protests can be sentenced for all crimes committed during the action by mere virtue of their proximity to the crimes committed.

As one author justly asked, is marching in a group the same as driving a getaway car? Defense attorneys have argued that, by failing to make the distinction between lawbreakers and protesters, the case amounts to criminalizing the First Amendment of the American Constitution. This Amendment should guarantee the freedom to associate with each other, and protects US citizens from being prosecuted for being present, walking, wearing clothing or having (antifascist) opinions the government does not approve off, according to the defense attorneys.

The prosecution of one particular protester has given this court-case an even more complicated character. Defendant Alexei Wood, a photojournalist from Texas, whose work focuses on resistance movements, live-streamed the entire demonstration, covering the violent acts amongst other things, before getting arrested. In an interview with The Intercept, Wood stated that part of the government’s case against him revolves around defining who is — and, in his case, who isn’t — a journalist. According to Woods and his attorney, that is not a determination which the state is supposed to make. In addition to undermining the First Amendment right to political speech, specifically Wood’s prosecution is portrayed as an alarming reflection of the government’s attempt to define — and criminalize — journalism.

Out of many, let us choose two points to make about all this. First of all, next to the fact that the charges together carry a maximum sentence of 50 years in prison, the prosecution of these protestors could set a dangerous precedent for the freedom of activists all over the United States. “The dispute comes down to what the First Amendment does or doesn’t protect.” Although CANVAS would never put itself behind any form of violence in a campaign for social change, this court case could put prosecution of civil disobedience on a sliding scale. Where many critics have said that the prosecutors’ strong opinions are a sign of a nationwide toughening stance against protest, a right balance needs to be found between what the First Amendment protects, and public safety. Sentencing activists for vague and seemingly trumped-up charges does not seem to secure any of the two.

Nevertheless, these events show the importance of nonviolence and nonviolent discipline. Where anarchists and Antifa-groups might use destruction of property and other forms of violence as a conscious method in their struggle, this method will withhold them from mobilizing critical masses and building large coalitions needed for sustainable social progress. Nonviolent discipline then will not only save your activists from unnecessary encounters with state-forces, but will also strongly de-legitimize those same forces when a confrontation will prove inevitable.

A jury will now decide over the first batch of prosecuted protesters, including Alexei Wood. The remaining protesters will be put on trial in groups of five or six, over the next year.

Read more about the importance of nonviolent discipline in CANVAS’ Core Curriculum (page 90 and onwards).

Published 21/12/2017