Six defendants facing decades in prison for protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration have been found not guilty, in a trial that raised serious questions about First Amendment rights in the age of Trump.
A jury in Washington, DC, cleared the defendants of all seven charges against them, which included rioting and multiple counts of property destruction. The defendants were the first of nearly 200 people due to stand trial for their involvement in the 20 January protests.
Jude Ortiz, a member of the Defend J20 team that mobilised to support the defendants, called the decision “a victory for political organising”.
“The prosecutor was trying to claim political organising was conspiracy,” Mr Oritz told The Independent. ”And these acquittals show that that logic is not being bought.”
He added: “Hopefully that will send a very persuasive message to prosecutors everywhere that they’re not going to get away with criminalising protest organising.”
The Disrupt J20 march was an anti-capitalist demonstration that occurred alongside Inauguration-Day protests such as the Women’s March and the “Trump 420” protest in Dupont Circle. Unlike participants in these other protests, however, hundreds of Disrupt J20 demonstrators were arrested for their participation.
In the late morning of 20 January, DC Police surrounded and arrested more than 200 of the participants in a tactic known as kettling. Authorities claim some of the participants had broken windows, thrown chairs, and even assaulted a limousine driver, according to an indictment.
In their opening arguments, however, the prosecution conceded they had no evidence that any of the first six defendants engaged in any of the property destruction themselves. Instead, the state urged jurors to convict based on the defendant’s participation in the march itself.
“Each of them made a choice, and each of them played a role,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff told jurors of the defendants, according to the Huffington Post. “You don’t personally have to be the one who breaks the window to be guilty of rioting.”
One of the defendants, Britt Lawson, was a registered nurse who said she attended the event to provide medic services to anyone injured. The prosecution claimed Ms Lawson’s bag of medical supplies was evidence that the nurse had come ”prepared for war”.
Another defendant, photojournalist Alexei Wood, said he was reporting on the event when he was arrested. The prosecution claimed his occasional cheers – which can be heard in his own, livestreamed video of the protest – were evidence of his active participation.
After the jury handed down their decision on Thursday, Mr Wood declared the verdict “a direct-action push-back against Trump’s anti-free-press rhetoric”.
“I am excited about people being able to speak freely, and being able to report the best they can,” he told The Independent.
Multiple people in the courtroom burst into tears when Mr Wood, Ms Lawson, and their four co-defendants were cleared. Several of the 186 other defendants who have yet to stand trial were also in the courtroom that day. While their futures are less certain, observers said many of them celebrated along with the six who were cleared.
“It’s been rare in 2017 to have tears of joy,” Mr Ortiz said. ”So to hear every ‘not guilty’, one after the other....People were just sobbing out of joy and surprise.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies