[Pnews] Anti-Trump protesters risk 60 years in jail. Is dissent a crime?

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Nov 22 14:47:20 EST 2017


  Anti-Trump protesters risk 60 years in jail. Is dissent a crime?

Yael Bromberg <https://www.theguardian.com/profile/yael-bromberg> and 
Eirik Cheverud <https://www.theguardian.com/profile/eirik-cheverud> - 
November 22, 2017


On the morning of President Trump’s inauguration, police trapped and 
arrested more than 230 people. 
were anti-Trump demonstrators; some were not. The next day, federal 
prosecutors charged them all with “felony rioting”, a nonexistent crime 
in Washington DC. The prosecution then launched a sweeping investigation 
into the defendants’ lives, demanding vast amounts of online information 
through secret warrants.

Prosecutors eventually dropped a few defendants, 
journalists and legal observers, but simultaneously increased the 
charges against everyone else. The most recent indictment collectively 
charged more than 200 people with felony rioting, felony incitement to 
riot, conspiracy to riot, and five property-damage crimes – all from 
broken windows.

Each defendant is facing over 60 years in prison.

The prosecution next obtained warrants focused on anti-Trump organizers. 
One sought a list 
all visitors to a website that organizers used to promote Inauguration 
Day protests. A second sought information on all Facebook friends and 
related communications of two organizers, the host of a coalition 
Facebook page, and those who simply “liked” that page.

Privacy advocates call warrant for IP addresses of 1.3 million people 
who visited inauguration protest website an unconstitutional ‘fishing 

Despite legal challenges, a court recently decided to enforce the 
warrants, requiring only that personally identifiable information be 
redacted for “irrelevant” material. This unprecedented prosecution 
follows a drastic change in local law enforcement’s response to protest.

The DC Office of Police Complaints issued a report critical of the mass 
arrest, noting the departure from standard operating procedure and the 
likelihood that police lacked individualized probable cause to arrest 
everyone. This is exactly the type of action new policies and statutes 
enacted in DC were meant to avoid, following a 2002 mass arrest that 
caused the District to pay over $10m in settlements.

Compare this crackdown with the government’s response to the 
pre-planned, armed violence and rioting by white supremacists and 
private militia groups in Charlottesville, Virginia.

There was no sweeping online dragnet to identify organizers who 
conspired to plan, promote, and carry out violence in Charlottesville – 
violence against people, not property.

Nor were all the participants in Charlottesville rounded up and charged 
with felony conspiracy to commit rioting – or charged as accessories to 
Heather Heyer’s murder. Instead, federal prosecutors have done little to 

Online activists exposed the identities of a few white supremacists, 
leading to charges from local law enforcement due to public pressure. 
But there have been no felony rioting charges, no charges of 
guilt-by-association, no police raids, no sweeping investigation.

Other riots have gone unchallenged by law enforcement. In 2006, Steelers 
fans rioted after their team won the Super Bowl, causing over $150,000 
in damage (by comparison, prosecutors allege the inauguration defendants 
caused an estimated $100,000 of damage on 20 January – most of which was 
attributable to a limousine fire that occurred after the mass arrest.)

Police charged some Steelers fans with individualized offenses, but no 
riot charges. In 2015, University of Kentucky basketball fans rioted 
after their team lost to Wisconsin; once again, some arrests, but no 
riot charges.

How do prosecutors decide when to dust off the rioting statutes and whom 
to charge? Apparently, the reasons for the alleged rioting are important.

Sports riots are “people letting off steam”. Riots by white supremacists 
evidently occur with no criminal consequences. And why should law 
enforcement behave differently? Neither scenario threatens the state 

When people stand in opposition to the government, like the 
demonstrators did on 20 January, the analysis changes; suddenly conduct 
becomes “rioting”, deserving of a lifetime in prison.

This is classic content-based discrimination of freedom of speech and 
assembly, and selective prosecution. The state cracks down when it 
disapproves of the reasons why a riot occurs, but holds back when 
rioters are not responding to state violence and oppression. Notably, 
the first time prosecutors used the riot statutes in DC was to punish 
protesters following Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.

All this raises the questions – who gets to define “violence”, and what 
of the permissibility of state-sanctioned violence? Does the state not 
commit violence when it brutally attacks anti-Trump protesters and 
arrests them without probable cause? Does the state not commit violence 
by trying to put hundreds of people behind bars for decades? Does the 
state not commit violence by failing to intervene against armed force 
exacted by white supremacists? Does the state not commit violence when 
it protects hate speech and punishes government critics?

Trials for the inauguration protesters begin mid-November and will 
continue for a year. As media ramps up coverage, do not forget what 
these trials are about – not rioting, not broken windows, but punishing 

  * Yael Bromberg is a supervising attorney and teaching fellow with the
    Institute for Public Representation – Civil Rights Clinic, of
    Georgetown University Law Center. She is also a member of the DC
    Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild
  * Eirik Cheverud is a local attorney and member of the DC Chapter of
    the National Lawyers Guild

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