On April 10, Chelsea Manning and I delivered 180,000 signatures to the US Attorneys who are prosecuting people who participated in an anti-Trump demonstration in Washington, DC on Inauguration day, demanding charges be dropped.The petition was initiated by Daily Kos, and was supported by a number of groups, including Defending Rights & Dissent where I work. It was also endorsed by PEN America, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance , People’s Action, People Demanding Action, People For the American Way, The Zero Hour, and United We Dream. Activists from Defend J20 Resistance and Free Press joined us in delivering the signatures.
For those unfamiliar with the case, it started on January 20, 2017, when DC police attacked protesters with projectiles and chemical irritants. DC police encircled participants in anti-capitalist, anti-fascist march illegally arresting en masse over 230 people. Prosecutors charged around 200 people, including journalists and medics, with multiple felonies, carrying decades in prison.
While vandalism did occur during the march, the government doesn’t allege everyone charged carried it out. In fact, during the trial of the first six defendants the prosecution conceded during their opening argument that they did not believe the defendants on trial committed any of the vandalism in question. Instead, the prosecution, much like the police who carried out the initial unconstitutional arrest, are operating on a guilt-by-association theory that criminalizes–literally–protest. In the mind of the government, the march itself was a “premeditated riot” and thus any of the hundreds of people who attended are part of a conspiracy.
Even though the prosecution told jurors during the first trial that reasonable doubt doesn’t mean very much, a DC jury was having none of it. They acquitted the first 6 defendants. While the prosecutors initially claimed they would continue to pursue the remaining 188 defendants, they ended up dropping charges against 129 people. However, there are still 59 people facing decades in jail as prosecutors continue to try to transform dissent into a criminal conspiracy.
The next round of trials was supposed to start on April 17, but it has been delayed after the judge rejected the prosecution’s request that their “expert” witness–an FBI agent who infiltrated the nonviolent Occupy Wall Street movement–be allowed to testify anonymously. Prosecutors decided they needed to find another “expert,” and needed more time to do so.
Local DC activists have been heroically on the ground since the arrests themselves. Defending Rights & Dissent has been trying to make sure word about these horrendous political persecutions reach a national audience. We were founded in 1960 to oppose the House Un-American Activities Committee and we’ve been fighting to defend the right of political expression ever since. We view this prosecution as part of a larger picture. Across the nation, legislators are proposing bills designed to chill our free speech rights. Police respond to protests decked out in military gear as though they were going to war.
In the era of Trump, it is especially vital to defend our right to dissent. That is why we will keep fighting until all of the J20 defendants are free.