On January 20, 2017, the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, hundreds of protesters participated in an “anti-capitalist, anti-fascist” demonstration organized by the group Disrupt J20. The rally turned violent after Trump’s swearing-in, resulting in the arrest of more than 200 individuals. The people charged say they were subject to cruel treatment while under arrest. As of April 20, 2018, 59 of them were still awaiting trial.
Sam Menefee-Libey is a member of the Dead City Legal Posse, an organization that provides legal support and funds for those arrested on January 20. He has become a de facto spokesperson for the J20 protesters.
Alexei Wood, Britt Lawson, Jennifer Armento, Oliver Harris, Michelle Macchio, and Christina Simmons were the first six arrestees to stand trial, on December 21, 2017, 11 months after the events. Wood is a freelance photojournalist, and Lawson is a nurse who said she was acting as a medical volunteer at the protests.
Jennifer Kerkhoff is an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. She served as lead prosecutor in the first J20 trial.
Scott Michelman is a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) for arresting innocent protesters, detaining people for more than 16 hours without water or food, and allegedly sexually assaulting detainees.
The morning of January 20, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered at different locations around Washington, D.C., to protest the inauguration of President Donald Trump. One of the groups, Disrupt J20, began congregating in the Logan Circle area around 10:20 a.m. The protesters engaged in a practice known as “black bloc” — meaning they were clad in black and covered their faces — to ensure mass anonymity and shield themselves from potential “doxxing,” or having one’s identity shared on the internet without consent, usually with malicious intent. Within a half-hour, some protesters began breaking the glass of several storefronts, including an Au Bon Pain cafe and a Bank of America branch office. According to Kerkhoff, one police officer suffered a broken wrist after being pelted with bricks, hammers, and crowbars.
The group had announced its intentions on its website well before the inauguration, saying that it was planning “a series of massive direct actions that will shut down the Inauguration ceremonies and any related celebrations,” including inaugural balls. Using a variety of tactics, it said, it would “paralyze the city itself, using blockades and marches to stop traffic and even public transit.”
As soon as small numbers of people began rioting, police deployed a tactic known as “kettling.” Officers surrounded the mass of protesters and closed in to prevent any of them from leaving without being arrested. Two hundred and thirty-four protesters were kettled and charged with felony riot. However, according to The Independent, a superseding indictment filed later in D.C. Superior Court charged 212 protesters with inciting to riot, rioting, conspiracy to riot, destruction of property, and assault on a police officer. Together, these charges carry sentences of at least 50 years in prison for each individual.
On June 21, 2017, the ACLU filed a lawsuit after learning that detainees had been held for as long as 16 hours without water, food, or access to bathrooms. The complaint also denounced MPD for alleged sexual harassment and assault, after at least four detainees said they were ordered to remove their clothing by police, who then grabbed their genitals and subjected them to manual rectal probing. The complaint was later amended to include as plaintiffs a woman and her 10-year-old son, who said they were peacefully protesting when they were knocked down and pepper-sprayed. During a press conference announcing the lawsuit, Michelman said, “No one should have to fear arrest or prosecution for coming to the nation’s capital to express opinions peacefully, no matter what those opinions may be.”
In the following months, the government reduced or dropped some of the charges, according to The Intercept. The remaining 194 defendants in the government’s case were subsequently divided into groups of fewer than 10 people each to stand trial, with the first trial of six defendants beginning on November 15, 2017. The government’s position, argued by Kerkhoff, was that by dressing in black, moving through the streets with the group, and chanting slogans, the defendants had willfully associated with a riot. The prosecution admitted on the first day of trial that it would not present any evidence that the defendants had committed any acts of violence or vandalism.
First six defendants acquitted of all charges
Wood, Lawson, Armento, Harris, Macchio, and Simmons were found not guilty of all charges in a jury held on December 21, 2017. Menefee-Libey told The Intercept that the protesters saw the verdict as a rebuke of prosecutors for the government’s effort to effect collective punishment. One of the jurors in the case later anonymously said the verdict was not a close call, reported The Intercept.
Government drops charges against majority of defendants, but 59 pending cases remain
The prosecution dismissed the charges it had brought against 129 other protesters in a January 18, 2018, court filing. “In light of the legal rulings by the court and the jury’s verdicts in the first trial of these cases, the government has decided to proceed with all of the pending charges set forth in the superseding indictment,” Kerkhoff wrote in the filing. That meant 59 other defendants remained, who the government said were directly involved in the rioting. According to a representative from Dead City Legal Posse, the next round of trials is set to begin on May 14, 2018.
Prepared by Jesus Rodriguez ‘19
Uploaded April 30, 2018