This past week, the trials began for seven of the 230 defendants facing 70 years in prison for protesting Trump’s inauguration. The case has wide-reaching implications for activists, including feminists, and we all should pay attention.
ICYMI: During protests of Trump’s inauguration on January 20th, police used a technique called ‘kettling’ to block off exits to several streets and arrest everyone caught in the dragnet without warning, including 230 protesters, journalists, legal observers, bystanders and medics. They have been charged with “conspiracy to riot” under the federal Felony Riot Act, along with a slew of other felonies for property damage. If convicted, they each face 70-80 years in prison.
The prosecution has admitted that it has no evidence that any of the people who are being tried participated in any property damage. Instead, the prosecution is arguing that the 230 protestors participated in a “conspiracy to riot” because some of them covered their faces, wore black or were medics. The case is potentially precedent-setting for civil liberties, given that the prosecution demanded names and email addresses of the 1.3 million people who visited the inauguration protest’s website and now has permission to search the Facebook messages, comments and friends lists of the defendants for evidence.
The district attorney claims that damage caused by the inauguration protests was about $100,000. (For context, that’s less than the cost of one day’s worth of security for Melania Trump in Trump Tower, Mike Pence’s political stunt at the Colts game, and the cost of locking 230 people up for rest of their lives.)
So why the extreme potential punishments and rush to convict people of a “crime” that did not hurt anyone and resulted in a relatively small amount of damage that wasn’t even committed by the people being tried for it?
The J20 trials are one part of a strategy by the Trump administration and state legislatures to crush dissent using the legal system. We’ve seen over and over again how laws are used to criminalize marginalized people for resisting the institutions that are killing them, and this case is just the latest example. The efforts to criminalize the J20 protesters are of a piece with bills allowing drivers to run over protesters, mass arrests at Standing Rock, the FBI’s categorization of Black Lives Matter activists as “Black Identity Extremists” and a terrorist threat, and the charging of black activists with felony riot charges for pulling down Confederate statutes.
By trying to imprison the J20 protesters, allowing police to snoop through activists’ private social media, and disregarding freedom of press and association, the administration hopes to chill the kinds of political organizing that the state finds threatening — which is to say, the political organizing of marginalized people.
Pay attention to the language the government and mainstream media outlets use to justify this crackdown. Calling the protests ‘riots’ and the protestors a “sea of black masks” is intended to dehumanize protesters and keep us from considering their goals and supporting them. The term ‘riot’ is deeply racialized — black people are called “rioters” for protesting racist police murders, while white supremacists (like those in Charlottesville who caused widespread terror in communities of color and murdered Heather Heyer) are “very fine people”. Damaging inanimate objects is defined as violent, but the state-sponsored murder of black people, mass deportations, and attempts to cut lifesaving healthcare programs are not.
As J20 defendant Carlo Piantini told Al Jazeera,
This case highlights a key issue in our society: That property is more important than human lives, and that windows deserve more respect than our bodies.
It’s imperative we defend the J20 protesters, and that we do so without trying to separate protests into “acceptable” and “unacceptable” based on their respective legality. Let’s keep our focus trained instead on what the J20 protesters were protesting in the first place: the violence of the United States government.
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