On Jan. 20, District of Columbia police cracked down on protests against Donald Trump’s inauguration by mass arresting 217 people, including protesters, legal observers, medics and journalists. Each was charged with “felony rioting,” punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
Since then, several have had their charges dropped, one has pleaded guilty, and another has pleaded down to a misdemeanor. But in late April, new charges were filed against the remaining defendants as well as others not arrested on Jan. 20. These included a Disrupt J20 activist whose home was raided by D.C. police on April 3.
The defendants were indicted by a grand jury on eight felony charges: five counts of property destruction, one count of rioting, one count of inciting a riot and one count of conspiracy to riot. In total, these charges carry up to 70 years in prison — essentially a life sentence.
According to the Washington Post, the #J20 demonstration was (unsurprisingly) infiltrated by undercover cops. Given this information, the persecution of over 200 people for a small amount of property damage is even more questionable.
The charges leveled against the #J20 defendants are being met with resistance. A mass movement is forming in support of the 200-some defendants, many of whom have taken a pledge not to take a plea deal. The heavy charges are meant to instill fear about organizing and resisting and to scare defendants into taking plea deals, but these courageous activists refuse to be intimidated.
Felony riot charges are becoming more common across the country. Nearly 300 protesters are facing felony charges in total, in cities such as New Orleans and Philadelphia.
In Jacksonville, Fla., at an April 7 protest in response to the U.S. missile strike against the Syrian government the previous day, a small group of activists and community members were met with unrelenting harassment from pro-Trump provocateurs, with support from Jacksonville police. The harassment escalated to a vicious physical attack on the protesters by both the hecklers and the cops. Five anti-war protesters were arrested and charged with felony rioting, including a deaf Black man who had to be hospitalized due to the attack.
In addition to the new felony charges, the state is developing other means to criminalize activists and protesters. The Obama administration laid the basis by signing the Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in December 2016. The NDAA had a stated goal to “counter foreign propaganda and disinformation,” in effect criminalizing dissent.
District of Columbia law enforcement confiscated #J20 defendants’ cell phones and have requested Facebook and Apple to hand over their personal information. The U.S. Border Patrol is examining people’s political views via Facebook accounts. This repression dovetails with Islamophobia, a favorite justification for the Trump regime’s surveillance agenda.
Since Trump’s election, Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation to criminalize protest in at least 18 states, including harsher penalties for blocking highways, wearing masks or protesting oil pipelines. This is the logical conclusion of the Fraternal Order of Police-backed “law-and-order” platform Trump ran on.
For all progressives, anti-capitalists and prison abolitionists, it is our duty to fight state repression through all avenues, including in the streets and the courts.
Drop all charges against #J20 protesters! Free Mumia! Free all political prisoners!