For 11 months, Oliver Harris’ life came to a near standstill as he waited to find out if he would be sent to prison for years over his alleged participation in a rally against US President Donald Trump‘s inauguration.
Harris, 28, was among more than 230 people rounded up and arrested by police on January 20, Inauguration Day, after confrontations with heavily armed riot police officers. A small group of people engaged in property damage during the rally.
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The following day, most of those who were arrested – demonstrators, medics, journalists and bystanders – were charged with felony rioting, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
In April, things grew worse for 212 of the defendants when the District of Columbia Superior Court returned a superseding indictment that added a slew of additional charges, including several felonies.
The accused, who are known collectively as the “J20 defendants”, were all of a sudden facing nearly eight decades – effectively a life sentence – behind bars.
Several defendants subsequently reached plea deals for significantly lighter sentences, while others had their charges dropped.
At least seven defendants had their charges reduced to misdemeanours.
By the time the first batch of defendants, which included Harris, went to trial, the charges had been reduced, but they were still facing the prospect of more than 50 years of jail time.
On December 21, however, a jury found Harris, a Pennsylvania resident, and his five codefendants not-guilty on all counts.
“It was really overwhelming to hear 42 not guilty [decisions],” Harris told Al Jazeera by phone.
The DC US Attorney’s Office subsequently said in a statement it would pursue charges against the remaining defendants.
With 188 Inauguration Day defendants still at risk of harsh punishment, and other activists across the country facing potential jail time for alleged infractions during protests, critics say Trump has overseen a crackdown on dissent during his first year in office.
Across the US, from Washington, DC, to Sacramento, California, anti-racists, anti-fascists, leftists and other demonstrators have been charged with felonies and misdemeanours.
‘Weak, vicious and brittle’
Referring to the shrinking space for protest symbolised by the Inauguration Day defendants’ case, Harris said: “It goes hand-in-hand with the way folks across the US have been repressed, from Standing Rock to other pipeline projects … It’s the state legal apparatus taking aim at street protests and pipeline blockades.”
Among those targeted by authorities in 2017 was Yvette Felarca, an anti-fascist activist with By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a left-wing civil rights group.
She was charged with felony assault and a pair of misdemeanours in July, which could result in years of jail time and hefty fines, according to court documents.
Felarca, a middle school teacher whose legal name is Yvonne, was charged over her alleged involvement in violence during a counterprotest on June 26, 2016, when anti-fascists and anti-racists confronted a neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento, California.
During that incident, white supremacists armed with knives attacked counterdemonstrators, stabbing several, including Felarca.
“We are continuing to build the movement to fight fascism and get the false charges against myself and other anti-fascist protesters in Sacramento dropped,” Felarca told Al Jazeera by email.
While three others were dealt charges over the Sacramento violence, only one of them was from the white supremacist contingent.
Felarca echoed accusations that Trump’s administration has emboldened authorities across the country to suppress anti-fascists, anti-racists and other anti-Trump activists across the US.
“He hates and fears criticism because he hates and fears the strength of the mass movement that is committed to defeating him,” she added, arguing that the ostensible crackdown is evidence that Trump’s administration is “weak, vicious and brittle”.
“His attempt to crack down on anti-racists and anti-fascists is exposing and isolating him to the majority of people in the US and across the world as the enemy of democratic rights.”
For his part, Trump has time and again defended his administration and claimed to support the right of protesters to voice their opposition to his policies as well as racism and sexism.
In August, when tens of thousands staged a counterdemonstration against a far-right rally, Trump took to Twitter to describe anti-fascists and anti-racists as “anti-police agitators”.
He later appeared to express support for the right to protest, saying: “I want to applaud the many protesters in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate. Our country will soon come together as one!”
On January 22, following nationwide marches for women’s rights, immigration reform and other issues, Trump said on Twitter: “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognise the rights of people to express their views.”
‘Hostility towards First Amendment’
In other instances, Trump has lashed out at demonstrators.
In February, after a rally against a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at University of California, Berkeley, the president lambasted “professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters” on Twitter.
Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 3, 2017
On September 15, protests erupted in St Louis, Missouri over the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former police officer who shot dead 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith, an unarmed African American man, nearly six years earlier.
Protests spanned weeks, with demonstrators and community members engaging in civil disobedience and non-violent tactics aimed at disrupting the local economy. During the first 18 days, police arrested at least 307 people, the St Louis Police Department (SLMPD) told Al Jazeera at the time.
The SLMPD’s mass arrests and forceful response to the demonstrations elicited criticism from activists and rights groups, including the local state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
With outcry mounting, Trump remained silent on the protests in St Louis, commenting neither on the demonstrations nor the police response.
Scott Michelman, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s DC chapter, argued that “there has been an astonishing level of hostility toward the First Amendment in 2017”, referring to the constitutional protection that affords those in the US the right to free speech and to assemble, among other freedoms.
“The president sets a tone for the country in lots of ways, and Trump has signalled to his supporters that free speech isn’t a value of his and it shouldn’t be a value of ours,” Michelman told Al Jazeera.
“That’s given permission and encouragement to anti-free speech forces across the country, whether they be law enforcement or policymakers.”
Throughout Trump’s first year in office, right-wing state legislators introduced dozens of bills designed to curb the activities of demonstrators in nearly 20 states, according to the ACLU.
Several states – among them North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee – have passed such bills into law.
North Dakota passed into law bills that criminalised protests on private property, increased penalties for riot offences and barred demonstrators from wearing masks to conceal their identities, among others.
In Oklahoma, new laws ostensibly made it possible for authorities to hold anyone arrested for trespassing financially accountable for any damages to property and punished protesters who knowingly trespass on “critical infrastructure”.
In Tennessee, a new law known as SB 902 introduced a $200 fine for protesters who obstruct the access of emergency vehicles, while South Dakota’s SB 176 expanded the abilities of authorities to limit or block protests on public land and highways.
This month, Durham County, North Carolina introduced a new proposal that would require protesters to give 48-hour notice before holding any demonstration on publicly owned land.
“The wave of anti-speech fury on the part of prosecutors, law enforcement and political forces will pass; but that’s not to say that we should be complacent with it and think it will pass without hard work,” Michelman concluded.
“Free speech is deeply ingrained in our political and social fabric, and people are going to continue to raise their voices for it.”
This article is part of a multipart series examining the State of America Under Trump. Also read: