Two journalists are among more than 200 people facing felony charges after mass arrests at Inauguration Day rally.
After independent photojournalist Shay Horse was arrested during protests against the inauguration of right-wing US President Donald Trump, he said his treatment at the hands of police “felt like rape”.
At a news conference in the US capital last week, Horse recalled police officers aggressively examining his rectum and gripping his testicles while “other officers laughed” after he was detained on January 20, Inauguration Day.
“I felt like they were using molestation and rape as punishment,” Horse said. “They used those tactics to inflict pain and misery on people who are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.”
He added: “It felt like they were trying to break me and the others – break us so that even if the charges didn’t stick, that night would be our punishment.”
Along with two demonstrators and a legal observer, Horse is a plaintiff in a new lawsuit filed by American Civil Liberties Union in the District of Columbia (ACLU-DC) against the city, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and Police Chief Peter Newsham.
The suit accuses the MPD of making wrongful arrests, violating protesters’ constitutional right to free speech, denying detainees from accessing food and water and carrying out invasive body searches.
It says the MPD used “overwhelming and unlawful force” against “non-violent demonstrators at largely peaceful demonstrations where some law-breaking” took place.
That day police “kettled” (enclosed in a police cordon) more than 230 demonstrators, journalists and legal observers who were present during an anti-fascist bloc march, while Trump was being sworn into office just blocks away.
The following day, most of them were slapped with felony rioting charges that carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
In late April, the DC Superior Court returned a superseding indictment that issued a swath of new felony charges to 209 people and three new defendants. Most of the charges against the defendants carry maximum sentences that range between 70 and 80 years in prison.
Horse was initially charged with felony rioting, but his charges were later dismissed.
Milo Gonzalez, another plaintiff, was also reportedly subjected to invasive and forceful rectal examinations.
Among other allegations, the suit claims that the plaintiffs were attacked with pepper spray “without warning and for no apparent reason” other than being near the area where officers were detaining demonstrators.
The lawsuit comes at a time when rights groups and activists warn that a string of some 30 proposed laws in more than 18 states nationwide aim to stifle protest by introducing increasingly strict sentences.
In March, a United Nations report (PDF) said that at least 16 of these bills will have a “chilling effect” and strip “the voices of the most marginalised, who often find the right to assemble the only alternative to express their opinions”.
Most of the protests that took place in the city on Inauguration Day passed without violence or mass arrests.
Officers clashed with demonstrators during the anti-fascist bloc march, however, and fired rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades at the demonstrators.
Some marchers smashed windows at Starbucks, McDonald’s and Bank of America, among other buildings. The US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia claims that more than $100,000 in damage was inflicted upon property, cars and buildings.
After officers surrounded the crowd, they held the demonstrators for a long period before arresting them and hauling them off.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the MPD said officers arrested people engaged in “criminal action” on January 20.
“During the 58th Presidential Inauguration, there were thousands of individuals who exercised their constitutional right to peacefully assemble and speak out for their cause. Unfortunately, there was another group of individuals who chose to engage in criminal acts, destroying property and hurling projectiles, injuring at least six officers,” the statement said.
The department also said it plans to investigate allegations of police misconduct. Contacted by Al Jazeera, the MPD declined to provide further comment.
Even before the ACLU’s lawsuit, demonstrators, activists, observers and rights groups had accused the MPD of using excessive force against the march.
Just days after the arrests, the ACLU expressed concern about the MPD’s conduct and the ostensibly harsh charges of the prosecution, many of which the group said were unjustified.
Earlier this month, the DC Mayor’s Office allocated $150,000 for the Office of Police Complaints to review the allegations against the MPD.
An earlier investigation (PDF) by the DC Mayor’s Office found evidence that police “indiscriminately” used riot control weapons without justification and “not necessarily in response to unlawful action”. It also accused police of failing to issue dispersal orders to the crowd before attacking them.
Carlo Piantini, 25, faces nearly eight decades in prison for a slew of felony charges stemming from his arrest on January 20.
While he was kettled with the others, Piantini says the MPD officers “unleashed chemical weapons [such as pepper spray] and concussion grenades as crowd-control tactics against protesters” and carried out “indiscriminate arrests”.
“The current message from the government is clear: Resistance to this regime will absolutely not be tolerated,” Piantini told Al Jazeera by email.
Dylan Petrohilos, an activist and graphic designer who helped plan protests on Inauguration Day, was one of the three defendants who were only first charged when the superseding indictment was returned in late April.
Police showed up at the 28-year-old’s home in the capital on the morning of April 3. Court documents show that police had infiltrated organising meetings where Petrohilos was present in the run-up to January 20.
He was asleep when officers knocked on the door and identified themselves. As he made his way down the stairs, he says they quickly smashed through the door. “The door was split in half, and the frame was completely destroyed,” he recalled. “They came in with guns raised. It was a very traumatic experience.”
The officers searched his home and seized laptops, mobile phones and a black “anti-fascist” flag that was left in his lawn.
Petrohilos is now facing a swath of felony charges – including rioting and conspiracy to riot – that carry a maximum sentence of 80 years behind bars.
“The real conspiracy here isn’t whether people protested or not,” he argued. “It’s whether the state conspired to arrest protesters on the first day of Trump’s rule, and [whether] cops and prosecutors were feeling emboldened when he came to power. This is a prime example of that.”
According to the DC Legal Posse, an activist group that supports the defendants, more than 130 of them have joined a “Points of Unity” agreement, a collective pledge to reject any potential plea deals and reject cooperation with the prosecutors that comes at the expense of their codefendants.
Some defendants have reached plea deals with the authorities in exchange for markedly shorter sentences.
Petrohilos called for broader public support of the Inauguration Day defendants and other protesters facing harsh charges across the country.
“Now more than ever we need people to show solidarity with J20 [January 20] arrestees, but not just them – people facing similar charges in Sacramento, Standing Rock and so on. To not show up for one or the other is a failure to all.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_