J20 “Not Guilty” Verdict Deals Blow to Trump Admin and Shows the Power of Collective Defense

A defendant on why dissenters everywhere should feel emboldened by the outcome of the first trial.

Sarah Lazare

Defendants Alexei Wood, Britt Lawson and Oliver Harris celebrate after leaving DC Superior Court Thursday, December 21. (Gary Roland @NycCamp)

In a blow to the Trump administration’s efforts to quell dis­sent, on Thurs­day six defen­dants arrest­ed at Inau­gu­ra­tion Day Dis­rupt J20” protests were found not guilty of all charges. The heavy pros­e­cu­tion of the J20” case has become a bell­wether for repres­sion in the era of Trump, with this first wave of defen­dants fac­ing mul­ti­ple felonies and decades in prison for par­tic­i­pat­ing in — or sim­ply being in prox­im­i­ty to — an anti-fas­cist and anti-cap­i­tal­ist mobilization.

The environment of support is one I will never forget for my entire life.

The Inau­gu­ra­tion Day protest was tar­get­ed by a vio­lent police crack­down which led to more than 200 peo­ple being ket­tled and arrest­ed. These pro­test­ers were then hit with con­spir­a­cy charges that local defense attor­neys say are unprece­dent­ed. The pros­e­cu­tion is being waged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, which answers direct­ly to Jeff Ses­sions’ Depart­ment of Justice. 

In the face of this crack­down, a major­i­ty of defen­dants signed a uni­ty state­ment declar­ing their refusal to col­lab­o­rate with the pros­e­cu­tion or under­cut one anoth­er. They have been backed by a vast net­work of sup­port­ers who packed the court­room, brought food to defen­dants and helped pub­li­cize a case ini­tial­ly met with a dearth of pub­lic attention.

The tri­al entered the nation­al media spot­light when it was revealed this month that the pros­e­cu­tion used footage pro­vid­ed by the far-right media provo­ca­teurs Project Ver­i­tas and the neo-fas­cist mili­tia Oath Keep­ers. The pros­e­cu­tion based its case on the prin­ci­ple of group lia­bil­i­ty — that every­one present at a protest is legal­ly respon­si­ble for all acts that take place. Defen­dants and their sup­port­ers say this strat­e­gy is aimed at chill­ing dissent.

Defen­dants walked out of the cour­t­house Thurs­day elat­ed at the out­come,” accord­ing to a state­ment from Defend J20 Resis­tance. How­ev­er, the defense net­work notes that 188 defen­dants still face a series of rolling tri­als — and sup­port­ers are now demand­ing that all charges be dropped and rais­ing funds for the ongo­ing efforts.

Bet­ty Roth­stein of Defend J20 Resis­tance said the acquit­tal is a clear vic­to­ry for the six defen­dants who were just tried, and a rejec­tion of the government’s attempt to crim­i­nal­ize dissent.”

In These Times spoke with one of the defen­dants, Michelle Miel” Mac­chio, short­ly after the ver­dict was announced. Miel is a 26-year-old street medic from Asheville, N.C. who says they trav­eled to the protest because they were fed up and scared and angry and need­ed to voice that and show that this isn’t okay.”

Sarah: How do you feel right now?

Miel: I am feel­ing beyond ecsta­t­ic and so relieved that not only myself but all six tri­al defen­dants were acquit­ted of every sin­gle one of the charges. This is such a strong prece­dent for all 188 defen­dants in this case. We are relieved that our strat­e­gy for this ear­ly tri­al paid off and will help every­one else down the line hope­ful­ly get acquittals.

Every­one is jump­ing for joy and hug­ging each oth­er and smil­ing, like a mil­lion pounds of weight have been lift­ed off our shoul­ders to know the first of many bat­tles has been won. I can’t imag­ine a more beau­ti­ful com­mu­ni­ty to be sup­port­ed by.

Sarah: Can you talk a lit­tle about what the col­lec­tive sup­port has looked like?

Miel: I want to give a huge shout-out to every sin­gle per­son who put their lives on hold to sup­port us. There’s been oth­er defen­dants on lat­er tri­al blocks, sup­port­ers from every part of this coun­try and even fur­ther — we even had a sup­port­er from Van­cou­ver. The amount of emo­tion­al sup­port we’ve had is huge. The Pots and Pans Kitchen Col­lec­tive showed up every day and made sure we had lunch, and din­ners were made for us.

The envi­ron­ment of sup­port is one I will nev­er for­get for my entire life. Peo­ple showed up at the most intense and hard­est of times. Hav­ing peo­ple in court with us every day showed us that we are not alone. Many peo­ple do have to go through the sys­tem alone. I went through it with now some of my clos­est friends — my tri­al family.

Sarah: What does this case say about the pow­er of col­lec­tive, uni­fied defense?

Miel: With­out col­lec­tive defense, I can’t imag­ine what this expe­ri­ence would have looked like or felt like — or how we would have got­ten through it. The charges were so out­landish, we might have still got­ten acquit­ted. But the col­lec­tive defense real­ly kept us strong and fight­ing through all of it.

We decid­ed to push for ear­li­er tri­als — and have peo­ple with real­ly strong cas­es stand up to the pros­e­cu­tion first, to break down what they were try­ing to do to that big­ger group of people.

More than 150 defen­dants agreed to points of uni­ty very ear­ly on in the process. We said we were unwill­ing to coop­er­ate with the gov­ern­ment — or any coer­cive process to gain infor­ma­tion about any of the oth­er defen­dants. We said we would work togeth­er for the sake of all of us in our col­lec­tive defense. I feel very strong­ly that every­one did stick to that agree­ment and will con­tin­ue to.

Sarah: What do you want peo­ple to know about what took place dur­ing the trial?

Miel: Regard­less of where peo­ple are at and how they feel about the way the gov­ern­ment works, the First Amend­ment is a right we have. This case is call­ing into ques­tion the strength and valid­i­ty of the First Amend­ment. Peo­ple need to real­ize that this about more than just the peo­ple who were arrest­ed that day. This affects everyone’s abil­i­ty to stand up and speak out and be heard about the ways in which this coun­try works — and the ways we want to see change in the world.

We need to fight back against police and state repres­sion and sup­port each oth­er in the strug­gle. The mass media hasn’t cov­ered this tri­al the way it needs to be cov­ered. We need to keep talk­ing and spread­ing the word. We need to make sure peo­ple are aware this is going on. We will con­tin­ue to fight and speak out until all of us are free.

One of the most inter­est­ing moments in the case was when, on cross exam­i­na­tion, the police offi­cers were ques­tioned about their bias­es and the dis­ci­pli­nary records that were obtained by our lawyers. Com­man­der Kei­th Dev­ille was found out to have made anti-Semit­ic, trans­pho­bic and homo­pho­bic remarks on the record that he received dis­ci­pli­nary actions for. We believe that played into his deci­sion to arrest more than 200 peo­ple at an antifas­cist march.

Dur­ing the tri­al, Dev­ille repeat­ed­ly pro­filed the entire group as anar­chists, and made this out as sin­is­ter rather than a polit­i­cal stance. That lev­el of manip­u­la­tion — say­ing these are all anar­chists, let’s bring in an arma­da of riot cops — shows he was look­ing to arrest peo­ple and silence dis­sent. The pub­lic should know this is a polit­i­cal case and not just about a few bro­ken windows.

Sarah: Do you believe the heavy pros­e­cu­tion was aimed at silenc­ing dis­sent? Can you say more about this?

Miel: The case was the first thing the Trump admin­is­tra­tion did, and the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is who calls the shots here. The inten­tion was to crim­i­nal­ize protest­ing. That’s exact­ly what they are attempt­ing to do.

Sarah: 188 peo­ple still face charges. What’s next?

Miel: Hope­ful­ly because all six of us were acquit­ted, the major­i­ty of peo­ple who have evi­dence against them will have their charges dropped. The hope is that most peo­ple won’t have to go to tri­al and will have their charges dropped from this tri­al. That’s what we are demand­ing. The date for the next tri­al is up in the air right now. It was set for Decem­ber ini­tial­ly, but has been pushed back to Jan­u­ary or Feb­ru­ary. That group, through pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al dis­cre­tion, was giv­en a reduc­tion in charges. They have a sta­tus hear­ing in Jan­u­ary, and then we will find out when their tri­al will be.

Sarah: Do you believe that a cli­mate of repres­sion has sur­round­ed this trial?

Miel: Yes, def­i­nite­ly. It’s been very inter­est­ing to see the length to which the gov­ern­ment has gone to try to pros­e­cute us — going into someone’s house who they allege to have been one of the orga­niz­ers and tak­ing items like his cell phone.

The gov­ern­ment sub­poe­naed Face­book about peo­ple they alleged were orga­niz­ers and tried to get IP address­es of every sin­gle per­son who vis­it­ed the Dis­rupt j20 web­site in order to incrim­i­nate us. It’s been appar­ent that they don’t have much to work off of. That’s why they’re try­ing so hard to go out of the con­text of what hap­pened that day, try­ing to use polit­i­cal ties and asso­ci­a­tions to pros­e­cute us.

The lead detec­tive showed up in court every day to observe peo­ple who were show­ing up. Dur­ing tri­al, we found a lot of infor­ma­tion from his Twit­ter account show­ing all of his bla­tant hatred for Black Lives Mat­ter — for any­one who express­es dissent.

Sarah: What moti­vat­ed you to take to the streets on Inau­gu­ra­tion Day?

Miel: Like many oth­er peo­ple in the Unit­ed States, I was hor­ri­fied and appalled at what had hap­pened. This isn’t about Trump. This is about the very sys­tem we exist under in the Unit­ed States. I went to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. because I was fed up and scared and angry and need­ed to voice that and show that this isn’t okay.

I went out there as a street medic. I went there to help any­one who might have any num­ber of needs, from hydra­tion to pep­per spray treat­ment. Luck­i­ly, myself and many oth­ers were there in a medic capac­i­ty to help, because the police were ruth­less — they attacked with­out warn­ing and with­out a chance to get away.

It was an hon­or to be there with peo­ple brave enough to speak out. Trump is still pres­i­dent today. Hope­ful­ly, through our dis­sent and this case, we can get the mes­sage out that we will not stand by and let this hap­pen. We will con­tin­ue to resist and build our movement.

I hope peo­ple are pay­ing atten­tion to the ongo­ing Stand­ing Rock cas­es. While we were in tri­al, a num­ber of undoc­u­ment­ed folks were arrest­ed for stand­ing up to pro­tect DACA after launch­ing a hunger strike.

Sarah: Do you think the out­come of this case could poten­tial­ly embold­en oth­ers to take action?

Miel: The nature of the charges were an attempt to instill a lot of fear in peo­ple from going out and protest­ing. We stood up against this repres­sion, and we hope peo­ple will feel inspired and more con­fi­dent in the abil­i­ties they have to take action around issues they feel pas­sion­ate about.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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