They are Michelle Macchio, 26, of Naples, Fla.; Jennifer Armento, 38, of Philadelphia; Christina Simmons, 20, of Cockeysville, Md.; Alexei Wood, 37, of San Antonio; Oliver Harris, 28, of Philadelphia; and Brittne Lawson, 27, of Pittsburgh.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff, these defendants participated in smashing shop windows and pelting police officers with bricks, hammers, and crowbars.
Except there is no evidence they did it.
Some were journalists who just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time.
Each faces up to 70 years in prison.
Wood traveled to D.C. from San Antonio, Texas to document the events of that day, live-streaming protests on his phone and recording them on camera.
But things turned chaotic.
Some protesters adopted black bloc tactics, concealing their identities, causing minor property destruction.
Alex Stokes, another arrested journalist, observed:
“The cops didn’t seem to have any control over the situation.”
Stokes stated the crowd advanced through the city “with no real coordination” until they arrived at the intersection of L and 12th streets. Police, without ordering the crowd to disperse, then employed a tactic known as “kettling” to trap protesters before rounding them up for arrest.
“The cops blocked one end of the street and then followed us in from the other side.”
Stokes, Alexei Wood, and other journalists and observers, were caught in the kettle, and got swept up in arrests.
“It was indiscriminate. Journalists, lawyers, the average protester: Those are the people they kettled, arrested, and charged with felony riot.”
After 36 hours in lockup, Wood faced a felony charge. While detained, he heard the government possessed a list of misdemeanors with which the protesters were going to be charged.
According to civil rights groups, the U.S. government is attempting to use conspiracy to riot charges as an umbrella under which to hold the defendants responsible for any crimes they are accused of committing during the protest.
Defense attorneys for the case concur, adding authorities indiscriminately and illegally arrested hundreds of peaceful demonstrators, lumping them in with those who participated in violence and vandalism.
Attorney Steven J. McCool informed jurors authorities failed to differentiate between those perpetrating the vandalism and the larger group of lawful protesters.
“This case is about our freedom to associate with one another and express political views freely. The police failed to discriminate between lawbreakers and protesters. They may have dressed in black, but they did not behave the same way as the lawbreakers.”
Defense attorney Carrie Weletz added:
“This is not guilty by association.”
Of the 212 people charged, 20 have pleaded guilty; prosecutors have dropped charges against another 20.
For evidence, attorneys for both sides relied on video from cellphones, security cameras, and police body cameras.
Jennifer Kerkhoff argued the premise defendants are as guilty as violent protesters because they continued to advance through the city with them. Other demonstrators fled when they witnessed the violence, she said.
Stephen McCool countered with peaceful protesters “never had a chance to leave” since vandalism initiated before police arrived.
On October 17, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) motioned to file an amicus brief with the court, arguing defendants’ goals were at least partially based on the First Amendment.
The court denied that motion two days later.
Details of this case suggest the charges and possible sentence against Wood and the rest of the defendants are meant to send a message.
Journalist Alex Stokes said:
“Nobody knows what to expect. I don’t know what kind of mental gymnastics they’re going to have to perform in the courtroom to make that seem reasonable. You could murder someone — if somebody walked into downtown D.C., pulled a gun out, and shot a cop in the head — and you could get less time than what these people are facing. There are approximately 200 people facing 70 years, going to trial for six broken windows. This is insane.”
First-degree murder charges in D.C. carry a minimum sentence of 30 years, but these individuals are facing 70.