The Police State Can Come After Trump Protesters, But It Can’t Make Them Cooperate

Facing up to 75 years in prison, 135 Inauguration Day protesters are refusing to collaborate with the prosecution.

Sarah Lazare July 5, 2017

Washington, DC police confront protesters after the inauguration ceremony January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Rough­ly 200 peo­ple arrest­ed at an Inau­gu­ra­tion Day anti-fas­cist march in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., are fac­ing charges pun­ish­able by up to 75 years in prison, a lev­el of repres­sion that many believe is designed to quell protest.

"As the State continues to produce one crisis after another, more groups of marginalized people will find themselves and their resistance criminalized."

Those detained were part of a coor­di­nat­ed day of action across the U.S. cap­i­tal, that saw thou­sands take part in ral­lies, block­ades and march­es to protest the hate and exclu­sion of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and set a tone of resis­tance,” accord­ing to Dis­rupt J20” organizers.

Now, the major­i­ty of the defen­dants are unit­ing behind the prin­ci­ple that, while the state can come after them, it can’t force them to col­lab­o­rate with the pros­e­cu­tion or turn on each other.

We will not coop­er­ate against any of our code­fen­dants, nor accept any plea deals that coop­er­ate with pros­e­cu­tors at the expense of oth­er code­fen­dants,” reads a uni­ty state­ment. The dec­la­ra­tion has been signed by 135 defen­dants, accord­ing to Kris Her­mes, one of many pro­vid­ing legal support.

The defen­dants pledge that they will refuse to accept that any of the charges or actions of law enforce­ment were nec­es­sary or jus­ti­fied. … We will not say any­thing pub­licly or pri­vate­ly that has the pos­si­bil­i­ty of harm­ing indi­vid­ual defen­dants or defen­dants as a group.”

In addi­tion, they com­mit to sup­port­ing oth­er defen­dants who do not vio­late these prin­ci­ples, even if we do not agree with [their indi­vid­ual decisions].”

They are try­ing to bury polit­i­cal protesters”

Many of those arrest­ed on Jan­u­ary 20 report that they endured abuse at the hands of police. A law­suit announced in late June by the ACLU of the Dis­trict of Colum­bia alleges police are guilty of abuse, unlaw­ful arrests, and denial of food, water and bath­room access to pro­test­ers. One of the four plain­tiffs, Shay Horse, told Democ­ra­cy Now that police were using molesta­tion and rape as pun­ish­ment” dur­ing the course of inva­sive anal probes. “[Horse] feels as if he has been raped,” the law­suit states.

A sep­a­rate, class-action law­suit filed Jan­u­ary 20 by Wash­ing­ton, D.C., lawyer Jef­frey Light charges that crowds were indis­crim­i­nate­ly swept up by police and sub­ject­ed to beat­ings, flash-bang grenades and chem­i­cal irri­tants through­out the course of deten­tion, in what con­sti­tut­ed unrea­son­able and exces­sive force.”

234 peo­ple were ulti­mate­ly charged in con­nec­tion to the protest. Twen­ty cas­es were dis­missed and some defen­dants pled guilty, leav­ing approx­i­mate­ly 200 to face tri­al for up to eight felony counts each, includ­ing felony riot charges. Some indi­vid­u­als have been hit with addi­tion­al counts, includ­ing assault­ing a police officer.

Accord­ing to Sam Mene­fee-Libey, a mem­ber of the Dead City Legal Posse, which is sup­port­ing the Inau­gu­ra­tion Day defen­dants, these charges car­ry a max­i­mum of 75 to 80 years.

Lawyers say the mass charges are unprece­dent­ed in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. I have been defend­ing activists in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., for more than 30 years. Dur­ing that time, I’ve seen only a very lim­it­ed num­ber of felony charges at demon­stra­tions,” Mark Gold­stone, an attor­ney rep­re­sent­ing some defen­dants in the case, tells In These Times. I’ve nev­er seen a felony con­spir­a­cy charge, and I’ve nev­er seen a riot charge.” 

Michael Deutsch is an attor­ney for the Chica­go-based People’s Law Office, which has been fight­ing gov­ern­ment abuse and police bru­tal­i­ty for more than four decades. He tells In These Times, They are try­ing to bury polit­i­cal protesters.”

Cli­mate of repression

The harsh response to the J20 pro­test­ers is part of a broad­er trend. In one of his first acts as pres­i­dent, Don­ald Trump took to the White House web­site to declare, Our job is not to make life more com­fort­able for the riot­er, the loot­er, or the vio­lent dis­rupter.” Soon after, he unrolled three law and order” exec­u­tive decrees on polic­ing, premised on the false­hood that there is a war on cops. The orders are poised to esca­late the cli­mate of repres­sion for every­one, includ­ing protesters.

Mean­while, law­mak­ers are advanc­ing anti-protest bills in more than 20 states aimed at increas­ing the cost of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, fur­ther crim­i­nal­iz­ing large demon­stra­tions, pro­hibit­ing masks and even pro­tect­ing dri­vers who hit pro­test­ers with their cars. Okla­homa recent­ly passed a statute poised to dras­ti­cal­ly increase charges and fines against indi­vid­u­als who engage in civ­il dis­obe­di­ence against the state’s oil and gas pipelines.

Defen­dants hope their uni­ty offers an exam­ple of how social move­ments can help each oth­er with­stand the onslaught.

As the State con­tin­ues to pro­duce one cri­sis after anoth­er, more groups of mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple will find them­selves and their resis­tance crim­i­nal­ized,” says one defen­dant, who request­ed anonymi­ty due to the active charges. Pro­tes­tors from Black Lives Mat­ter, water pro­tec­tors from Stand­ing Rock and activists from [the inau­gu­ra­tion protest] are not the first tar­gets of repres­sion — nor will they be the last.”

If these social move­ments are going to sur­vive,” they add, repres­sion should be seen as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to orga­nize into coali­tions for our mutu­al support.”

Anoth­er defen­dant, who also request­ed anonymi­ty, tells In These Times, It’s very scary to face the prospect of 75 years in prison for polit­i­cal protest. But I draw a lot of strength from the fact that, despite sig­nif­i­cant bar­ri­ers, more than half the defen­dants are work­ing togeth­er in solidarity.”

Putting the state on trial

While the esca­la­tion of repres­sion is point­ed, it is not new — nor is col­lec­tive orga­niz­ing among defen­dants. More than 40 years ago, Deutsch was part of a team of lawyers who rep­re­sent­ed defen­dants in the 1971 upris­ing at Atti­ca Cor­rec­tion­al Facil­i­ty in upstate New York, waged against con­di­tions of over­crowd­ing, abuse and med­ical neglect. After Gov. Nel­son Rock­e­feller ordered state troop­ers to retake” Atti­ca, 39 peo­ple were slaugh­tered — 29 of them incar­cer­at­ed men (the total death toll at the end of the upris­ing was 43).

Six­ty-two incar­cer­at­ed men were indict­ed for the upris­ing, and the state cov­ered up details of the event. When defen­dants and lawyers agreed to launch a uni­fied defense, not a sin­gle indi­vid­ual coop­er­at­ed with the pros­e­cu­tion, says Deutsch.

Our theme was to put the real crim­i­nals on tri­al,” he recalls. The real crim­i­nal was Gov­er­nor Rock­e­feller who ordered the assault when he didn’t have to.” Fol­low­ing pub­lic pres­sure and mul­ti­ple inves­ti­ga­tions into the mas­sacre, the new gov­er­nor Hugh Carey grant­ed amnesty and clemen­cy to all who had been indict­ed or convicted.

While in many ways today’s cir­cum­stances dif­fer, Deutsch argues that the Atti­ca case offers impor­tant lessons about the pow­er of uni­ty. Peo­ple might have dif­fer­ent facts in their case, but by being uni­fied, they can essen­tial­ly put the state on tri­al,” says Deutsch. It chal­lenges the whole premise of the pros­e­cu­tion to have every­one stick together.” 

Inau­gu­ra­tion Day defen­dants acknowl­edge that it will take more than a state­ment to put prin­ci­ples of uni­ty into action. A third anony­mous defen­dant tells In These Times that defen­dants and their sup­port­ers are busy orga­niz­ing and build­ing rela­tion­ships, to pre­pare for the fight ahead. Now more than ever, it’s the respon­si­bil­i­ty of every­one who con­sid­ers them­selves a left­ist, pro­gres­sive or rad­i­cal to show up for each oth­er,” said the individual.

Dane Pow­ell, the first defen­dant to plead guilty, faces sen­tenc­ing on Fri­day. Sup­port­ers are plan­ning to flood the D.C. Supe­ri­or Court to ensure that no one is alone as they go through this.”

Mean­while, Mene­fee-Libey says tri­als are expect­ed to con­tin­ue in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., for the next 18 months. The pros­e­cu­tion is try­ing to use the strat­e­gy of iso­lat­ing defen­dants,” says Mene­fee-Libey. Sol­i­dar­i­ty — which prac­ti­cal­ly means mate­r­i­al, emo­tion­al and social sup­port — is absolute­ly inte­gral to peo­ple stand­ing strong in face of state repression.”

This arti­cle is part of the Resister’s Digest series, aimed at ampli­fy­ing the sto­ries of front-line com­mu­ni­ties orga­niz­ing in the era of Trump.

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.

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH