In the haze of the growing national conversation on free speech, organizing tactics, and state repression, one event has been nearly lost in wider the discussion: what happened to protesters who came out onto the streets of Washington, D.C., on January 20, also known as J20.
Aggressive police tactics, mass arrests, and blanket felony charges against protesters have become an aside in light of recent events, despite the tremendous weight of criminal prosecution still in progress. While police violence is certainly nothing new, the way in which the press has handled the targeting of J20 activists is an indictment of how the media often acts as stenographers, simply regurgitating the state’s language. It is also an indication of how resistance will be handled by Donald Trump’s administration, and how that will impact organizing in the years to come.
One of the J20 defendants, whose identity is being withheld so they could speak freely about their pending case, tells Shadowproof the accused are being tried in groups. “I have no idea how that’s supposed to work or how I can be responsible for what seven other strangers who will be tried alongside me did, and we may file a motion to sever. The livestreamer going to trial in November, Alexei Wood, is attempting to have his trial severed from the group, but the government is opposing his motion.”
“My feeling is they know the cases are bullshit and that would be evident if they had to try people individually,” the defendant said. “That’s why they have the conspiracy charge. The prosecutor stated in the recent arguments for the collective motion to dismiss that ‘it is the group that is the danger, the group that is criminal.'”
“I’m worried the cases have gone as far as they have because it means the judges are finding legitimacy in the theory of conspiracy presented by the prosecutors. I’m terrified but having my fingers crossed that public outrage can do something.”
Inauguration Day was a maelstrom of disbelief and rage, and the streets erupted in defiance. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) indiscriminately targeted protesters with tear gas, water cannons, and a type of explosive device known as “stingers.” As one report from the Indypendent put it, reporters were arrested in order to “send a chilling message to journalists covering future protests.”
The MPD kettled, detained, and levied felony charges against over 200 people. One hundred ninety-six defendants now face over 80 years in prison. In July, Carlos Piantini, a community organizer and political defendant in the state’s case against Disrupt J20, the group that organized the Inauguration protests, wrote that the events of the day were wrought with violence, specifically by police.
“I remember the footage of an elderly woman brutalized by a river of pepper spray and saved from a phalanx of riot police by a black-clad protester,” Piantini writes. “I recall a fellow arrestee in my cell unit with an eye bulging out of its socket like a tomato—the offspring of pepper spray and contact lenses—and how we had to demand they receive medical attention.”
Months after these events, the Department of Justice called for the seizure of the 1.3 million IP addresses that accessed the Disrupt J20 website. The Atlantic reported that the administration’s demand included access to “any email addresses, user logs, and photos collected by the website.” DreamHost, which hosted the Disrupt J20 website, is so far refusing to comply with the government’s search warrant and is working with the civil liberties organization The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in order to oppose the motion in court.
Despite the glaringly aggressive pressure being mounted against J20 protesters, and how this presents itself as a kind of test run for the current administration in how they’ll react to public opposition, the Washington Post’s editorial board has attempted to frame concern for state repression as an overreaction.
The government isn’t targeting “the peaceful Women’s March on Washington,” they argue, but “[v]iolent protesters [who] committed tens of thousands of dollars in property damage and assaulted police officers.” Their argument becomes more ridiculous as they suggest the government is reacting in the open and “not operating in secret or behind the back of the judiciary,” as a sign that there’s no privacy concerns.
It would be too forgiving to call the apologetic language used by the Washington Post naive. The media outlet’s language is disingenuous and reads like a government press release. There are nearly 200 people who may lose decades of their life to prison. Characterizing this as hysteria is duplicitous at best. Giving the government the benefit of doubt undermines the ability of citizens to dissent.
The public cannot afford to forgive government, as it often did with President Barack Obama’s administration, and the press has a duty to take a side in matters of justice. As the Trump administration re-militarizes security forces and inspires violent right-wing fascist elements to mobilize openly, it is necessary now more than ever to deny the government a moment of comfort in our newspapers.