The future of free speech and dissent is being put at risk by the District of Columbia’s Superior Court in what has come to be known as the J20 trial. The first trial group is a small representation of the almost 200 people that were blockaded into a corner by police officers and mass arrested during inauguration day protests. All those arrested are currently facing multiple felony and misdemeanour charges that may imprison them for decades. The first group consists of six people who called for a speedy trial, including two medical supporters and one journalist. The journalist’s name is Alexei Wood, and he is one of two journalists whose charges have not been dropped. The claim against Wood is that his live stream was acting as a recruitment method for violent acts of protest. The actions of the police during the inauguration day protests and the decision of the court to continue with trials are an attempt to silence dissent and could have a serious impact on the future of free speech.
In opening arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkoff openly admitted that none of the defendants are alleged to be perpetrators of property damage, but their presence at the protest makes them liable to six felony charges. Her opening statement is an admission to a lack of evidence and shows that the lives of almost 200 people are being put in danger because of guilty-by-association accusations. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz dropped one of the original felony charges, inciting a riot, but this still leaves defendants to face multiple others. Much of the evidence used against the current defendants has been video footage placing them at the protest during specific times but does not show them explicitly committing any crimes. “The federal government is inundating the jury with video footage of the same broken windows in order to obscure the fact they have failed to present a compelling case to the jury,” said Kris Hermes, a representative of Defend J20 Resistance and co-founder of the R2K Legal Collective that supported those arrested at the RNC in 2000.
It has been uncovered by the defence council that one of the main videos used as evidence in court came from James O’Keefe, the founder of far-right activist group Project Veritas. O’Keefe’s organization has been known to falsify videos and recently attempted to trick the Washington Post into running a made-up story against Roy Moore in order to discredit the paper. One of the other videos used also came from a member of the Oath Keeps, a far-right paramilitary group that is often present at Trump-related events and calls on its members to be ready at all times for a “full-blown civil war.”
DC Metropolitan Police Department Commander Keith Deville was responsible for ordering the mass arrests on inauguration day. In court, he testified that he did not follow a part of the DC Police ‘Standard Operating Procedures’ for ‘Handling First Amendment Assemblies & Mass Demonstrations’ because they “weren’t high-volume arrests related to a First Amendment assembly. They were many arrests related to a riot.” Deville was shown videos of police throwing stinger ball grenades and spraying large amounts of OC spray into crowds of protestors with their backs to police, his response was that police had “showed restraint in my opinion.”
The decision made by Deville to violently enforce a mass arrest without following proper procedure and follow through with felony conviction against all those arrested may ruin the lives of almost 200 people. The decision will also set a precedent for future protests that dissenting opinions are not acceptable, also putting the freedom of speech in the U.S. at risk. Deville himself has a long history of not being held accountable for his actions. For example, DC Metro’s Internal Affairs Division has allowed him to keep his job even after they stated on record that he made derogatory comments about a gay and transgender officer, and joked about holocaust survivor Raoul Wallenberg as being “the one who got away.”
Even after countless acts of police brutality were shown in court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rizwan Qureshi went after the medical supporters. Speaking directly to one she said, “What do you need a medic with gauze for? She was aiding and abetting the riot. That was her role.” The comment has an unfortunate irony in the fact that many protestors left with burning eyes and bruised bodies due to police violence, and it was medical supporters that were there to aid them. Medical supporters have a long history of supporting protests and played an important role in aiding demonstrations during the civil rights movement. An attack on medical supporters is an attack on the freedom of people to publicly express dissent.
The J20 trial has received minimal media attention and many in the public do not know what occurred on inauguration day. It is imperative that the media, the public, and Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz recognize the trial as an attack on dissent and freedom of speech. Prosecutors in the trial are attempting to rewrite the rules on public demonstrations and are using fear of imprisonment as a way to suppress public dissent. Almost 200 people are being charged with a handful of individually committed felonies, even though it is the defendants who deserve justice. Their lives have been put in jeopardy due to a politically motivated mass arrest. Political expression is not a crime. The J20 trial should not be an example of legalized oppression to silence those with dissenting opinions, but should reinforce that justice and the freedom of speech can exist within the United States.
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