A journalist could get 60 years in prison for covering Trump inauguration protests
Jury selection began Wednesday in the first of what’s been referred to as the “J-20 Trials,” a group of 230 people who were arrested and are being tried on charges linked to the riots that roiled Washington, D.C. during the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States.
The first six appeared in court including Alexei Wood, a 37-year-old photojournalist who appeared alongside six co-defendants. Wood, who broadcast the day’s events via Facebook Live, was indicted in April on eight felony charges: inciting a riot, rioting, conspiracy to riot, and five counts of destruction to property, and faces more than 60 years behind bars.
“A judge found my statements, uttered on my live stream, ARE admissible as statements to conspiracy,” Wood wrote in an Instagram post one night before the trial began.
Hundreds of protesters were arrested during the riots and several D.C. police officers injured. “Black-bloc” anarchists and anti-fascists, who wear all black to conceal their identities, hurled rocks through windows, smashed ATMs, lit fireworks, burned a parked limousine, and clashed with riot cops as plumes of pepper spray rose above the city.
All in all, the U.S Attorney’s office estimates the total cost of damages to be around $100,000.
But the broad sweep of individuals who were arrested that day in a dragnet has drawn heavy criticism from civil liberties groups. Wood and many others were arrested after being “kettled” by police, a tactic where cops trap a group of people in a confined area.
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against D.C. Metropolitan police on behalf of a photojournalist, a legal observer and two other individuals, charging unconstitutional arrest, excessive force, and invasive bodily searches of protesters.
“While the overwhelming majority of Inauguration Day protesters demonstrated peacefully, a small number caused property damage,” the ACLU said in a statement.
It’s unclear to observers whether many of those arrested in the sweeps had done anything illegal.
“It looks like most of these protesters should not be convicted on what they’re accused of because they weren’t all involved in illegal acts,” said Gregg Leslie, legal defense director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “It’s also interesting that they’re going after so many people for rioting when the true illegal acts weren’t that severe.”
Leslie said that he expects the court-appointed lawyer defending Wood to use that legal strategy, rather than trying to claim he deserves any special immunity as a journalist.
“If protesters take over a highway, and journalists join them, the journalist can still be arrested,” Leslie said. “We often try to work with police beforehand, and say you should try not to treat journalists like lawbreakers. You should try to recognize they’re engaged in first amendment activity that’s in the public interest.”
The trial of a second group of defendants is scheduled to begin Dec. 11.