Inauguration Day protesters’ fate & First Amendment is with jury

Protesters demonstrating against President Donald Trump raise their hands as they are surrounded by police on the sidelines of the January 20, 2017 inauguration in Washington, DC. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Six protesters who were arrested on Jan. 20, the morning that President Donald Trump was sworn into office, are potentially facing long prison sentences for being in the vicinity of riots in D.C., even if they had done nothing violent during confrontations.

Attorneys for the six defendants, the first group charged in the protests to go to trial, say their clients were peacefully protesting when a handful of march attendees began vandalizing businesses and vehicles.

The six defendants are Michelle Macchio, 26, of Naples, Fla., Jennifer Armento, 38, of Philadelphia; Christina Simmons, 20, of Cockeysville, Md.; Alexei Wood, 37, of San Antonio; Oliver Harris, 28, of Philadelphia; and Brittne Lawson, 27, of Pittsburgh.

Wood is a photojournalist who livestreamed the entire demonstration, enthusiastically narrating the events as they happened.

Wood’s lawyer, Brett Cohen, instead pointed to emails his client sent to different outlets offering to cover the inauguration for them, noting that he had no connection to the event’s organizers but instead came to the nation’s capitol for a “newsworthy event.”

The evidence also shows that two of the defendants, Lawson and Macchio, were street medics there to dispense first aid.

Lawson wore a shiny white helmet with red duct tape on it in the shape of a cross, and a fanny pack with first aid supplies like bandages, medical gloves, granola bars, and tampons on Inauguration Day 2017.

Macchio was wearing red tape in the shape of a cross on her jacket, and carrying a first aid kit and vinegar, which is used to dilute pepper spray that police officers shot into crowds.

Prosecutors admitted there is no evidence that the six defendants directly caused any damage but claim that they bear responsibility because they were part of the group participating in a series of demonstrations on Inauguration Day.

Assistant US Attorneys Jennifer Kerkhoff and Rizwan Quereshi argued that although the six people on trial did not break windows or cause any damage, they are guilty of rioting by wearing black, covering their faces and cheering while others caused destruction of more than $100,000 in property and injuries to law enforcement officers.

“According to the government, showing up with a fanny pack with Band Aids in it is equivalent to the people who smashed the Starbucks window,” said Sara Kropf, defense attorney for Lawson. “The government is treating everyone the same.”

Armento’s defense attorney, Carrie Weletz, said that her client wasn’t free to leave because police with pepper spray herded protesters once the demonstration took a violent turn.

During the trial, undercover D.C. police officer Bryan Adelmeyer testified that he attended a Jan. 8 planning meeting, at which nearly 300 people were told by organizers that they planned to be “nonviolent but confrontational” and cause “as many traffic disruptions as possible.”

“No matter your politics, the First Amendment is a right we all enjoy,” said defense attorney Jaime Heine, who is representing Macchio. “There’s no evidence Ms. Macchio rioted. Wearing the color black is not enough. Being anti-fascist is not enough. Being anti-Trump is not enough.”

All six defendants were arrested at 12th and L streets NW, where police, using nonlethal weapons like pepper spray and sting balls, encircled a large group of protesters in a “kettle” formation and spent the better part of a day processing 230 of them for arrest in the cold.

DC police and the city are facing lawsuits from the ACLU of DC for misconduct, including unconstitutional arrests and excessive force.

Defense attorneys hammered Commander Keith Deville, the commanding officer that day, for not giving a dispersal order to protesters before officers corraled them, as DC police standard operating procedure calls for.

The Office of Police Complaints released a report that called for an independent investigation into DC police conduct during the clash.

More than 200 protesters were arrested on Jan. 20. About 20 of them have pleaded guilty and prosecutors dropped charges in about two dozen cases.

The outcome of this trial may influence whether another 188 people face charges over the course of the next year.

The five felony counts of property destruction are for smashed windows at two separate Starbucks, a Bank of America, the Atrium Cafe, and a McDonald’s.

Before closing arguments, D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz threw out the “inciting a riot” charge, a felony with a maximum 10 year sentence.

Despite dismissing the incitement charges, Leibovitz declined to acquit the defendants on seven other charges, including five counts of felony property destruction, misdemeanor rioting, and misdemeanor conspiracy to riot.

The remaining charges carry a maximum combined sentence of 50 years in prison.

One person Dane Powell, 31, of Florida pleaded guilty on April 28 to breaking the window between Bank of America and Starbucks and was sentenced to three months behind bars. He’s already out.

Kerkhoff has argued that everyone in the group should be held responsible, because they didn’t leave the protest when they saw other participants lighting garbage cans on fire or tagging walls with graffiti.

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