Olivia Alsip found herself trapped. The 24-year-old activist traveled to the nation’s capital from Chicago to express her ire against Donald Trump’s antagonistic rhetoric targeting minorities and queer people on Inauguration Day. By 11 a.m. that morning, though, she found herself kettled with hundreds of other protesters with no way to go to the bathroom, eat or drink.
At one point, Alsip told The Independent, DC police indiscriminately pepper-sprayed the crowd, hitting a child and someone on crutches. Six hours later, Alsip was handcuffed and taken in a police van with other demonstrators to a DC jail.
The whole experience “felt like being in a cattle car of some sort and being treated as livestock and bodies, rather than actual people,” said Alsip.
Her troubles did not end when she was released that evening. Instead, Alsip and over 200 other demonstrators are now facing felony charges that could carry up to 75 years in prison if they are convicted. The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which reports to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is prosecuting the case.
Civil liberties advocates say that the demonstrators are being overcharged in an attempt to intimidate them into accepting plea bargains and in order to silence future dissent. They also say that the police response was brutal — and that the prosecutor’s charges, which seek to tar the demonstrators as criminals regardless of their individual actions, are a worrying sign of how protests are being treated in today’s America.
The arrests and subsequent indictments appear to correspond to the Trump Era pattern of a shock-and-awe gambit followed by a lot of confusion and disarray.
Jan. 20 was always going to be a confrontational day. Trump was to assume the presidency after a contentious presidential campaign filled with nasty, racist attacks on Muslims and Mexicans. Trump lost the popular vote and activists streaming into Washington that day weren’t about to let him forget that.
But what was surprising to many protesters was the dramatic police response. A minority of the thousands of demonstrators on the street set fire to a limousine and smashed storefront windows. The DC police tried to get a handle on the situation but instead of focusing manpower on property destruction, riot squadrons cordoned off the protesters and kept them in the street for many hours.
The aggressive police response began even before the events of Jan. 20. An undercover DC cop infiltrated the planning meetings of Disrupt J20, the group organizing the day of inaugural protests, according to court documents. The police later used the information gathered at the meetings to pinpoint an organizer whose house was raided as part of an effort to gather information for the criminal case against the demonstrators.
On the day of the inauguration, police pepper sprayed peaceful protesters and indiscriminately launched explosive devices called “stingers” at the crowd, according to a report by the DC Police Complaints Board. The report also notes that officers pepper sprayed demonstrators “without issuing a warning or command,” and swept many people into custody merely because of their proximity to property destruction — and not on the basis of probable cause.
Police body camera footage obtained by The Indypendent appears to confirm allegations raised by the complaint board. Officers can be seen firing flash grenades at cordoned-off demonstrators and showering them with pepper spray.
Among those arrested were legal observers and reporters. Past Indy contributor Aaron Cantú was among the journalists detained. In the aftermath of the crackdown, the Committee to Protect Journalists said the arrest of reporters was “clearly inappropriate” and could “send a chilling message to journalists covering future protests.” Charges were eventually dropped against most of the journalists swept up by police, but Cantú was charged with felony rioting.
“What happened on J20 is the police envisioned themselves as a militarized force and acted accordingly,” said Ria Thompson-Washington, the executive vice-president of the National Lawyers Guild.
But what civil liberties advocates find especially disturbing is the prosecution’s apparent strategy. With the first of the trials set for March 2018, there is scant evidence to substantiate the severity of charges against the activists. Only a handful of defendants who allegedly committed acts of rioting are named in the indictment. The rest of the indictment refers to “members of the conspiracy” to riot. Little evidence is offered other than that the alleged conspirators wore dark clothing, similar to outfits worn by black bloc brigades whose anti-capitalist presence at demonstrations is associated with property destruction. The indictment notes that protesters chanted, “Fuck capitalism,” among other slogans.
“This is First Amendment activity that is being criminalized,” said Sam Menefee-Libey, a member of Dead City Legal Posse, a group of activists supporting the arrested protesters. “It’s incredibly disturbing.”
After the mass arrests, every one of the detained demonstrators had their cell phones confiscated. Activists fear that information on their mobile devices could be used against them during the upcoming trial or that the prosecution may neglect to release exculpatory evidence, as required by law.
The arrests and subsequent indictments appear to correspond to the Trump Era pattern of a shock-and-awe gambit followed by a lot of confusion and disarray. Yet, despite the gravity of the charges, many of the defendants are banding together, instead of informing on one another, which they believe the prosecutors want. Over 100 have signed on to a “points of unity” statement, pledging to refuse to cooperate with prosecutors against other defendants.
Advocates are concerned President Trump’s “law and order” message, combined with his contempt for dissent, could mean an intensified police and prosecutorial response to demonstrations.
“Part of the [prosecutor’s] tactics have to do with getting people to roll on each other, to talk about each other, to make false confessions,” said Alexei Wood, a freelance photographer and one of the defendants who signed the “points of unity” statement. “When people have to consider fear in a decision-making process, they might plea to something that they didn’t do. That doesn’t feel like justice to me at all. I want to be out about being in solidarity with everybody.”
While it’s rare to face such serious charges for demonstrating, overzealous prosecutors have similarly charged protesters in other jurisdictions. Charges of felony rioting, for instance, were common when police arrested demonstrators at Standing Rock, the protest camp set up to block the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Such clampdowns on protest took place while President Obama was in office. But his administration was at least partially responsive to civil liberties concerns. Obama banned the sale of some military grade weapons to police and his Army Corps. of Engineers denied a permit to the Dakota Access Pipeline after a national outcry over the treatment of protesters by local enforcement and private security contractors. Advocates are concerned now that President Trump’s “law and order” message, combined with his contempt for dissent, could mean an intensified police and prosecutorial response to demonstrations.
“We expect the Trump administration to be much more harsh for protesters, for people who dissent and for those who defend those who dissent,” said Ria Thompson-Washington of the National Lawyers Guild. “The J20 charges are an indicator for what will happen when other cases like these arise.”
Thompson-Washington told The Indy that she has recently noticed an uptick in calls for the National Lawyers Guild to send legal observers to protests to monitor police behavior.
“We’ve been getting more and more requests for marches that ordinarily wouldn’t have needed that protection because [protest organizers] have to worry about people getting arrested,” Thompson-Washington said.
State lawmakers in the Trump era are also taking it upon themselves to squelch dissent. In response to the recent upsurge in activism across the country, Republican lawmakers in 18 states have introduced bills to restrict the right to protest. In Minnesota, for instance, elected officials want to pass a bill that would increase penalties for demonstrators who block traffic. In Missouri and Washington State, lawmakers want to ban masks at protests — a prohibition that already exists in New York and other parts of the country.
Meanwhile, the inauguration protesters face a long year of traveling back and forth to DC for court dates — and that’s even before their trial starts.
“Obviously, it’s hard to know you could be facing a lot of time,” said Olivia Alsip. “We’re facing a maximum of 75 years, which is multiples the amount of time I’ve been alive. This case isn’t really about what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s about smothering any form of dissent that occurs that’s a threat to the state.”
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