Eight Michigan residents are awaiting jury trials this summer and face up to decades in prison after participating in an Inauguration Day protest against President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C.
When Trump was sworn into office on Jan. 20, so-called “black-bloc” protesters dragged trash cans and newspaper stands into the streets as well as smashed windows at two Starbucks, a Bank of America and a McDonald’s restaurant. Because most were wearing black or dark colors, many obscuring their faces, a superseding indictment alleged in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia that they acted in unison.
An initial group of six protesters from other states started standing trial on Nov. 20, and the court proceedings are continuing. They are among 187 people facing felony rioting charges and potential prison time after the protest.
Police emphasize the property damage that occurred on Inauguration Day, while protesters and other groups point to what they consider severe police retaliation for the actions of a few protesters.
“The police swept everyone up — regardless of intent or regardless of demeanor, including members of the National Lawyers Guild,” said Payton McDonald, a 24-year-old Ypsilanti resident who was one of more than 200 people arrested that day. “These people were attacked and beaten. It didn’t matter. I myself was there to investigate.”
McDonald is awaiting a June 2018 jury trial over felony rioting charges, according to D.C. court records. He has pleaded not guilty and has a court-appointed attorney.
Six others from the state will be tried as a group in July and one more in August, court records show.
Police argue that they have made distinctions between peaceful protesters and those who were arrested.
“Unfortunately, there was another group of individuals who chose to engage in criminal acts, destroying property and hurling projectiles, injuring at least six officers,” Metropolitan Police Departmkent spokeswoman Karimah Bilal said in an email.
“Over 200 rioters were ultimately arrested for their criminal actions, and the bulk of them are pending prosecution after being indicted by a grand jury.”
But demonstrators were arrested for “simply being present in the vicinity of something that is seen as problematic by the state, such as being near people who had anti-capitalistic rhetoric” or those “who may or may not have broken windows,” McDonald said.
To him, the charges are a “trumping-up of the criminality ... simply to create a bogey man to peg us as terrorists, provocateurs or otherwise demonize us.”
“A majority of the people who were kettled were journalists, medics, people who were dazed and confused from being attacked indiscriminately from the police,” he continued. “No one that I saw had committed any act of vandalism.”
Other Michigan defendants declined to speak with The Detroit News.
187 face rioting charges
After arresting more than 200 people, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has dismissed charges against 20 individuals and 20 others have pleaded guilty, according to the U.S. Department of Justice and the superseding indictment. That leaves 187 defendants who still face felony rioting charges related to destruction during the demonstration.
Prosecutors argued in November during the first trials that a group called Disrupt J20 helped organize the protests. While there was no evidence that the first six on trial destroyed property, each played “a role in the violence and destruction moving together through this city,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff, according to the Washington Post.
But groups including the American Civil Liberties Union said the protesters are being indiscriminately charged for the actions of a few.
The local District of Columbia ACLU filed suit against the Metropolitan Police Department and others over what they consider the force’s heavy-handed attempts to control the crowd. The group’s lawyers argue that the police response and mass charges send a “chilling” signal to peaceful dissenters.
An “overwhelming majority” of protesters were peaceful and did not damage property, according to the ACLU, while police used pepper spray, tear gas, flash grenades, concussion grenades and smoke flares to disperse demonstrators. The ACLU said police continued using pepper spray, tear gas and the other nonlethal weapons against protesters who were already detained.
The Metropolitan Police Department said it will investigate any potential police misconduct that day but notes protesters injured six police officers.
Police tactics challenged
According to the indictment, McDonald was among those originally charged with felony inciting or urging to riot near Logan Circle in Washington.
The prosecution argued that the demonstration constituted a riot because the participants wore black or dark clothing to conceal individual members’ identity “in an effort to prevent law enforcement from being able to identify the individual perpetrators of violence or destruction.”
On the morning of Jan. 20, protesters pulled newspaper stands, trash cans and signs into the streets and blocked vehicles. A limousine was also set on fire, the indictment said.
Some protesters carried hammers, crowbars, metal poles, wooden sticks, bricks, rocks and other items that could be used to damage property, according to prosecutors.
Some demonstrators wore gas masks and goggles to protect themselves from tear gas, which can “eliminate or mitigate the effectiveness of crowd control measures that might be used by law enforcement,” according to the indictment.
The law enforcement and prosecutorial responses to protesters perceived as politically radical are becoming increasingly harsher, although muscular crowd control tactics are nothing new, said Michael Heaney, a professor of organizational studies and political science at the University of Michigan.
“This kind of authoritative response to an uncontrolled crowd is a longstanding problem that we’ve had in our political history,” Heaney said. But he said there’s been an increasing “aggressiveness” since 1999 when dealing with large groups of protesters.
“I mean, it is about intimidation,” he said, noting that even if the charges don’t stick, the legal costs alone can be “really debilitating.”
“So if you’re being charged, you’re being punished right now,” Heaney said.
“It’s only once the protestors do not disperse is when problematic issues develop,” said Blaine Koops, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. An aggressive police response is usually triggered by aggression from protesters, Koops said.
But to McDonald, the police tactics and the threat of imprisonment are part of a broader system of injustice, violence and dehumanization.
Protesters were detained for hours without medical treatment or food or an opportunity to go to the bathroom, he said, a point echoed by the ACLU legal challenge.
“We see these formalized apparatuses for criminalizing even just political dissent,” he said. “I was not out there that day protesting Donald Trump. I was out there demonstrating against racism, fascism and capitalism.”