Activists are holding a week of action to raise awareness about the six-month anniversary of the mass arrest of more than 230 protesters who were detained during a demonstration in Washington, DC, against the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States on January 20.
Organisers launched the “Week of Solidarity” on Thursday and are expecting protests in the capital and several cities across the country, including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York City, Richmond and others.
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Throughout the week, activists plan to hold demonstrations, fundraisers and a call-in campaign to the police and DC mayor’s office to demand an immediate investigation into allegations that police used unlawful force during the inauguration events.
They will also screen footage of the protest and altercations with the police during the January protests.
On the final day, July 27, protesters are planning to assemble for a rally at a DC court while a hearing inside will consider a motion to dismiss the felony charges issued against the nearly 200 of the Inauguration Day arrestees.
“The fact that a lot of people are stepping up in the face of repression is a reflection of how bogus the charges are and the broad recognition of the criminalisation of dissent,” Sam Menefee-Libey, who is a member of the DC Legal Posse activist group, told Al Jazeera.
“Defendants and supporters have called for this week of solidarity to shine a light on what’s going on and to enlist additional supporters.”
During the demonstration six months ago, protesters had taken to the streets just blocks away from the venue where Trump was being sworn in.
Washington, DC, officials said the city suffered more than $100,000 in property damages by the end of the day as the protesters clashed with police, windows of banks and cafes were shattered and graffiti was left scrawled on walls and cars.
During the march, officers fired rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas and percussion grenades to disperse the crowds. They surrounded more than 230 demonstrators, including journalists and legal observers. Most of them were then arrested and issued 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 host of new felony charges against 209 people and three new defendants. In addition to hefty fines, most of the charges carry maximum sentences that range between 70 and 80 years in prison.
Trial dates have been set for only 198 of the defendants, while the prosecution has dropped 20 cases and at least 16 people reached plea agreements for drastically smaller sentences.
‘Overwhelming and unlawful force’
Last month, the DC Mayor’s Office earmarked $150,000 for the Office of Police Complaints to review the accusations of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) misconduct.
A previous investigation (PDF) by the Mayor’s office accused police of failing to issue requisite dispersal orders and found evidence that police “indiscriminately” used riot control weapons without justification and “not necessarily in response to unlawful action”.
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union in the District of Columbia (ACLU-DC) announced that it had filed a lawsuit against the city, MPD and Police Chief Peter Newsham.
The suit accuses the MPD of making wrongful arrests, violating protesters’ constitutional right to free speech, denying detainees access to food and water and carrying out invasive body searches.
The ACLU-DC says the MPD used “overwhelming and unlawful force” on “non-violent demonstrators at largely peaceful demonstrations where some law-breaking” occurred.
Scott Michelman, a senior staff lawyer at the ACLU-DC, says the police “decided to round up everyone, pepper spray everyone and, in some cases, subjected them to sexual abuse”.
“Our hope is that success in our lawsuit will send a clear message that the types of actions they engaged in on January 20 were unconstitutional and unacceptable,” he told Al Jazeera.
In a statement released at the time, the MPD said officers arrested people engaged in “criminal action” on January 20.
Saying that most demonstrations passed peacefully and without arrests or confrontations, the statement added: “Unfortunately, there was another group of individuals who chose to engage in criminal acts, destroying property and hurling projectiles, injuring at least six officers.”
Among those charged over the Inauguration Day protests is Dylan Petrohilos, a 28-year-old activist and graphic designer who helped plan protests on the Inauguration Day.
Petrohilos was one of the three defendants who were charged for the first time in the superseding indictment in late April.
Police had already showed up at his home in the capital, kicked in the door and arrested him 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.
“The real violence is the violence of the administration and the violence of the police that day. I saw the police literally pepper spraying children and old people that day,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The MPD can’t control themselves. They’re trying to justify that fact by making 200 activists into felons and that’s absurd,” he added, accusing the US government of using Inauguration Day defendants to instil a “chilling effect” for potential protesters.
“The Republican Party is promising violence against marginalised communities and political dissidents. We should stand up against that. It’s absurd for us not to. It’s a moral obligation to act.”
‘Index of fear’
Since Trump came to office, dozens of bills seeking to hinder the activities of protesters and introduce increased penalties for demonstrators who violate the law have been introduced in state legislatures.
One bill introduced in Missouri state would prohibit protesters from wearing masks or “other disguises” during demonstrations, making it an offence punishable by up to a year in prison.
Another bill in North Carolina, which was introduced in early March, would criminalise protests that it says qualify as “economic terrorism” by impeding traffic or business. It later died in the state legislature’s committee.
Proposed legislation in Florida, Tennessee, Georgia and Iowa would impose harsher punishment on people who block traffic or trespass on private property, and many of them would protect motorists who run over demonstrators.
In March, a United Nations report (PDF) warned that 16 such bills, if passed, would violate international human rights law and silence “the voices of the most marginalised, who often find the right to assemble the only alternative to express their opinions”.
In May, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed into law a statute that can deal a felony charge and $10,000 fine for anyone – including protesters – who trespasses at “critical infrastructure facilities” with the intent to vandalise or tamper.
Under that statute, successfully “tampering” or “vandalising” at such a facility could land the protester with a 10-year prison sentence and a $100,000 fine. Critics say the statute targets protesters who rally against pipelines.
Henry Giroux, author of America at War with Itself and dozens of other books, says the ostensible crackdown on protests “proves the obvious”.
“The punishing state is now the primary mode of political organisation in the United States,” he told Al Jazeera. “That’s an index of fear. It’s not just an act of repression in the sort of bold sense that one might describe it.”
He adds: “You can’t violate all civil liberties and put people in jail and call yourself as a democracy anymore.”
Follow Patrick Strickland: @P_Strickland_