US: Trial begins for first group of J20 defendants

More than 190 people face charges related to their alleged involvement in protests against Donald Trump's inauguration.

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    A trial that could send independent journalist Alexei Wood and six others to prison for decades started on Wednesday. 

    When Wood, 37, travelled from his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, to Washington, DC, to cover the anti-fascist bloc demonstration against the inauguration of US President Donald Trump on January 20, he did not imagine he would wind up with a slew of felonies.

    But on that day, Wood, who livestreamed the march on his Facebook page, was kettled and arrested by police with more than 230 others, including protesters, bystanders, legal observers and medics.

    "I feel righteous in my innocence," he told Al Jazeera the day before the trial, "but a lot is riding on it: the future of journalism and protesting."

    With the weight of the charges and trial, Wood was forced to put his journalism career on hold.

    "I don't have the time or energy to focus to try to make sense of the world in little bits and communicate that," he explained.

    "I only have enough time to focus on my exact situation right now. It's definitely impacted me."

    Wood and six co-defendants are the first group of nearly 200 people still facing charges related to rioting and property damage for their alleged participation in Inauguration Day protests.

    Tens of thousands of people descended on the capital on January 20 to protest Trump's first day as president.

    During an anti-fascist bloc march, police clashed with protesters and carried out mass arrests that swept up demonstrators, bystanders, legal observers, journalists and medics. More than 230 people were subsequently charged with felonies.

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    A handful of protesters destroyed property, smashing windows and ATMs as they made their way through the capital's streets. The US Attorney's Office for DC says the damage totalled more than $100,000.

    On April 27, the Superior Court of DC returned a superseding indictment which added additional charges for some 212 defendants, three of whom had not previously been charged.

    Many of those who were facing felony charges later pleaded out for significantly reduced charges, while some others had their charges dropped altogether.

    More than 190 people are still slated to go to trial.

    "Most days, this seems so clearly absurd and obviously political. Other days, the machine can grind me down," Wood said. 

    At the time of publication, the US Attorney's Office for DC had not responded to Al Jazeera's request for a comment.

    'A partial win'

    A separate batch of defendants, who will head to court in December, have had their felony charges reduced, and are now only facing three misdemeanours.

    Although some felony charges have been reduced for everyone, the bulk of the defendants could still end up in jail for more than 60 years.  

    "The reduction of charges for the second trial group but not the first seems to be in line with the arbitrary nature of the rest of the case," Sam Menefee-Libey, an activist with the DC Legal Posse support group, told Al Jazeera by telephone before Wednesday's court date.

    "It's a partial win, but a lot of people are still facing a lot of time behind bars, and we won't quit until everyone's free," he said.

    "It's important that we fight even harder in order to get all of the charges dropped. All the charges should be dropped, and the only way to get there is through solidarity."

    Defendants, activists and watchdogs accuse the government of stacking the charges against the defendants in order to distract from alleged police misconduct on the day of the protest.

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    In June, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of four plaintiffs who were detained during the anti-fascist bloc march on January 20. 

    The ACLU lawsuit says the police used "overwhelming and unlawful force" against "non-violent demonstrators at largely peaceful demonstrations where some law-breaking" occurred.

    The allegations in that lawsuit include the claim that police did not issue adequate dispersal warnings during the demonstration, unnecessarily deployed chemical agents - such as pepper spray - against people who were already surrounded, and executed forceful rectal examinations on some of the detainees.

    The Washington, DC Office of Police Complaints issued a report earlier this year that said the city's police department may have violated some policies. It called for an independent investigation by a controversial group that has close ties to police.

    'Just absurd'

    Dylan Petrohilos, a 28-year-old defendant who could still go to prison for some 61 years, said the case is "just absurd".

    "It's a fact that people may spend the rest of their lives in jail because of this," he told Al Jazeera by telephone. "The reality is that mass arrests happened without probable cause or proper dispersal warnings."

    Petrohilos described the arrests as part of a broader crackdown on protests across the country.

    In September, following a not-guilty verdict for a white police officer who killed Anthony Lamar Harris, a 24-year-old African American, in 2011, protests erupted in St Louis, Missouri. Police arrested more than 300 people in 18 days.

    Many were dealt rioting charges, some felonies and others misdemeanours.

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    Some 600 people were charged over their alleged involvement in protests last year against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota, where demonstrators pushed back against what they described as plans to steal Native American land.

    While most were charged with misdemeanours, some are facing felonies.

    Referring to the charges over the Inauguration Day, St Louis and Standing Rock protests, Petrohilos said: "There is a concerted effort to crack down on the rights of organising and dissent in the US right now."

    For Alexei Wood, he also believes that the government hopes to create a chilling effect on protesters and journalists.

    "This has nothing to do with innocence - you either survive the system or you don't," he said.

    "It's my speculation that they could care less about the broken windows," Wood concluded.

    "The government wants blood. With the political climate being anti-press, it doesn't surprise me that I'm here."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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