Inauguration Protesters Claim That Vandalism is Free Speech

In what has become known as the #J20 trials, six defendants are standing trial for their actions on President Donald Trump’s inauguration day – January 20. Six defendants ― Jennifer Armento, Alexei Wood, Oliver Harris, Michelle Macchio, Brittne Lawson and Christina Simmons ― were among the 234-people arrested en masse during protests, and the first of them to face charges of engaging in a riot, inciting a riot, conspiracy to riot and property damage.

Their case could determine whether prosecutors continue pursuing charges against the rest of those arrested, who have trials spread out over the course of the next year.

What happened?

In a dramatic opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff repeatedly referred to a “sea of black masks” that roamed the city causing chaos, violence and destruction.

She told the jury of individuals who were working downtown that day and were affected by the unrest: a Starbucks worker who had to “dive for cover” as a window was smashed; a shop owner who was devastated to find her own window broken; a limousine driver whose vehicle was set on fire after the defendants had been arrested; and police officers who felt “helpless” as the large group overran the downtown area. The six defendants were arrested along with the rest of a group of marchers that included anti-capitalists, anti-fascists and anarchists under the umbrella organization DisruptJ20, one of many new grassroots political groups that are using social media to organize.

An undercover officer of James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas has revealed that one of DisruptJ20’s organizers said their goal was to “make inauguration a giant clusterfuck.” Authorities have said there was more than $100,000 in property damage that day.

Free Speech?

The six defendants’ attorneys, who outnumber the actual jury, have raised First Amendment concerns. They told the jury there was no evidence that their clients participated in any destruction, and said that their clients were indiscriminately treated by police who, they argue, made no effort to differentiate between those who were exercising their rights and those who were causing destruction.

Some defendants’ attorneys alleged that the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (which is facing a lawsuit for its tactics that day) violated its own policies by “kettling” a large group of people. “It’s much easier to treat everyone the same, call the protest a riot, and lock everyone up, rather than comply with the First Amendment,” one argued. The lawyer of another of the accused, Christina Simmons, postulated that she was “in the District of Colombia doing what she had the right to do. The right to protest.”

One defendant, Alexei Wood, claimed to be at the protest in his capacity as a photojournalist, however his credentials proved to be in the name of someone else, and his legitimacy as a photographer is questionable, as Kerkhoff pointed out: ‘Anyone can be a photographer in this day and age because of technology.’

One of the arrested, Elizabeth Lagesse, even claimed prosecutors were attempting to “intimidate” and “manipulate” her into giving up her rights in a piece published in the New York Times. Steven McCool, who is representing defendant Harris, is said to have told the judge, outside of the presence of the jury, that he’d be requesting a jury instruction on the First Amendment. What kind of jury instruction, Judge Lynn Leibovitz wondered, one that said we “like it a lot?”

What next?

Prosecutors have dropped charges against seven of the nine journalists arrested that day, proving that the arrests and charges issued were not indiscriminate. For protesters to claim that their actions (which, let’s remember, caused $100,000 of damage) were an exercise in free speech is baseless.

As Kerkhoff said: “People are allowed to have emotions and feel what they want, but that this case wasn’t about that. It was about the defendants’ choice to stick with a group that caused mayhem in downtown D.C. That is why we’re here.

Violence and destruction was a choice, and they made choices that day to participate in it.” If we consider another common cause for protest in the U.S., the right to bear arms, we can learn a lesson in how protest should be carried out. Second amendment protesters, for example, do not claim that they have a right to damage cars or other forms of property. They realize the limits of the rights that have been given to them: you can carry a Magnum revolver, but not use it to damage someone else’s property.

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