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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Editor’s note: When Aaron Cantú arrived at his new job at the Santa Fe Reporter—an alternative newspaper like the Independent—last year, he came with the baggage of a recent arrest. Two months earlier, he spent a night in jail with hundreds of others detained during protests on Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. His actions consisted of walking, wearing black and being a witness to history as a freelance journalist. Yet a few months later, federal prosecutors slammed him with eight felony charges, including conspiracy to riot and property damage—despite no clear evidence of such crimes.

After nearly 18 months, the feds dropped the charges. Cantú (right; photo by Anson Stevens-Bollen) is finally able to publicly reflect on the ordeal. Read the full timeline of events at the bottom of this story.

For more than a year, federal prosecutors and agents have perused my digital communications, tried to hack my cell phone, and possibly collected my social media records. The chill of seeing the state in possession of your private political discussions is difficult to convey.

I’m not being paranoid; this really happened. The feds invaded my life in pursuit of their own conspiracy theory about a raucous protest in Washington, D.C., that resulted in eight felony charges against hundreds, myself included.

The overwhelming sense of being watched has abated some since the charges were dropped, but I’m sure people within the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia—the local arm of the Trump Administration’s Justice Department—will read every word of this essay, with an eye for anything they can use to re-file criminal charges against me or the 186 people still living under a five-year statute of limitations.

A few weeks after my arrest in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2017 (aka J20), I accepted some painful advice: Don’t criticize the Trump administration publicly. At that point, I was hoping for my charges to get dropped before my eventual indictment in May. The inability to speak freely on social media and in the publications for which I wrote drained my confidence; I still reflexively self-censor, often deleting tweets for no real reason. Even though my charges have gone away, writing this is hard. This pounding in my chest, this trembling hand, this sour stomach and sweaty tunnel vision are what it feels like to have your freedom of speech curtailed by the state.

I went to D.C. with several other journalists to report on Trump’s ascent, following a year of bubbling anti-fascism protests against his campaign. I currently enjoy the haven of a newspaper willing to hire lawyers who bite back, but last January, I was a freelancer using vacation days from my full-time job to go witness history. This was a completely uncharted assignment: How violent could this get? Would American jackboots try to stomp me in the streets? In the end, it didn’t matter whether I presented myself as a journalist on J20, or that I only carried a sandwich and a notebook; white supremacists wound up messing with me anyway for more than a year afterward by working with authorities to prosecute and harass me. I pitched a dispatch soon after getting released from jail, but pulled it for legal concerns.

After 18 months, the actual memories of the half-hour march leading up to my arrest have mixed with dreams and nightmares of the day, as well as descriptions in multiple indictments, trial transcripts and media reports. My mind’s eye remembers a dark funhouse of corporate buildings and unusually waifish, Jack Skellington-esque riot cops hemming me into a larger group. Everything looks gray and morose; it may have rained a bit. Police relentlessly deployed sting-ball grenades and pepper spray; the final tally was at least 70 grenades thrown at people blocks away from where Donald John Trump was sworn in as the 45th U.S. president.

Creaks and shatters created by objects smashing glass, including the insured windows of a Bank of America branch and a Starbucks, are more memorable than any destruction my eyes may have seen. Very, very loud police sirens, punctuated by grenade explosions and screaming, overwhelm everything else. “The inappropriate and extensive use of less lethal munitions suggests the need for increased supervision of officers during mass demonstrations,” said a recent report from the staid Police Foundation, a nonprofit which evaluated the Metropolitan Police Department’s conduct at Inauguration Day protests.

Impossible to forget are the feelings throughout the march: The whole-body nerve rush when I first saw a huge mass of marching people extending at least a whole city block; the panic run as the sting-ball grenades burst near my feet; the euphoria of an ungovernable moment, however frightening and unpredictable, that disrupted the lawful monotony binding our violently unequal social system together; and the shock when I checked my phone from inside the mass arrest and saw that protests in D.C. had overtaken Trump’s inaugural speech as the top headline on CNN.com. If protesters weren’t able to stop the actual inauguration, they still marred it in history.

When the first six of more than 200 defendants went to trial last November, prosecutors used expressions of apparent excitement, wonder or awe during the march as evidence of a conspiracy to riot. “I’m fucking blissed out,” photojournalist and acquitted defendant Alexei Wood announced in a stream from the march that day. The feds later tried to use it against him in court. In an identical indictment filed against all defendants, prosecutors also used randomly shouted phrases like, “Fuck it up,” “Fuck capitalism,” and “Whose streets? Our streets!” to transform an adrenal impulse into a criminal agreement among riotous co-conspirators.

The thought that I might be seriously screwed first occurred to me inside the police wagon transporting us to be processed. I sat cramped and bound, along with nine other people, in one of a half-mile’s worth of law enforcement vehicles flashing various hues of light, as if carrying high-priority enemies of the state. I knew then we weren’t going to get off with a simple citation, and that I was probably going to have to tell my mom. I didn’t expect, however, that I would be charged with eight felonies for the act of attending and reporting on a confrontational protest, or that I would be facing a combined 80 years in prison for these charges.


Months later, I not only considered my own future, but the far-reaching political implications of these cases: Why did the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia find it appropriate to hang virtual life sentences over the heads of 214 people after an indiscriminate mass arrest? How could they have so shamelessly gleaned evidence from far-right groups like Project Veritas, a discredited organization known for making deceptive gotcha videos, as well as the paramilitary group the Oath Keepers, and still feel like they had a legitimate case? Where was the motivation—the conspiracy—to pursue these cases coming from?

Mass arrests at protests have happened plenty of times in cities across the country, including D.C. in 2002, when hundreds at a World Bank protest were arrested and later lavished with civil settlement money. What appeared new in the J20 case was the attempt to color protesters’ actions as part of a pre-planned conspiracy between strangers to cause mayhem.

By wrapping up distinct actions like allegedly breaking windows, chanting and lighting fireworks at a protest into a single conspiracy, it all became one threatening, anti-social act against society, apparently menacing enough to warrant decades in prison. The motive to bust a conspiracy also explains the Justice Department’s initial demand last summer to review 1.3 million IP addresses of people who visited DisruptJ20.org, a website used to organize loosely affiliated masses of protests that took place at the inauguration. Despite an outcry from the media and civil rights groups, the court eventually granted much of the prosecutors’ request—yet they could find no actual conspiracy.

This data-vacuuming extended to the cellphones that all arrestees were carrying that day. The Metropolitan Police Department used technology from an Israeli security firm called Cellebrite to extract information from all confiscated phones that weren’t sufficiently encrypted. After one anonymous defendant’s phone was raided, the defendant received an 8,000-page dossier containing years of personal data, including “intimate emails to and from my friends and lovers through more than a decade, (late) night political debates over chat apps that helped shape my values and convictions,” and more. The horror of a hostile state downloading a record of your developing identity reaching back into your early teen years is a possibility unique to millennials and later generations that grew up on the internet.

To my knowledge, the feds were never able to crack into my phone, thanks to strong encryption—though they made clear that they were specifically interested in me, declaring in one motion last October that they were undertaking “additional efforts” to get my data. But I was sufficiently terrified by other fishing expeditions, including subpoenas issued to Apple, Facebook and possibly Twitter for communications between and among co-defendants. I never received a notice from any of these companies that my accounts had been subpoenaed—though apparently, they do not have to notify you or can be gagged from doing so—but others did, and I still treat my online presence as if it’s bugged.

All this reaching by the prosecutor’s office turned out to be for naught. Although Assistant U.S. Attorney Rizwan Qureshi mumbled to an unbelieving D.C. jury at the second trial of defendants that there had been a conspiracy to “destroy your city,” this was never proven. That trial in May ended in acquittals and mistrials, after the first resulted in total acquittals last December. The pair of failures set the stage for the eventual collapse of the case in its entirety, letting the few dozen remaining defendants go free.

The second trial took place at the D.C. Superior Court, where, in another room, a chief judge determined that Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff had intentionally misled the court about the existence of nearly 70 videos recorded by Project Veritas operatives at protest-planning meetings ahead of the inauguration. The operatives handed over the surreptitiously recorded videos to a DC police detective, Greggory Pemberton, who would spend an entire year investigating the J20 case. Defense counsel later discovered personal tweets sent out by Pemberton indicating his sympathies with the racist pro-Trump digital underbelly, and used them to undermine his testimony at trial.

According to a recent filing from former defendants, the withheld videos “cut against the theory that the … meeting was an exclusive, secretive meeting to plan unlawful conduct.” The ’60s-era stereotype of violent leftists whispering clandestine plans was part of the narrative prosecutors tried to create, and they went as far as lying in open court to preserve it.

This isn’t the first time authorities in D.C. have hunted for clues of a conspiracy post-riot. After the city’s black residents rose up following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, resulting in $27 million ($193.4 million today) in damages, the feds wanted to know who, if anybody, had orchestrated the chaos, and whether similar uprisings in more than 100 cities had been part of a revolutionary conspiracy to overthrow the white American system.

Stokely Carmichael, then the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, emerged as a primary suspect. Shortly after King’s murder, Carmichael told a radio host from Havana, Cuba, that it was “crystal clear the United States of America must fall in order for humanity to live, and we are going to give our lives for that cause.” But no conspiracy indictment was ever filed against Carmichael, or anybody else.

The fact that conspiracy charges were filed for so many in the J20 case after a mere $100,000 in damage illustrates how much prosecutorial aggression has advanced in the last half-century.


Some in radical circles have called attention to the white privilege of the J20 defendants, arguing that by virtue of their whiteness (or, for the minority of nonwhite defendants, their proximity to that pool of privilege), defendants had access to platforms, sympathy, support networks and resources that most low-income and non-white defendants lack, and that these advantages were hugely responsible for our success. I mostly agree with this analysis.

It is also true that the entire legal premise underpinning the multiple felony charges filed against each of us was steeped in the United States’ centuries-long defense of white supremacy. The anti-rioting statute under which we were charged—which calls for a maximum sentence of 10 years if convicted for rioting where serious injury or at least $5,000 in property damage occurs—was passed in 1967 by Congress in the wake of black urban uprisings in that decade. Prosecutors used the new statute against black D.C. residents the following year.

But the connection goes deeper.

The unifying legal theory of our prosecution was that we engaged in a conspiracy, and were therefore each equally liable for all property destruction or injury that occurred that day. This theory of liability stems from a mid-20th-century Supreme Court decision in a moonshining and tax-evasion case, but conspiracy law’s modern origins extend to the founding of this country and beyond as a legal weapon of colonialism and counterinsurgency, primarily against black revolt in the founding of the American state.

At the end of the 1600s, as the population of enslaved Africans in America grew, “the more encompassing category of ‘whiteness’ ascended,” writes Gerald Horne in Counter-Revolution of 1776, where Horne argues that the Anglo-Saxon settlers’ war for independence entrenched slavery. By 1680, one colonial legislature had drafted a bill “to prevent Negroes’ insurrection,” and this was followed by a torrent of similar anti-conspiracy legislation in the colonies over the next several decades in response to planned and executed rebellions by African people and their sometimes-allies: European servants and Native Americans resisting invasion.

One of the most famous pre-1776 conspiracies was the New York Conspiracy of 1741, in which prosecutors accused black enslaved people and poor whites of conspiring to burn the city and overthrow the colonial governor. The colony’s narrative, as established by a fire-breathing judge named Daniel Horsmanden, was that a multiracial group held secret meetings at a white-owned tavern for months before setting fire to the governor’s home, a church and horse stables in wealthy white neighborhoods. Four white and 30 black people were sentenced to death for their alleged role in the plot, and an additional 70 enslaved Africans were exiled from the colony.

At the New York Conspiracy trial, which took on the sort of puritanical zeal legible in the J20 case, the prosecution coerced witnesses into affirming the judge’s racist belief that the “conspiracy was of deeper design” and “more dangerous (a) Contrivance than the Salves (sic) themselves were capable of.” The most serious transgression, in the law’s eyes, was the conspiracy of comradeship between whites and blacks against colonial rule. After all, it had only been a few decades since “whites had achieved a sense of race solidarity at the expense of blacks” in some of the colonies around 1700, according to contemporary historian T.H. Breen.

Elite settlers threatened by the growing population of Africans saw the creation of pan-European solidarity (i.e., “whiteness”) in the colonies as necessary to gird against constant rebellions. Key to the eventual supremacy of the concept of whiteness, Horne writes, was that it not be interrogated too hard, lest “the loose threads of class hierarchy that this racial category otherwise obscured” unravel and ruin the entire colonial project.

This gets to the heart of the matter: In order for the colonies to overcome endless conspiracies to revolt by people they kidnapped, enslaved, exploited and colonized, its ruling elite had to create their own conspiracy—the institutionalization of “whiteness”—in defense of its power.

The Bill of Rights would later implicitly enshrine the three points of power in the new nation, including whiteness, property ownership (wealth) and cis-hetero maleness, consolidating ruling class power through the law. Writing for the Harvard Law Review nearly a century ago, Francis B. Sayre wrote that American courts often use conspiracy law as a cudgel, “especially during times of reaction, to punish, as criminal, associations for which the time being are unpopular or stir up prejudices of the social class in which the judges have for the most part been bred.”

It’s more than just prejudice: Today, the U.S. elite reaffirms its power through law, war, trade and politics daily, in a coordinated effort to preserve the status quo in all its structural inequality. This extreme and concentrated power is its own kind of conspiracy, one which allows the state to persecute others it considers illegal. There isn’t enough room here to chronicle the ways in which conspiracy law has been used since the 17th century to criminalize associations of nonwhite people, laborers, immigrants, protesters, revolutionaries and others, nor consider nuanced exceptions, such as mafia prosecutions that rope police and politicians into criminal rackets.

But fundamentally, the difference between a legitimate and illegitimate conspiracy comes down to power.

It’s ironic that some top Trump cronies involved in the J20 conspiracy prosecution are themselves caught up in their own high-profile conspiracy cases, though not necessarily as defendants.

For example, Roger Stone, the long-ago Nixon ratfucker and more recently a top campaign adviser to his friend Trump, sent far-right spies to inauguration protesters’ planning meetings as far back as December 2016. Stone was referenced in a July federal indictment against a dozen Russian intelligence military officials as a “senior member of (Trump’s) campaign” in direct contact with Russian hackers targeting the 2016 presidential election.

Another is Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the top official overseeing the J20 conspiracy prosecution. In March 2016, Sessions was beckoned in an email sent to Trump campaign advisor Rick Dearborn from Republican activist Paul Erickson, who wanted to arrange a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin. A criminal complaint unsealed in July claims Erickson was manipulated by a Russian state operative named Maria Butina to gain access to top Republicans. In another twist, the J20 defendants may have been saved by prosecutors out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. turning their attention to Butina’s conspiracy prosecution.

To this day, neither Sessions nor any prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. have spoken publicly about J20. While prosecutors don’t often comment publicly on their cases, especially when they lose, this could have been the perfect chance for this Justice Department to trumpet its law-and-order bona fides, which makes its silence striking. Instead, prosecutors showed their asses in court, just as the authoritarian-leaning Trump presidency—which includes the Russia meddling cases, the overt embrace of white supremacy, the attacks on the press, the ultranationalism and everything else—is showing the country’s ass to the world right now.

The power structures animating U.S. life are themselves the result of long-running conspiracies, and to update Horne’s analysis, the American project is being intensely interrogated in this moment. History shows that when a state’s ability to present itself as a stable force for social order wanes, illegal conspiracies begin to sprout. That’s not what happened at the J20 protests, but it would be ahistorical to think it wouldn’t happen somewhere else—or that a journalist wouldn’t be there to cover it.

Thank you to my legal team, the tireless J20 defendant support network, my family, my partner and the Santa Fe Reporter for their support.


Timeline

Nov. 8, 2016: Donald John Trump is elected president.

Nov. 11: The Oath Keepers, a far-right paramilitary organization, begins to infiltrate anti-Trump protest meetings in Philadelphia, Baltimore and possibly elsewhere.

Dec. 12: Alt-right media personality Jack Posobiec emails Trump presidential adviser Roger Stone a report after spying on inauguration-protest-planning meetings.

Dec. 21: Roger Stone appears on Alex Jones’ conspiracy show InfoWars to discuss protest meetings.

Jan. 8, 2017: Operatives from the far-right organization Project Veritas make secret recordings at a D.C. inauguration-protest-planning meeting. D.C. police are also present.

Jan. 11: Oath Keepers turn over some of their recordings from inauguration protest planning meetings to D.C. police.

Jan. 14: A meeting about logistics at inauguration protests takes place in New York City. Project Veritas operative Allison Maass is present and records part of the meeting.

Before Jan. 20: Project Veritas meets with D.C. Metropolitan Police, the FBI and Secret Service before Inauguration Day to discuss protests.

January 20 (J20): About 240 people are mass-arrested during protests at Trump’s Inauguration Day in Washington D.C., and jailed for nearly 36 hours. (Right: Aaron Cantú was the 223rd person arrested in during the Inauguration Day protesters; photo by Anson Stevens-Bollen.)

Feb. 4: White nationalist Richard Spencer threatens on Twitter to dox all Inauguration Day arrestees after receiving their personal information from D.C. police.

Feb. 21: The U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. indicts 214 people for felony rioting at the inauguration. The charge carries a 10-year maximum sentence.

March: Aaron Cantú is hired by the Santa Fe Reporter.

April 27: The U.S. Attorney’s Office returns a superseding indictment, which includes felony rioting, conspiracy and destruction charges, for all defendants except Cantú.

May 30: Cantú is indicted for the same felonies as the rest of the J20 defendants.

July 27: Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff tells a judge all defendants are equally liable for damage that occurred at the protests.

Summer 2017: Clashes between fascists and anti-fascists grow more intense, culminating in a deadly confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12.

Aug. 22: The U.S. Department of Justice backs off its request for 1.3 million IP addresses of those who visited an anti-Trump protest website.

Nov. 15: The first six J20 defendants go to trial, including photo journalist Alexei Wood.

November-December: U.S. prosecutors use video obtained from Project Veritas and Oath Keepers as evidence at the first J20 trial.

Dec. 21: Six J20 defendants acquitted on all charges at trial.

Jan. 19, 2018: Prosecutors drop charges for 129 defendants. Charges remain against Cantú and 58 others, alleged to be part of a “core group.”

May 16: The second group of J20 defendants goes to trial, with prosecutors using near-identical arguments as the first trial.

May 31: A D.C. court sanctions prosecutors for misrepresenting the existence of more than 60 additional Project Veritas videos.

June 11: The trial for the second group of defendants ends in acquittals and mistrials.

July 6: Prosecutors drop all charges for all remaining defendants.

July 10: Alt-right media personality Mike Cernovich encourages his Twitter followers to support the Unmasking Antifa Act, which punishes wearing masks at raucous protests by up to 15 years in prison.

Published in National/International

Donald Trump’s second year in office is beginning like every new Star Wars movie: The Resistance is in tatters, trying to rebuild.

Yes, there is plenty of Internet #Resistance, ranging from insane conspiracy theories to serious commentary and organizing—but this online profusion has resulted in confusion in real life.

The divide is mirrored in the Bernie/Hillary split—but it is also something deeper and something that moves further to the fringes. The divide, in many ways, mirrors the increasing divisions within the far right, where the alt-lite litigiously differentiates itself from the more openly racist alt-right.

Last year, there was the Disrupt J20 protest on Inauguration Day, which led to the prosecution of nearly 200 individuals, identified by the police and the prosecution as anarchists. The next day, hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets for the women’s march.

There is little sympathy or support between these groups, with many anarchists and hardcore organizers mocking feel-good liberals who #Resist while supporting the FBI, intelligence agencies and Robert Mueller. More mainstream liberals, on the other hand, attempt to distance themselves from anyone further to the left than they are for fear of being tainted by the anarchist stench of “hippies.” As a result, these liberals have been far more concerned about Putin’s abuse of reporters than they have about the prosecution of journalists who were covering the J20 protests. Though these J20 cases have been largely ignored by the mainstream press, they have had an immeasurable effect on the state of protest—creating fear, distrust, and division on the left.

Over the last couple of weeks, some of these tensions have bubbled up, largely in online debates about a real-life rally slated for Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27. The “People’s March on Washington,” also called the “The Impeachment March,” has gained a lot of online support—25,000 are “interested” on Facebook, and more than 2,000 say they are going. It has also gotten a lot of pushback.

The rally was organized by a group called People Demand Action, headed up by a 24-year-old man named Lawrence Nathaniel, who is a big-thinking, marketing-minded millennial leftist who says he worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign and then, after he got over his disappointment following the primary loss, for Hillary Clinton. When Trump won, he began to think about what he could do.

Nathaniel has a long list of sometimes improbable plans and goals, including opening a free, private school in Bamberg, S.C. However, the march calling for the impeachment of the president indeed gained traction. But as interest in the march grew—and organizers began trying to raise money—so did the questions surrounding it.

I first heard questions about the march when Dave Troy, a technologist and writer in Baltimore, wrote to me. Troy is deeply concerned about Russian trolls and “active measures.” When he saw confusion surrounding the event, he initially thought it might be the result of some Kremlin campaign. But after he started to look into it, he attributed the perceived failings of the organizers to inexperience rather than malfeasance.

Nathaniel has set up a number of organizations to promote the march and his various other endeavors. People have been calling them “shell organizations” or “false fronts,” but that seems a little too harsh. The one organization that has filed official papers is called the Presidential House, and it proposes some sort of weird shadow government in Charleston, S.C., with Nathaniel as president. Troy called it “unhinged, fantastical nonsense.”

I called Nathaniel and asked for an explanation.

“When I started the Presidential House I started volunteering for the Obama campaign,” Nathaniel said. He acknowledged that the original scheme was kind of goofy, but said it came from his enthusiasm for Obama. “I was 16 or 17 and was very excited, and so I started something called the Presidential House to get out in my community.”

For Nathaniel, inexperience is part of the point of protest.

“Many of us, especially young people in the political realm, don’t really get our voices heard, because it’s mostly a ‘who has more experience’ type thing versus a protest where we’re able to organize it, either locally or nationally, and our voices can be heard much easier there than working with politics,” Nathaniel said.

However, he said he is still interested in electoral politics and local issues. “My goal was to run for United States Congress this year, but I decided not to because Annabelle Robertson, who is way more qualified than I am, decided to run (against Republican South Carolina Rep. Joe “You Lie” Wilson). So I decided to put my action behind her and get out and protest.”

Critics point to the “Rally at the Border,” in San Ysidro, Calif., the only other rally Nathaniel has organized. It failed amid concerns of top-down organizing that didn’t take the needs of the community into consideration, and could have put a lot of people at risk.

Once news of the failed border rally became public, people began demanding to see the permit for the march on Washington. Nathaniel says he has a permit and has met with D.C. police, Park Police, the Secret Service and the FBI.

But for local organizers in San Ysidro and D.C., working with the authorities is precisely the problem: Washington, D.C.’s police department threw more than 70 grenades and emptied hundreds of canisters of pepper spray at the Disrupt J20 protest during the inauguration. At a right-wing rally recently, Park Police claimed to be working with right-wing militias.

“In D.C., we do not like interfacing with police,” Brendan Orsinger, an organizer in D.C., told me. “We don’t like the idea of the state giving permission for us to march. And we don’t need it. … It’s actually much safer not to have police involved in the planning of the march.”

Orsinger has been vociferous in his criticism of the march. But like Troy, he doesn’t see a conspiracy: “There are good intentions here. But one of the things that I learned over the last year is that good intentions are not good enough to make change happen in this country.”

This raises the larger question: What are protests for? The prosecution of the nearly 200 people charged with rioting charges after the inauguration may have had a chilling effect, but it has also shown the effectiveness of protest—if the U.S. Attorney’s office works that hard to shut them down, then they must have some power.

So, the question becomes: How can a larger movement bring together Russiagaters like Troy, local grassroots organizers like Orsinger, and enthusiastic young people like Nathaniel? If people really want to resist and not just #Resist, they need to answer this question while embracing a diversity of tactics and figuring out how to form coalitions.

Baynard Woods is a reporter for the Real News Network and the founder of Democracy in Crisis, a project of alternative newspapers across the country. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter: @baynardwoods.

Published in National/International

Dozens of defendants, each sitting with their own lawyer, fill a Washington, D.C., courtroom, looking like college students wearing their nicest clothes for a job interview.

However, the situation here is far more serious: They are all facing charges of felony rioting, conspiracy to riot and destruction of property on the morning of Donald Trump’s inauguration, when they were scooped up en masse by police with a controversial crowd-control technique which corrals protesters in a “kettle.”

This is only one of the four groups among the 215 defendants who have been indicted on nearly identical charges. Many had to travel back to the District of Columbia to be arraigned on this Friday, June 9.

One man who traveled here from Santa Fe, N.M., is sitting with his lawyer off to the side. He wears a black suit, has a black goatee and identifies himself as Tejano. He looks around the room like he is taking notes. Everyone else has already been arraigned before Judge Lynn Leibovitz. But this man, Aaron Cantú, wasn’t indicted until May 30, just a week before the hearing. He is a journalist, who has written about policing, propaganda, drugs and politics for The Intercept, Al Jazeera, The Baffler, and many other publications. Reporting from the Republican National Convention on the possibility of a Trump presidency, Cantú wrote, “dream darker.”

Like the others being charged, he’s now facing up to 70 years in prison.

As various protests spread through the city on the morning of the inauguration, one group used “black bloc” techniques—wearing all black and acting in concert to attack symbols of multinational capitalism in a semi-anonymous fashion—in an attempt to disrupt the spectacle of the event, breaking windows of businesses like Starbucks and Bank of America.

“Individuals participating in the Black Bloc broke the windows of a limousine parked on the north side of K Street NW, and assaulted the limousine driver as he stood near the vehicle,” the indictment reads, “as Aaron Cantu and others moved west on K Street NW.”

These black blocs have received widespread media attention in America since 1999, beginning with the Battle of Seattle at the World Trade Organization summit. A black bloc action is newsworthy—and yet, according to the indictment, Cantú is being charged for moving in proximity to the group he was covering.

The indictment alleges that Cantú wore black and discarded a backpack as evidence of his part in the conspiracy. Because members of a conspiracy to riot wore black, anyone wearing black, it seems, is a member of the conspiracy.

It is a crazy, complicated, sprawling case involving evidence from somewhere around 200 cell phones and various cameras. The discovery process will take months.

In Washington, D.C., criminal cases that elsewhere would be handled by the state are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s office—so each prosecutor here ultimately answers to the president of the United States. Although most of the charges were first brought by an Obama appointee, this is a perfect example of what justice may look like in the Trump era. Like the travel ban, it is a grand draconian gesture followed by a lot of confusion.

During the arraignment, prosecutor Jennifer Kerkhoff expressed concerns about finding herself in a “Brady trick bag,” referring to the law that requires the prosecution to turn over all relevant evidence in discovery. How does she know what material on someone’s phone might be relevant to another’s case? And how does the prosecution protect the privacy of co-defendants with data that is not relevant?

“Can I just stop you?” Judge Leibovitz says to Kerkhoff as she talks about efficiency. “You brought charges against 215 people.”

The judge does not have to finish.

Leibovitz set most of the trial dates for October 2018, so that all evidence can be properly dealt with.

“It’s concerning and confusing,” says Christopher Gowen, an American University law professor and partner at his own firm who was appointed to the case. “The fact that we are already here and the amount of resources being spent to get to where we are now leads me to believe we are going to have to sit through all these trials. All this taxpayer money is going to be wasted.”

Gowen says that his client, Cabal Bhatt, was charged on the basis of wearing a bandana on his face to protect himself from police pepper spray.

As the names of each of the defendants are called—Cantú and his co-defendants all plead not guilty—I think about how I was almost arrested reporting on the same events that day. I watched as the black bloc came around the corner, flanked by police. Trash cans rolled through the street. Pepper spray came out. An officer ran at me with her stick. I held up the media credentials hanging around my neck and yelled, “Press!” She went around me. I was lucky.

At the advice of his lawyers, Cantú isn’t talking to the press. I ask Julie Ann Grimm, his editor at the Santa Fe Reporter, which hired him in April, if the charges make her more reluctant to assign him to certain stories.

“His arrest was scary. The threat of being imprisoned for the rest of your life for just doing your job and observing a protest is … I don’t even know how to finish that sentence,” she says over the phone. “I think Aaron is nervous about covering protests. I’m slightly nervous about sending him out to them. But we’re really not going to let this action by the federal government or by the prosecutors in Washington, D.C., slow him down or to put a muzzle on his voice as a journalist.”

Still, she says, he might do a couple things differently now. “He will probably try to stay very separate from the people who are a part of the news event, and he will probably wear something like a tie.”

But Grimm is quick to stress that Cantú is not the only one in this case whose rights are being violated.

“We’re all standing up for Aaron, and this affects our industry and our identity as journalists,” Grimm says. “But the larger sort of corralling, the kettling, the mass-arresting is also troubling.”

As Cantú wrote from the RNC: “Imagining the worst possible future your mind can conjure is an essential step to avoiding a world you do not want to live in. Things are bad, very bad, and we will fuck them up even worse if we can’t acknowledge how very bad they are.”

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Salon, McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other publications. Send tips to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter @demoincrisis. Podcast every Thursday at www.democracyincrisis.com. Below: The black bloc in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day. Photo by Baynard Woods.

Published in National/International