On December 5, I went down to DC to sketch the absurdist nightmare known as the #J20 trials.
The #J20 trials are thus called because the defendants were arrested on January 20 during protests against Trump’s inauguration in Washington, DC, after police kettled 240 people on 12th and L streets. An astounding 194 people now face a litany of charges related to property damage and rioting that could result in 60-year sentences being handed down to the defendants (others have pleaded guilty to lesser offenses). The first batch of defendants—Jennifer Armento, Oliver Harris, Brittne Lawson, Michelle “Miel” Macchio, Christina Simmons, and independent journalist Alexei Wood—began their trial on November 15.
During the #J20 protests, a small group of demonstrators smashed the windows of Starbucks and Bank of America, spray-painted cars, and overturned several newspaper boxes. Importantly, the prosecution has made no attempt to claim that the defendants were among them. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff has instead argued that the defendants were “playing a role” in the violence. That’s right: The government is trying to set the precedent that if you’re at a protest and someone else smashes a window, it’s your fault.
The day I was in court, Kerkhoff called a series of arresting officers to the stand, who testified that they followed a group of indistinguishable black-clad, window-smashing “anarchists.” In the words of Officer Harrison Grubbs, “There were so many, and they all looked the same.” None of the witnesses claimed to have seen any of the defendants destroying any property, resisting arrest, or committing any other crimes.
Wearing rubber gloves, Kerkhoff contemptuously produced the defendants’ property that had been held as evidence. Some of this were merely pieces of clothing: black hats. Bandanas. Black gloves. Others were the basic tools that activists use to keep themselves and each other safe during protests: blank jail support forms. First aid supplies. Goggles, which they probably needed—body cam footage taken on the day of the arrests shows Officer Michael Howden saying that police had been “extremely wild” with the tear gas.
On the stand, Howden denied saying that before the video was shown to him. At one point, he vehemently denied that he had “herded” protesters, only to have the defense confront him with footage of him bragging about “herding” those same protesters and saying that he had gotten “plenty of practice herding people” in Barry Farm, a predominantly black housing project in DC. He also claimed protesters hit him with a pole and a spiked hammer, though he admitted he didn’t receive any medical treatment for injuries or file any forms reporting it. No footage of these alleged attacks exists, and Officer Howden’s body camera was conveniently off so it didn't record them.
The prosecution’s last witness of the day offered a glimpse at the resources the government has invested in hopes of imprisoning #J20 defendants. Detective Gregg Pemberton (a DC Police Union treasurer who has tweeted about the “false narrative” of Black Lives Matter) has been working exclusively on the #J20 case since January, reviewing 50-60 hours of footage a week culled from defendants’ phones, social media, and other sources. One of those sources was the alt-right activist Lauren Southern, who was livestreaming the protest before being caught in the Inauguration Day kettle, but allowed to leave. Independent journalist Alexei Wood, however, was charged, and the judge has criticized his lifestream as being “real time advertisement and recruitment measure.” (Another journalist, Aaron Cantú, who has contributed to VICE, is among those charged but not in the group of defendants currently on trial.)
The prosecution will rest its case on Monday. So far, the #J20 trial hasn’t garnered the round-the-clock media coverage of, say, one of Trump’s hallucinogenic tweets, but its principles are just as nauseatingly surreal. Apparently, being at a protest where a window is broken means you broke the window yourself, and breaking a window is a crime worthy of 60 years in a cage.
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