The first trial of the nearly 200 people arrested during President Trump’s inauguration is underway and involves six people, including one journalist, Alexei Wood, a freelance photojournalist and videographer based in San Antonio. The defendants were charged under the Federal Riot Statute and face multiple felony and misdemeanor charges, including inciting or urging to riot, conspiracy to riot and multiple counts of destruction of property. We get an update from Jude Ortiz, a member of the organizing crew of Defend J20 and the Mass Defense Committee Chair for the National Lawyers Guild, and speak with defendant Elizabeth Lagesse, who is also a plaintiff in the in the ACLU lawsuit which charges DC police mistreated detainees after their arrests at the inauguration.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González.
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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the first trial of the nearly 200 people arrested during President Trump’s inauguration. The trial began November 15th in Washington, DC, and involves six people, including one journalist, Alexei Wood, a freelance photojournalist and videographer based in San Antonio.
The defendants were charged under the Federal Riot Statute and face multiple felony and misdemeanor charges, including inciting or urging to riot, conspiracy to riot and multiple counts of destruction of property. Evidence against the defendants has been scant from the moment of their arrest.
As demonstrators, journalists and observers gathered in Northwest DC after the January 20th inauguration, some separated from the group and broke windows of nearby businesses and damaged cars. Police officers then swept hundreds of people in the vicinity into a blockaded corner in a process known as “kettling,” where they carried out mass arrests of everyone in the area.
AMY GOODMAN: Officials seized Trump protesters’ cell phones, cracked their passwords, attempted to use the contents to convict them of conspiracy to riot. Court filings reveal that investigators have been able to crack into at least eight defendants’ locked cell phones. Prosecutors want to use the internet history, communications, pictures they extracted from the phones, as evidence against the defendants in court.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit which charges DC police mistreated detainees, including using sexual abuse as a form of punishment. A complaint by four plaintiffs charges officers used excessive force, denied detainees food, water, and access to toilets. The DC Police Department has defended its officers’ actions, saying all arrests on January 20th were proper.
Well, for more, we go to Washington, DC, where we’re joined by two guests. Jude Ortiz is a member of the organizing crew of Defend J20 and the Mass Defense Committee Chair for the National Lawyers Guild. He’s a lawyer. Elizabeth Lagesse is a defendant in the criminal case against participants in the inauguration day protests, a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit against the city of Washington, DC, and the police department.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jude, let’s begin with you. The trial has been going on for a week now. Can you explain exactly what has been happening and what these first set of defendants are charged with? What they face?
JUDE ORTIZ: Yes, good morning. Just to clarify, I’m a legal worker, so a legal support activist, but not a lawyer. However, I have been in court since the beginning of the trial so far with the six defendants who are on trial. The state has opened its case, including witnesses from the police, and there’s a helicopter pilot for the Department of Homeland Security and different managers or employees of businesses that were in the vicinity.
The testimony so far and the evidence provided has shown how the police decided from the outset — and this was an audio recording from the police radio that indicated that as soon as the protest left Logan Circle in DC, that the police had already decided at that point to do the mass arrests. And that led up to the current situation where almost 194 defendants who are still facing trial.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, what about the prosecutors’ conspiracy claims? Could you talk about how they are alleging that, and how the defense is countering that in the trial?
JUDE ORTIZ: The prosecutor initially — this is actually the third superseding indictment — sorry, second superseding indictment — so the third indictment that the defendants are facing in this trial. So the prosecutor amended it twice after the initial indictment in order to have the current charges. And initially, that indictment, had put out the conspiracy charge as a felony, as well as engaging in a riot as a felony charge.
The judge has since ruled those are actually not even potential felony charges and instead are only misdemeanors. So that dropped the potential time that the defendants were facing from 75 years down to about 60 years, which is currently what most of the defendants are still facing. There’s a trial block for December that is scheduled, where those defendants had charges dropped down from felonies to only three misdemeanors.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Elizabeth Lagesse into this conversation. You were a part of the protests. Explain why you went out to protest that day, where you came from, and what happened to you.
ELIZABETH LAGESSE: Yeah. Let me first say that just because of the way that our legal system works, the way our criminal system works, I can’t actually talk about the events of the protest itself from the moment I arrived to the moment we were arrested, because of concerns for preserving my Fifth Amendment rights. It’s possible that they could force me to testify under certain circumstances, so like most criminal defendants, that is what my lawyer has recommended. I will, however, speak to why I was there. And I was there to express my concern with the way that our political landscape was developing. And I think that a lot of people can sympathize with that motivation.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the ACLU lawsuit that you are a part of? Can you talk about what happened when you were jailed? For example, do you have your cellphone now?
ELIZABETH LAGESSE: I do not have my cell phone. The ACLU lawsuit is basically alleging that the police did not handle themselves very well on Inauguration Day, both in the choice to make those arrests and the way they made the arrests, and then in the way they treated prisoners after they had been arrested.
Basically, everyone was kettled, which is a fairly controversial technique in policing that just really indiscriminately sweeps people up in a way that troubles civil liberties activists and really anyone who is concerned about making the right choice from an arrest perspective. Because people are swept up as a group rather than individually.
And on top of that, they left us out on the street for many hours. It was a slow walk arrest. It was cold and rainy. People had no access to bathrooms, food, water, medical care. And then once they had us in custody, various people had really negative experiences with the way the police treated them.
And in the process of being arrested, they took everyone’s phones. And to this day, as far as I know, none of the defendants have gotten their phones back, which has been a financial hardship and, as you can imagine, a privacy issue.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jude Ortiz, I would like to ask about this phone issue, the seizure of the phones, the efforts the police made to break into the phones to somehow or other trace back communications of the different protesters, and I guess prove a conspiracy was afoot?
JUDE ORTIZ: Some of the phones that were seized in the kettle had encryption of various sorts. Some it might just be password protections. Some might be full encryption. A lot of phones today come out of the box with full encryption. And so to the best of our knowledge, the government has not been able to get past the encryption technology on phones, but some phones were unlocked.
I think it’s important to note that many protesters who were arrested did not have phones at all, and that the government has also gone after electronic data in various other ways. Immediately after the mass arrest, the government sent some letters of request or requests to Apple iCloud for user data. And that was for some of the people who were arrested, and at least one person who was associated with one arrestee, but not even present and not part of the case at all.
AMY GOODMAN: And were people questioned about the social media that they use?
JUDE ORTIZ: I am not aware of any particular questions they were asked by officers, to protesters or arrestees directly. But the government has gone after a wide swath of electronic data in this case, including trying to get about 1.3 million IP addresses and identifying information from the web host of DisruptJ20.org, which was a website that existed prior to the inauguration, as well as trying to get information from Facebook accounts of several activists in the DC area, and that was through a search warrant.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the two freelance journalists who were also arrested, Jude? One of them Alexei Wood, on trial this week, and they are trying to use his video footage in the case against him and the others.
JUDE ORTIZ: Yeah. So it’s Alexei Wood, and he was one of a handful of journalists who were arrested that day. A lot of the journalists who were arrested had charges dropped or were never filed. But Alexei and Aaron Cantú, who is another independent journalist, are still facing charges. They’re facing the same charges as everyone else in the case, except for that December group that I mentioned earlier, and so that means they’re facing 60 years. Alexei was out in DC on J20 as a freelance journalist who was live-streaming the events, and that livestream is available publicly and is being used as evidence, not only in this trial, but the prosecutor has indicated that that will be used as evidence in every trial that’s set to happen all the way through 2018.
ELIZABETH LAGESSE: And it seems like it is really a problem of independent journalists, too, because people associated with major outlets were released or had their charges dropped. But independent journalists have had a harder time with that.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Elizabeth, I wanted to ask you, in many of these mass protest situations, authorities may round up people initially but then either drop the charges or lower the charges by the time they come to trial. I am wondering your response to how it appears, at least, under President Trump, that the police in Washington are determined to continue to prosecute these allegations and get maximum convictions if possible?
ELIZABETH LAGESSE: Yeah. I think that is a fair characterization of the situation. And I don’t pretend to be able to read their minds. I don’t pretend to be able to tell you exactly what their plan is or why they’re doing what they’re doing. But it is certainly true that they have worked very hard to pressure people into accepting pleas. They have offered many people various pleas, as little as a single misdemeanor charge.
And it really makes it seem like their goal is to get convictions for rioting. And it seems like an unusual coincidence that that happens as someone is getting inaugurated who in some of their first public statements say things like, you know, “We’re going to restore the rule of law,” and so on and so forth. So I think there is likely a connection there, even if it is just as simple as people feeling more emboldened now that that kind of person is in office.
AMY GOODMAN: And Jude Ortiz, can you talk about the so-called independent investigation? The city itself, Washington, DC, hired an organization called the Police Foundation to launch an independent investigation into how the protest was policed. Who are they?
JUDE ORTIZ: The Police Foundation is a very biased organizations that has been contracted or otherwise brought into the Office of Police Complaints inquiry into police abuses and brutality, like on Inauguration Day, January 20th. Earlier this year, rather, there was an initial inquiry into allegations of police misconduct and abuse and brutality, and the initial findings indicated that there was the justification for a full investigation, and subsequently, $100,000 was earmarked for that investigation. That money became available on October 1st, and so then the investigation has begun.
The Police Foundation is the body that is doing that investigation. It’s supposedly an unbiased, nonpartisan organization. But its website indicates that it is very much a kind of thin blue line — very pro-police organization. And a lot of the statements and other characterizations it has on its website indicate its extreme bias in favor of the police. That bias obviously calls into question any kind of impartiality or any type of, quote unquote, “fair investigation” into the actions of police that day.
When you have that in conjunction with evidence that has been presented so far at trial that shows the kind of wanton use of pepper spray and projectile weapons, the police commander saying over the radio as soon as the protest began leaving Logan Circle that the intention was to arrest everyone — with those things kind of in combination, it is very unlikely that there will be actually fair and impartial inquiry, and any kind of legitimate findings of actual police abuses and misconduct that day.
AMY GOODMAN: So this is the first trial, right? We have 30 seconds, Jude. You call this case the canary in the coal mine. What do you mean?
JUDE ORTIZ: By that, I meant that the implications for this case and how this trial goes are something that will have echoes all across the country. If the prosecution is successful in calling political organizing and association and resistance to the overt rise of white supremacy and neofascism under Trump, then that is something that other prosecutors and other police across the country can try to replicate this prosecutor’s attempt to call political organizing conspiracy, and threaten people with decades in prison. If people want to find out more, they can go to defendj20resistance.org, and we also have a fundraiser to raise legal support money for the defendants, and that’s at defendj20resistance.org slash donate.
AMY GOODMAN: Jude, thank you so much for being with us. Jude Ortiz of Defend J20 and National Lawyers Guild. Elizabeth Lagesse, a J20 defendant and plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, floating Guantánamos? Stay with us.