Medics, Observers and a Journalist Face 50 Years in Prison in First Trial of J20 Inauguration Protests

Final arguments are underway today in Washington, DC, in a case that could shape the future of free speech and the right to protest in the United States: the first trial of the nearly 200 people arrested during President Donald Trump’s inauguration. As demonstrators, journalists and observers gathered in Northwest DC after the inauguration on January 20, some separated from the group and vandalized nearby businesses and vehicles. 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. The first so-called J20 trial could go to a jury as early as today, and involves six people, including one journalist, Alexei Wood, a freelance photojournalist. The defendants face multiple felony and misdemeanor charges, including multiple counts of destruction of property. Evidence against the defendants has been scant. 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. He’s been in court throughout the first J20 trial.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with an update on a case that could shape the future of free speech and the right to protest in the United States. Final arguments are underway today in Washington, DC, for the first trial of the nearly 200 people arrested during President Trump’s inauguration. As demonstrators, journalists and observers gathered in Northwest DC after the inauguration, on January 20th, 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.

The first so-called J20 trial could go to a jury as early as today, and involves six people, including one journalist, Alexei Wood, a freelance photojournalist. The defendants face multiple felony and misdemeanor charges, including multiple counts of destruction of property. Evidence against the defendants has been scant from the moment of their arrest. Earlier this week, Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz threw out the felony charge of inciting a riot for the six people on trial now, meaning they now face up to 50 years in prison instead of up to 60.

This comes as police conduct on Inauguration Day has come under scrutiny by the ACLU, and the chief detective in this case is a police union official who tweeted that police showed great restraint during the inauguration.

Well, for more, we go to Washington, DC. We’re joined by Jude Ortiz, a member of the organizing crew of Defend J20 and the Mass Defense Committee chair for National Lawyers Guild. He’s been in court throughout this first J20 trial.

Jude, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain what has happened so far and the significance of the judge throwing out the charge.

JUDE ORTIZ: Right. Thank you so much for having me on again.

So, since I was on last, the prosecutor has rested their entire case with all the so-called evidence against the defendants, and then the defense has also put on their witnesses to — like as part of their right to have witnesses come and testify on their behalf. That process for the defense was very short, about only about half a day in court. And then, now it’s into the like final arguments stage. So the prosecutors had their argument first, and then each of the defense attorneys for the defendants are putting on their arguments. This morning at 9:30, there will be the final two defendants, will have their closing arguments, and then the prosecutor will do a rebuttal. Then there will be some more kind of like legal housekeeping to do, before it goes to the jury.

So, the judge throwing out the inciting a riot charge was a huge development in the case. It’s something that after the prosecutor rests their case, defense attorneys will almost always file a motion to have the charges dismissed. In DC, it’s called a motion for judgment of acquittal. And it’s a formality, for the most part. It’s rarely ever successful. So it was really notable that one of the most significant charges against the defendants, not only in this trial bloc, but also in the case as a whole, was found, in this case, at least, to have no evidentiary basis at all. So, basically, the judge said that the state did not meet the burden of proof, and that charge therefore was dismissed, and the jury will not have to deliberate on that one at all.

AMY GOODMAN: So, but explain what that means, because we’re talking about numerous cases that will follow this one. Does this judge preside over all of these cases if the inciting to riot remains in the other cases?

JUDE ORTIZ: At this point, the judge is assigned to all the other cases. It’s important to note that there’s another case that is scheduled for this coming Monday for seven defendants, but that one probably will not be happening on Monday, because the jury will still be deliberating on this case. So, it’s unclear when the second trial will begin. It’s looking like it might be in January. And then, on March 5th of next year, all the way through October of next year, are all the remaining trials. And starting in May, there’s a trial scheduled for every single week. But the judge has indicated that her rotation, her job assignment, is switching from criminal court to family court as of January 2nd, so there will be a new judge or judges beginning in 2018.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you see this case as so significant for free speech in the United States?

JUDE ORTIZ: So, on January 20th, the police rounded up everyone who they can get a hold of in this vicinity. The police commander who testified at the beginning of the trial, or towards the beginning of trial, was very clear, both in his testimony as well as recordings from the police radio, that they were interested in the protest — it was an anti-fascist, anti-capitalist march — and they responded to that kind of preemptively by having around a hundred riot cops and their like lieutenants and sergeants, whatnot, there at Logan Circle, where the protest was scheduled to depart from and begin. And that commander said that rather than doing what is typical in DC, where they do rolling road closures to facilitate the exercise of free speech, instead they showed up with numerous vans full of riot police, and then they followed the march and began, pretty much immediately, to start to crack down on the march. That commander repeatedly used the word “anarchist” to describe everybody who was there. And that officer — or, that commander and other officers talked about everybody being like one group with nefarious intent.

So, from the outset, because of the alleged politics of the march and of the people who were there, the police responded in this very heavy-handed manner that culminated in them rounding everybody up and mass-arresting people. And the prosecutor has continued that by going forward with these charges against everyone. So, when that is the kind of method of operations, for the police going hand in hand with the prosecutor, that sends a very chilling message to anybody who’s interested in going out in the streets and voicing dissent, especially dissent to Trump, dissent to the rise of fascism, dissent to white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, like all these other like very devastating systems of oppression.

AMY GOODMAN: Jude, Assistant US Attorney Qureshi, the second-ranking prosecutor, who made closing arguments, said, in those arguments, a street medic was guilty by being present, and asked, “What do you need a medic with gauze for? She was aiding and abetting the riot. That was her role,” Qureshi said. Respond to that.

JUDE ORTIZ: So, that’s an entirely ludicrous claim. Medics have been at protests across the country for decades to be able to provide first aid type of care to people who are injured in various ways. One of the most notable ways people get injured at protests, as your listeners and viewers know, is by actions from the police. On January 20th, there was a massive amount of pepper spray deployed by police on people, sometimes directly in the face, sometimes on the side or from behind. And we saw this in trial through body cam — body-worn camera videos. There’s also a lot of body-worn camera videos of police knocking people down from behind with their batons. One of the officers who testified ran his bike directly into a protester. And so, there’s all these different ways that the people who are out there like in the streets can get injured very easily. There’s also the elements to deal with. In January, it was very cold, for the January 20th inauguration protest. Lots of different reasons why you’d have medics there in order to like render aid to people who get injured.

That prosecutor said that the supplies that were there kind of show that the medics, in general, were kind of like prepared for war, which is a — it’s as insulting as it is ludicrous to say that people who were out there in the streets were prepared for war, especially when you saw the Department of Homeland Security helicopter video showing all the police operations that were happening there on Inauguration Day, how the police took this like paramilitary approach, that was also supported by the National Guard in order to like corral people and use chemical and projectile weapons against people. So, if there was any kind of warlike conditions, that was coming from the police and from the government, and not from people who were there to render aid.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about some of the videos submitted as evidence in this case by federal prosecutors. This includes video by the Canadian YouTuber Lauren Southern, who the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as, quote, “tiptoe[ing] at the precipice of outright white nationalism.” Southern was there on January 20th, Inauguration Day, and was kettled during the protest, but was allowed to leave without being arrested. Prosecutors also submitted video evidence from the right-wing militia group Oath Keepers, who infiltrated protest planning meetings and secretly recorded them. Prosecutors also presented video from the discredited far-right group Project Veritas, just one day after The Washington Post reported Project Veritas had tried to dupe them with a false story of sexual misconduct by a woman undercover pretending to be a victim of Roy Moore. Go into this and why this matters, Jude Ortiz.

JUDE ORTIZ: It’s appalling to see so much of the state’s — the prosecution’s case and their so-called like evidence coming from overtly far-right sources. So, the Project Veritas video that you mention, it did come out in the courtroom as like a main piece of evidence, exactly like one day after that story broke. And one would think that that would kind of discredit or like cast into doubt like the kind of truthfulness or the usefulness of that evidence. The prosecutor and the police officer who was testifying about it gave no indication that the source of it was at all even a question mark or some cause of concern. The state, through various witnesses, the detectives who like testified about the video and whatnot, admitted that they did no kind of forensic investigation or examination of the tape to make sure that it wasn’t doctored in some way. Project Veritas, of course, is notorious for doctoring in the editing of their videos. And they were presented to the jury as one of their main pieces of evidence, and especially with the idea of conspiracy.

And so, when so much of the so-called evidence against these defendants and the defendants at large depends on this kind of so-called like investigative work of far-right actors, it really shows how the state itself, but with their police investigators, undercover cops infiltrating political protest planning meetings, the undercover and plainclothes police who were present on the march and like in the streets that day — all of these different like state actors were not able to find the evidence that would substantiate the charges the prosecutor has been so ferociously pursuing, and so they have to supplement that and really kind of create the evidentiary base through drawing on the far right.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the main detective working full time on the J20 case, Greggory Pemberton. On Inauguration Day, January 20th, he tweeted DC police officers used a, quote, “inspiring amount of restraint” and showed “professionalism.” Last November, he also tweeted about, quote, “disingenuous ‘activists’ who peddle lies and falsehood.” During the J20 trial, defense lawyers played this clip of an interview Pemberton gave to the far-right media outlet One America News Network, praising President Trump.

GREGGORY PEMBERTON: He certainly has a message of law and order, and he really is appealing to a lot of police officers. … Police officers want to hear that someone is going to come in and not allow this divisive, vitriolic rhetoric of this false narrative that all police officers are inherently criminal racists that are out here committing crimes against the citizens, and that they’re going to come in and put a stop to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jude Ortiz, as we wrap up, can you respond to the significance of his involvement with the case and what he’s saying here?

JUDE ORTIZ: Yes. The detective, Pemberton, has claimed that he has looked through hundreds of hours of videos, hundreds of times, since January 21st. It’s been his full-time job, his only assignment. He was able, through that review, to present various compilation boards of photographs, as well as videos and PowerPoints, to give to the jury for their deliberations, that claims to have documentation of the location of each of the defendants all throughout the march, and presenting this as if that’s something that, like, being present like in the streets is a sign of guilt and is evidence of guilt of all these charges.

So it’s a tremendous amount of work that is like put in for these like very politically motivated way — or, reasons. And those political motivations are pretty clear when you look at his Twitter feed, with all of the far-right and pro-Trump things that he has promoted, like through retweets and through likes and through his own comments on Twitter. He claimed on the stand that that was only in the kind of exercise of his position as a board member of the police union. But whether that’s true or whether it’s his own personal opinions, those opinions that are put forward are very much in favor of like right-wing causes and very much against liberal or progressive, like radical-left causes and movements. And he’s even done very inflammatory and insulting things, like saying “black lies matter” — L-I-E-S — instead of “Black Lives Matter,” and discounting that entire movement, that has been so prominent in responding to police violence and brutality across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, shortly after winning the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump tweeted his thoughts on dissent. He tweeted, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag–if they do, there must be consequences–perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Your final comment, Jude Ortiz?

JUDE ORTIZ: I think comments like that show the kind of concerted effort and nature of repression of social movements in the United States. I want to clarify that: I mean like left social movements. The right social movements, that have become more prominent and public under Trump, have been facilitated by the state. We’re seeing that in places like Charlottesville. We’re seeing that in places like St. Louis and all across the country. People need to recognize like how things are shifting, and be ready to be out in resistance, to dissent and to not be scared away. And this case is a very important part of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jude Ortiz, I want to thank you for being with us, member of the organizing crew of Defend J20 and the Mass Defense Committee chair for the National Lawyers Guild. He’s been in court throughout this first J20 trial. And we’ll keep you updated on this and other trials as they go on.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the movement to impeach President Trump, where does it stand, from Congress to counties, cities, towns across the United States? Stay with us.

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AMY GOODMAN: “Blood and Roses” by The Smithereens. The lead singer, Pat DiNizio, died on Tuesday at the age of 62. And a shout-out to the classes that are visiting Democracy Now! today for today’s broadcast: Brooklyn Prep High School and Asian American Writers’ Workshop.