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.
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.
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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.