US J20 defendants: ‘Waiting is part of the punishment’
The first six people have been acquitted, but the 188 remaining Inauguration Day defendants have yet to go to trial.
Two months ago, Michael Loadenthal and his three children, all under six years old, were on their way to play mini-golf when he was pulled over for speeding for the first time in several years.
Although Loadenthal said the police officer was initially courteous, he returned to the driver-side window with an aggressive demeanour and his hand on his firearm.
The officer’s “very intimidating, very aggressive” behaviour caused two of the children to “flip out and start crying”, he recalled.
“I assume it’s the product of him [the officer] running my name [through a law enforcement database],” the 34-year-old Ohio resident told Al Jazeera.
Loadenthal is a widely-published professor of sociology and researcher who has extensively studied the government’s crackdown on environmental activists and anarchists.
Much of his work has examined the US government’s targeting of environmental justice activists and anarchists, particularly during a period known as the Green Scare, which was marred with invasive surveillance and sweeping arrests.
But he is also one of 188 people – known collectively as the “J20 defendants” – who are still facing hefty charges and potentially lengthy sentences for their alleged involvement in an anti-fascist and anti-capitalist bloc rally against the right-wing President Donald Trump‘s inauguration on January 20.
During the Washington, DC rally, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers encircled demonstrators, bystanders, reporters, legal observers and medics.
The officers continued to attack the group with tear gas and concussion grenades, according to witnesses and rights groups.
More than 230 people were rounded up, arrested and hauled off. Most of them were subsequently issued a felony rioting charge that carried a potential 10-year sentence and a $25,000 fine.
On April 27, the DC Superior Court returned a superseding indictment that slapped on a litany of additional charges, both felonies and misdemeanours, for 212 defendants, three of whom had not previously been charged.
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit alleging that MPD officers made wrongful arrests, violated protesters’ constitutional right to free speech, denied detainees from accessing food and water and carried out invasive body searches. The lawsuit was amended this week to add a 10-year-old boy and his mother as plantiffs. According to the amended complaint, police “knocked down” the child and exposed him and his mother to pepper spray during the rally.
Facing decades behind bars
Several J20 defendants made plea deals with the government in exchange for lesser sentences, while some had their charges dropped.
Altogether, the sum of charges could have landed them behind bars for more than seven decades. The charges have since been reduced, but most of the remaining 188 defendants could still end up in prison for more than 50 years.
The case of the J20 defendants has elicited widespread condemnation by rights groups and legal watchdogs, who allege that the government has stacked the charges against defendants to all but ensure some form of punishment.
Last month, a jury found six of the original defendants, including independent journalist Alexei Wood, not-guilty on all counts.
Sam Menefee-Libey of the DC Legal Posse, an activist group that supports the defendants, alluded to the prosecutor’s use of evidence obtained from far-right groups, such as a video from Project Veritas, as a sign of the government’s “weak case”.
“It seems to be an open acknowledgment by the US Attorney’s Office and the DC Superior Court that they have a shared interest with the far right and the alt-right, and that should terrify people,” he told Al Jazeera.
Describing the first verdict as “heartening”, Menefee-Libey said: “A jury drawn from the general public didn’t buy the prosecutors’ case … They still don’t believe in guilt-by-association.”
Following that verdict, the District of Columbia US Attorney’s Office released a statement announcing its intent to move forward with the trials of the remaining defendants.
“In the remaining pending cases, we look forward to the same rigorous review for each defendant,” the statement said.
‘Broader, overarching’ crackdown
Oliver Harris, a 28-year-old from Pennsylvania, was among those acquitted during the first trial.
“It was really surreal,” he told Al Jazeera, describing the trial’s outcome.
While he explained that he was “elated” by the not-guilty verdict, Harris said the 10 months of uncertainty was a burden that weighed heavy on him.
He described the case as “part of a broader, overarching attempt by different factions within that state to limit the way folks can express their opinions and be heard by their government”.
Harris argued that the government has implemented a double standard for left-wing activists and far-rightists, although the latter was accused of deadly violence on several instances throughout 2017.
The most egregious of those violent incidents came on August 12, when far-rightists from across the US descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the city’s decision to remove a Confederate monument.
That rally – dubbed “Unite the Right” – concluded with James Alex Fields, who had participated in a neo-Nazi march earlier in the day, allegedly ploughing his car into a crowd, killing 32-year-old activist Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
“We don’t see the same federal clamp down on their [the far right’s] type of activism,” Harris continued.
“The way that five broken windows are treated versus one dead anti-fascist really shows the asymmetric way the state is applying these laws to different groups.”
Referring to the remaining Inauguration Day defendants, Harris said: “All of the different stresses and emotional responses I can start to deal with and get closure – folks are going to be dealing with those till the end of 2018.”
The future for Loadenthal, whose trial is currently slated for October 2018, and 187 others remains unclear, and the prospect of an effective life sentence looms over their daily lives.
In the wake of their arrests, the court issued a legal requirement that defendants attend the bulk of their hearings rather than simply have their lawyers represent them.
For defendants, that obligation has translated into spending money and valuable time to travel across the country to the capital for hearings where they say their presence serves little function.
Just days after the inauguration, the consequences of that decision became clear when his grandmother passed away.
According to Jewish custom, at least 10 males who have had bar mitzvahs needed to sit her shiva for the ritual to be in accordance with religious guidelines.
When Loadenthal and his lawyer petitioned the court to allow him to not attend a hearing, in order to be present for his grandmother’s shiva, they were denied.
His family was unable to host the shiva due to his absence.
“That’s a small example, and it’s relatively minor, but it shows the kind of way in which this case impacts people’s mundane daily lives,” he explained.
‘Waiting is part of the punishment’
Other defendants have lost jobs, changed life plans and delayed their graduations, for instance.
Loadenthal has endured similar hardships stemming from the charges. “It’s hampered my ability to apply for certain jobs that require criminal background checks,” he recalled.
For him, the combination of massive legal fees and travel costs, lengthy wait for his trial date and slow grind of bureaucracy are themselves part of the punishment for crimes for which the defendants are supposed to be presumed innocent of until proven guilty in a court of law.
“Having defendants act extra cautiously in their political activities for one to two years, and having to exist with the looming possibility of life in prison and massive fines, is part of the punishment itself,” he argued.
“And it’s fundamentally unjust.”
The case comes amid a flurry of anti-protest bills introduced by right-wing politicians in state legislatures across the nation.
In several states, including South Dakota, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee, such bills have been passed into law, according to the ACLU.
Since the president took office in January 2017, a wave of anti-Trump protests has exploded in cities and towns throughout the US.
‘Politically motivated and ludicrous’
When the president signed an executive order barring visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries just days after the inauguration, demonstrators flooded major airports nationwide to express their opposition.
Now in its third version due to legal backlash, the US Supreme Court allowed a modified version of the ban to take effect in December while the courts consider its legality.
In August, Trump condemned the anti-fascists and anti-racists who counterprotested and clashed with white supremacists during the August 12 Charlottesville rally.
The president referred to them as “very, very violent” and the “alt-left”, ostensibly putting them on the same moral plane as the alt-right, a loosely knit coalition of white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
For Loadenthal, the charges against the J20 defendants, who were part of the first visible pushback against the new administration, represent a “warning shot” that fits into a “larger criminalisation of dissent”, a process that started long before Trump rose to power.
“We are fundamentally innocent of these charges – they are politically motivated and ludicrous,” he insisted.
Editor’s note: See more of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Inauguration Day protesters here.