Even when heavily armed riot police closed off a square block and surrounded protesters, media workers and legal observers alike, independent journalist Alexei Wood did not realise he was about to be arrested, Reuters reports
“It didn’t even cross my mind that was what was happening,” the 37-year-old photographer and videographer told Al Jazeera. “I was waiting for an order of dispersal and the mass of people showed no sign of resistance when the police completely surrounded them.”
Yet on that day, January 20, protesters and observers say the order to disperse never came, and more than 230 people were arrested during protests against the inauguration of right-wing US President Donald Trump.
Like other media workers who travelled to the capital from across the country for Trump’s inauguration, Wood was covering the mass protests that gripped the city. Most of the protests that took place in the city that day passed without violence or mass arrests. Wood, however, was scooped up by police during the anti-fascist bloc’s march.
The arrests came after Black Bloc anarchists and anti-fascists clashed with police. Officers fired a volley of rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters and launched concussion grenades into the crowd.
By the end of the day, the windows of cafes, restaurants and banks had been broken. The US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia claims that more than $100,000 in damage was inflicted upon property, cars and buildings.
Most of the 230 people arrested were the following day charged with felony rioting – charges that carry a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of $25,000. Among them were Wood and other journalists.
A handful of arrested journalists, including Alex Rubinstein of RT and Evan Engle of Vocativ, subsequently had the charges against them dropped.
Facing decades behind bars
But on April 27, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia returned a superseding indictment which added additional charges for some 212 defendants, three of whom had not previously been charged.
Along with fellow journalist Aaron Cantu, Wood was given additional charges.
Cantu has reported for a wide range of outlets, including the now defunct Al Jazeera America, the Baffler and The Intercept, and is currently employed as a staff writer at the Santa Fe Reporter in New Mexico. At the time of his arrest, he was working on a freelance basis and had reportedly pitched the story to VICE News.
With new felony charges – including urging to riot, conspiracy to riot and destruction of property – many of the defendants are facing between 70 and 80 years behind bars.
Tallied together, Wood potentially faces more than 70 years behind bars for five felony property destruction charges and three felony rioting charges. He will have his second status hearing later this month.
Cantu, who pleaded not guilty in recent weeks, also faces charges that carry more than 70 years in prison, despite court documents not naming him in any individual acts of violence or vandalism.
Based in San Antonio, Texas, Wood’s work focuses on social justice struggles and resistance movements.
Speaking to Al Jazeera by email, Jelahn Stewart of the US Attorney’s Office for DC declined to comment at present. The Metropolitan Police Department also refused to comment.
Wood said that the implications of the defendants’ cases “are humungous for striking fear into protesters. The state is not just going after window-breakers, which in itself may not be justified”.
“Instead, the state seeks to criminalise dissent by indiscriminately arresting more than 200 people and imposing a slew of felony charges that carry the potential of decades in prison,” Wood continued. “But it also means if we’re [journalists] too close to a newsworthy story, we could be facing more than 70 years.”
During the anti-fascist march, Wood broadcasted a livestream video on his professional Facebook page. “I used that platform to provide uninterrupted, unedited and live coverage,” he recalled.
Throughout the 42-minute video on his Facebook page, Wood provided commentary, often shouting excitedly. In one part, he addressed his audience: “I hope y’all are f***ing watching this. You’re idiots if you’re not.”
The video followed the black-clad anarchists and anti-fascists as they marched through the streets, periodically chanting: “Whose streets? Our streets.”
In other parts, they sang: “One, two, three, f*** the bourgeoisie. Four, five, six, f*** the bourgeoisie.” Others screamed “f*** capitalism” as they launched projectiles and swung bars at the windows of a Bank of America branch.
A masked man covered from head-to-toe in black stopped and spray painted on a wall: “Revolution or death.” A group of marchers veered off the path for a moment to batter the window of a limousine, leaving broken glass behind them.
The bloc eventually met police, who confronted them with pepper spray, rubber bullets and other riot control weapons.
The video shows Wood holding up his hands at the police officers’ request and complying with orders. Most importantly, at no point does the footage suggest that he was an active participant in the protest or that he engaged in property destruction.
“The livestream speaks for itself. It’s right there for everybody to see. I love that it’s there for everybody to see because I want individual people to see my work and make their own decision,” he said. “I think it’s a very clear case.”
Yet returning to work was initially a challenge and he was only able to start documenting protests again on International Workers’ Day, May 1.
“I had to overcome a bodily fear of police and of being arrested, pepper-sprayed and hit with flashbang grenades,” he said. “It was a big healthy step forward to merely continue what I’ve been doing for years.”
Sam Menefee-Libey of the DC Legal Posse, an activist group that supports the defendants, described the charges as an attempt to frighten those who stand up to the government, as well as the journalists who document protests.
“Including the journalists in the superseding indictment means they aren’t just trying to criminalise the resistance of active dissenters but trying to prevent people from getting any sort of description of the events outside the police narrative and characterisation of these actions,” he told Al Jazeera.
He added: “Nonetheless, their charges make as little sense as the charges everyone else is facing.” Speaking to Al Jazeera by email, Cantu said that prosecutors apparently stacked the charges against the defendants as a means of silencing them.
“The more attention there is to our cases, the more the outrage has grown,” he said. “I’m still learning how to use my voice when there’s so much at risk, but when it comes to journalism, I’m reporting as rigorously and doggedly as I was before my arrest.”
In February, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press questioned the Attorney’s Office’s decision to charge Cantu.
“Journalists are not above the law and have no right to incite a riot or engage in acts of assault or vandalism,” the group noted in a statement (PDF). “But the reason for Mr Cantu’s arrest, however, seems to be exactly the same as the other six journalists, who have now seen the charges against them dropped.”
Carlo Piantini is another of the defendants and was among those arrested when the police kettled the mass of protesters. He is now facing up to eight decades behind bars.
Speaking to Al Jazeera by email, the 25-year-old activist from North Carolina recalled MPD officers using pepper spray and “concussion grenades as crowd control against protesters”.
He echoed the accusations that the government is using the Inauguration Day defendants to intimidate people at a time of increasing discontent with the Trump administration.
“Their [the state] weapon is to criminalise that resistance through mass arrests, surveillance and drawn out cases with excessive [legal] charges,” he said.
“They’re betting that upping the charges for organised acts of resistance will slow public outrage to their unacceptable agenda,” he added. “Our charges are just another aspect of this regime’s desire to crush any opposition that rises against it.”
He added: “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.”
‘A clear message’
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has expressed concern that police pepper sprayed protesters who were already detained and posed no threat to the officers.
Scott Michelman, a senior staff lawyer at the ACLU, said his organisation worries that “police used excessive force against peaceful demonstrators and detained a great number of demonstrators” solely because they were in the same vicinity as people who may have committed unlawful acts.
He explained that the prosecutors have also sparked concern by seeking to impose lengthy sentences through handing out a host of ostensibly harsh charges.
“The actions of the prosecutor, in this case, are just as concerning as the actions of the police,” Michelman added, arguing that the US Attorney’s Office “is sending a clear message that demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights are not welcome in DC”.
An investigation by the DC Mayor’s Office into the day’s events suggests that police used riot control weapons without justification and made arrests indiscriminately.
The report (PDF) said police engaged in “widespread use of the weapons on Inauguration Day, and they appeared to be deployed as a means of crowd control, and not necessarily in response to an unlawful action”.
It concluded that the weapons were used “indiscriminately” and that evidence suggested police did not provide warnings or orders to disperse.
Earlier this month, the DC Council passed next year’s budget, which allocated $150,000 for the Office of Police Complaints to review the MPD’s behaviour and decisions during the mass arrests.
‘Bigger than me’
More than 130 of the defendants have joined a ‘Points of Unity’ agreement, a collective pledge to reject any potential plea deals and reject cooperation with the prosecutors that comes at the expense of their codefendants.
A handful of defendants have made deals with the authorities and entered guilty pleas in exchange for significantly shorter sentences. In late May, 21 defendants filed motions (PDF) to have their cases dismissed. Later this month, more than 50 defendants will have their cases reviewed in a pair of status hearings.
As protests flourish in cities and towns across the US, at least 18 states have considered 30-plus bills designed to curb protests by introducing increasingly severe penalties for demonstrators so far this year.
The bills would strip “the voices of the most marginalised, who often find the right to assemble the only alternative to express their opinions”, the UN report (PDF) said.
For his part, Alexei Wood maintains that he stands in solidarity with his codefendants. “This case is so much bigger than myself and the more than 200 people who got arrested with me,” he concluded.
“This could be precedent setting for resistance movements in general, but also independent journalism in the era of Trump.”