Thousands of people protested in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2016, the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, and hundreds of them now face serious felony charges for their actions, which police say include violence, destruction of property and rioting.
Two of those still facing charges were journalists who were covering the protest but not participating in it. A D.C Superior Court just returned an indictment that handed down even more charges for Alexei Wood and Aaron Cantu, who are now facing a staggering 70 years in prison for their “actions.”
Each of them was in a different place in downtown Washington, D.C. that day and have a different story to tell, but share one common thread. They were exercising their democratic rights as journalists to cover the story under the privileges afforded by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Both were rounded up by Metropolitan Washington Police using a controversial technique known as a “kettle.” This involves police creating a cordon around the entire protest and then swooping in and arresting everyone within the designated area – including journalists or bystanders not directly involved in illegal rioting.
In both cases, it appears there was no advance warning by police to clear the area or face arrest. There was just a mass roundup that resulted in more than 230 people being carted off to incarceration and eventually to face a judge.
Aaron Cantu was arrested but not immediately charged. Then on May 30, after almost all other journalists saw charges dropped, he was indicted one week before a key hearing before a federal judge.
Cantu, who is a freelance journalist, has written for the Santa Fe Reporter, The Intercept, al Jazeera, The Baffler and others.
Cantu was covering what is known as the “black bloc.” These were protesters, all dressed in black including face masks, who formed a kind of flying wedge as they moved down the street breaking windows, smashing cars and doing other damage.
It appears Cantu was included because he had chosen to dress in black that day as well, so the indictment charges him with being among the group that was moving through the city.
Cantu isn’t making any statements on the advice of his lawyer, but his editor at the Santa Fe Reporter, Julie Ann Grimm, who hired Cantu in April, spoke to The Little Village of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“His arrest was scary,” said Grimm, “the threat of being imprisoned for the rest of your life for just doing your job and observing the protest is…I don’t even know how to finish that sentence. She said she would be nervous about assigning Cantu to cover another protest right now but “we’re really not going to let this action by the federal government or by the prosecutors in Washington, D.C. slow him down or to put a muzzle on his voice as a journalist.”
Alexei Wood was there that day on a freelance assignment for al Jazeera, recording video and shooting photographs. He was staying with the protest until the police ordered a call for dispersal, at which time he planned to move away.
He was recording the actions of the Black Bloc anarchists and anti-fascists as they clashed with police, who were firing rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades into the crowd.
That call to disperse never came but a cordon of heavily armed riot police did, arresting anyone in their area.
Wood, who is based in San Antonio, Texas, where he covers social justice movements, now faces five felony property destruction charges and three felony rioting charges. If found guilty on all the charges, he could serve 70 years in prison.
Woods defense will include a 42-minute live-stream video he shot and put on his professional Facebook page during the entire period around the Black Bloc march and the arrests.
In the video, Wood can be seen holding up his hands at the request of police and complying with their orders promptly. There is nothing on the video to indicate he was a part of the protest or that he destroyed any property.
“The Livestream speaks for itself,” Wood told al Jazeera news. “It’s right there for everybody to see…I think it’s a very clear case.”
Wood believes the police were not just seeking to stop rioting or crime but to strike fear into the protesters.
“The state seeks to criminalize dissent by indiscriminately arresting more than 200 people and imposing a slew of felony charges that carry the potential of decades in prison. But it also means if we’re (journalists) too close to a newsworthy story, we could be facing more than 70 years.”
The arrests of the journalists is meant as a signal to other media that they could be next, suggests Sam Menefee-Libey of the DC Legal Posse, an activist group supporting the defendants, according to Al Jazeera.
“Including the journalists in the superseding indictment,” says Menefee-Libey, “means they aren’t just trying to criminalize the resistance of active dissenters but trying to prevent people from getting any sort of description of the events outside the police narrative and characterization of these actions.”
It is no surprise the Trump era began with especially aggressive police response to the inevitable protests against his inaugural. Unfortunately, in retrospect, it is also not surprising that some journalists would be swept up along with the rioters and protesters as a way to signal that the media Trump constantly puts down deserves the same fate as those who broke windows or refused to obey police commands.
A group reported to the Washington, D.C. Mayor’s Office about what happened that day in January and concluded police used riot control weapons without justification and made arrests indiscriminately.
Weapons were used, adds the report, “as a means of crowd control and not necessarily in response to an unlawful action.”
The report also agrees with the journalists that “police did not provide warnings or orders to disperse.”
“The actions of the prosecutor, in this case, are just as concerning as the actions of the police,” says Scott Michelman, an attorney with the ACLU-DC, adding that the U.S. Attorney “is sending a clear message that demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights are not welcome in DC.”
What happens to these two journalists will be a further signal to put a flashing red light in the eyes of all future media coverage. The First Amendment may not be enough of a legal shield when those at the levers of power only care about protecting their own authority.
“Journalists are not above the law and have no right to incite a riot,” says the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, adding: “But the reason for Mr. Cantu’s arrest…seems to be exactly the same as the other six journalists who have now seen the charges against them dropped.
They were covering protesters and were therefore in the vicinity when a few of those protesters apparently threw rocks or smashed store windows with hammers. But being near a newsworthy event is no crime for anyone, journalists included.”
It is a scary time to be a member of the media if you believe in social justice if you think America is a place where protests are legal if you believe that the rights of those who don’t agree with authority have a place as well as those who bow to power.