D.C. jury acquits first batch of Trump Inauguration Day protesters
D.C. police indiscriminately pepper-sprayed protesters and deployed military-grade weapons such as “stingers” that release smoke, rubber pellets, chemicals, and concussion and flash-bang grenades. AP

WASHINGTON — While top Republicans were heaping praise Dec. 21 on President Trump for his “extraordinary leadership” in pushing through a massive transfer of wealth from workers to the super rich, he got a reminder from the courts that he can’t necessarily count on backing form all branches of the government.

The GOP Trump administration’s effort to throw Inauguration Day protesters in jail struck out in the first actual trial on Dec. 21, when the jury acquitted six defendants – including a reporter and a news videographer – on all charges.

Not only that, but during the trial, the judge previously threw out the most serious charge against the six: inciting to riot. Conviction on that count could have landed them in jail for up to 10 years on each of multiple counts.

Photojournalist/videographer Alexei Wood of San Antonio, whose arrest drew protests from The News Guild and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, stood trial. So did Michelle Macchio of Naples, Fla., Jennifer Armento and Oliver Harris, both of Philadelphia, Christina Simmons of Cockeysville, Md., and Brittne Lawson of Pittsburgh; one of the other five was a nurse, another was a reporter, news outlets said.

All were originally charged with inciting to riot, with prosecutors, acting at the direction of Trump’s Justice Department showing videos of the events in downtown D.C. on Inauguration Day. The videos — including one from a right-wing group known for lawbreaking in its undercover videos against Planned Parenthood – just showed the general scene of broken windows and one car set afire.

None of the individual defendants were identified in the videos. Nor were any other of the 200+ protesters D.C. police rounded up indiscriminately in a “kettle” that swept up and corralled everybody in sight, regardless of their actions or involvement. Other police forces, notably in St. Louis, have also used the “kettle” for huge roundups of protesters.

After D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz threw out the inciting to riot charge, all six were tried on misdemeanors instead. At the end of the month-long trial, defense attorney Sarah Kroff reminded jurors one police commander was heard on the radio calling all demonstrators anarchists, while other Metropolitan Police officers were recorded slamming the defendants’ opposition to capitalism and fascism, and adding anti-Black Lives Matter and anti-Semitic comments.

“This is about politics. This is about police and local prosecutors who work for the Department of Justice. And we know who they report to,” Kroff said: Trump. “All the government proved was that these individuals showed up and walked as protesters. And that is not a crime.”

The jury’s verdict elated DefendJ20, the successor to DisruptJ20, the loose – and infiltrated – group which organized the protests. But DefendJ20 also warned the feds would charge ahead with trials for the remaining 166 defendants, a statement, the U.S. attorney’s office confirmed.

“The 6 #j20 defendants on trial were acquitted on all charges!!” DefendJ20 tweeted. “There are still ~185 other defendants facing charges, please donate to help continue the fight! #defendj20 #dropj20 #j20trials.”

Added j20resistance, in another tweet: “Today the Trump administration, backed by reactionary detectives, far-right trolls who supplied media, neo-Nazis who doxxed those arrested at the request of police lost in court. What happens tomorrow is up to us.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which also spoke out for the protesters’ freedom of speech, described the circumstances of the arrests on Jan. 20.

“On the day Donald Trump was inaugurated, D.C. police arrested hundreds of people exercising their First Amendment right to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump,” ACLU said.

“D.C. police indiscriminately pepper-sprayed protesters and deployed military-grade weapons such as ‘stingers’ that release smoke, rubber pellets, chemicals, and concussion and flash-bang grenades.”

“More than 230 people – including journalists, legal observers, and medics – were rounded up and held on a street corner, and denied food, water, and even toilets for up to eight hours. Some had panic attacks from being held in this confined space. Others’ fingers went numb from too-tight zip tie handcuffs. Police officers mocked their pain and discomfort.”

The U.S. attorney’s office for D.C., which handles criminal trials in the Nation’s Capital, “believes the evidence shows a riot occurred on Jan. 20, 2017, during which numerous public and private properties were damaged or destroyed.”

It said the riot “created a danger” for area residents, workers and visitors, but claimed “every defendant is judged based on his or her personal conduct and intent” – claim the defense showed was a lie.

“We appreciate the jury’s close examination of the individual conduct and intent of each defendant during this trial and respect its verdict,” the statement continued. “In the remaining pending cases, we look forward to the same rigorous review for each defendant.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.