Criticism mounts over witnesses in trial of anti-Trump protesters

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Protesters demonstrating against US President Donald Trump take cover while being pepper sprayed [File: Adrees Latif/Reuters]

Criticism of the US government’s choice of expert witnesses in the trial of anti-fascist defendants is mounting.

On Friday, US Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff filed a motion naming Christina Williams, an analyst with the FBI, as an expert witness in the upcoming trial of six defendants on June 4. 

The six defendants are part of a group that includes 59 people facing hefty charges over their alleged involvement in protests against US President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

The court filing explains that Williams’ expertise derives from her history of FBI work, including in “counter-terrorism”.

Much of her testimony will be largely based on her reading of four popular books, including Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, a recent bestseller authored by historian Mark Bray, the filing explains.

Her testimony will deal with the use of black bloc, a tactic in which demonstrators dress in all black and conceal their identities with hoodies, ski masks, sunglasses or scarves.

“In the context of the black bloc tactic, ‘direct action’ often refers to violent direct action because the purpose of the black bloc is to achieve anonymity within the group,” Friday’s court filing (PDF) reads. 

Wearing all black, the filing continues, “creat[es] an environment in which it is difficult for law enforcement to stop and/or to arrest individual perpetrators of violence and destruction.”

“It is really quite absurd,” author Bray told Al Jazeera by telephone.

“It is interesting how history has become a sort of focal point of this case … I think it’s very much indicative of a lack of concrete evidence and the kind of whimsical nature of the prosecution,” he added.

Bray, who is also a historian of political radicalism and one of the organisers of protest movement Occupy Wall Street, said the government’s case was “largely” based on the notion that if one wears black or covers their face at a protest, they “necessarily intend to commit criminal acts”. 

But that’s “not what the history says, and that’s not what the book says,” he concluded.

The other three books identified in the court filing as evidence of Williams’ expertise are The Guide: A Handbook on Direct Action and Activist Security, Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power and The Black Bloc Papers.

Several controversial witnesses 

The introduction of Williams as an expert witness comes after the government’s request to admit an anonymous undercover agent as a witness was rejected by Judge Robert Morin in March.

The undercover agent, who was identified by the pseudonym, “Julie McMahon”, had infiltrated protests involving black bloc tactics in the past.

After the judge denied the introduction of the anonymous witness, the prosecution was granted an extension in order to find another expert witness to testify about black bloc. 

The defendants are facing a slew of felonies related to rioting and property damage over their alleged involvement in, or organising of, demonstrations against Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017.

During the anti-fascist and anti-capitalist bloc march, the windows of some stores, including Starbucks, were broken. 

Police cordoned off participants and bystanders, attacking them with pepper spray and other weapons. 

More than 230 people were surrounded and arrested, among them protesters, reporters, bystanders, medics and legal observers. Most were subsequently issued a felony rioting charge.

While several defendants subsequently reached deals with authorities or had their charges dropped altogether, the majority were hit with additional felony charges when a superseding indictment was returned in April 2017.

The charges carried sentences that could put defendants behind bars for several decades.

In November 2017, the prosecution sparked widespread criticism when it introduced into evidence a video by Project Veritas, a far-right group known notorious for its dubious ethical practices while carrying out doing undercover research activities.

The following month, a jury found the first batch of six defendants not guilty on all charges, which included both felonies and misdemeanours.


In January, charges were dropped for 129 defendants. In a court filing at the time, US Attorneys’ Office for DC said it would focus on the remaining 59 defendants by dropping the charges against the other 129.

In February, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) filed a lawsuit against DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and Karl Racine in the US Attorney’s office seeking information about the relationship between the prosecutors and police and right-wing political groups, including Project Veritas. 

That lawsuit accuses the District of Columbia of “unlawfully” denying a request to provide information the PCJF sought in a Freedom of Information Act filed in November 2017. 

Sam Menefee-Libey, an activist with the DC Legal Posse, said the latest choice of Williams as an expert witness is further evidence of the government’s “overreach”. 

“It’s yet another instalment in the ongoing saga of the prosecution’s general disregard for the professed standards of the criminal justice system,” Menefee-Libey told Al Jazeera.

“If they think that someone can read widely available books about organising and use those books to prosecute people engaged in political activity, that sets a scary precedent.”

Source: Al Jazeera