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The courtroom of D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz was packed on Monday as a jury of 10 men and five women (including three alternates) heard opening statements in the case of the DisruptJ20 protesters charged with felony rioting and conspiracy at the inauguration for President Donald Trump.
The case will be tried in serial fashion, roughly a half dozen of the 194 defendants at a time. On Monday, the first batch of six defendants appeared before Judge Leibovitz, who had to send overflow observers to another courtroom to listen to the proceedings.
A riotous march that began in the morning of January 20 with vandalism by some in the presence of many lasted just 16 blocks and 33 minutes, leaving a path of damage and ending at a street corner where police cordoned more than 200 protesters in what is known as a “kettle” then arrested them one at a time, into the night.
In all, 187 of the 194 defendants face one or more felony charges that each carry up to 10 years in prison, including inciting a riot, conspiracy to riot, destruction of property, and assaulting a police officer. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, 20 defendants have pleaded guilty to reduced charges and prosecutors have dismissed 20 cases. About 25 trials have been scheduled into 2018, the office said.
The case pits the First Amendment right to free speech and assembly against federal laws that prohibit rioting, destruction of property and assault on police. More than a decade after the Pershing Park mass arrests in D.C., which resulted in costly settlements and a black eye for the city, the DisruptJ20 case figures to be a watershed case that Washingtonians, political activists, and constitutional scholars will be talking about for years to come.
Video evidence will animate the proceedings, along with eye witnesses. It also will provide jurors and courtroom observers with a lesson on what is known as a “black bloc” a large group of protesters in black garb with faces hidden behind black masks, bandanas and hoodies intended to conceal their individual identities—and a geography lesson on the neighborhoods surrounding Logan Circle, where the march began, andFranklin Square, where protesters regrouped two times before being “kettled” at 12th and L streets.
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Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff launched into her 40-minute opening statement with the stories of a humble business owner, a limo driver, and coffee shop servers who watched the Black Bloc protesters descend on their places of employment with hammers, bricks, crowbars, and rocks: Mi Kim, owner of the Atrium Cafe, arrived for work to see her windows shattered; Luis Villarroel watched as protesters took hammers and metal bars to his limousine parked on K Street and later set it on fire; and Starbucks employees ducked under tables when they saw protesters destroying plate glass windows with hammers, crowbars, bricks and entire patio tables.
Kerkhoff then showed video clips of police officers who held their ground with bicycles and batons, and described how Officer Ashley Anderson confronted protesters who threw rocks and bricks at her fellow officers without any face shield or riot gear. “Whooo … Fuck it up,” one woman can be heard screaming during a video clip of protesters shattering plate glass windows of a Bank of America branch.
“These are all people who went to work on January 20 in Washington, D.C.,” Kerkhoff said, after displaying graphic video images on multiple screens around the courtroom with the sound turned up. “We’re here today because each of these defendants made a choice to participate in a riot, to be part of violence and destruction.”
The government’s case centers on the theory that by marching with the Black Bloc, defendants intentionally and willfully participated in a procession that enabled individual assailants to commit acts of vandalism then vanish back into the sea of black, only to reemerge and do more damage as the group marched on.
Steven McCool, attorney for defendant Oliver Harris, countered that the case is about the freedom to associate with others and express views in protest of Trump and his policies. McCool contrasted the loud chaos of the prosecutor’s video display with silent overhead video that showed the giant mass of black-clad protesters lumbering down 13th Street, with smaller numbers of protesters jumping out to commit violent and costly acts of vandalism. “Several individuals chose to spray paint graffiti, set fire to trash cans and smash windows,” McCool said. “But Oliver Harris never said, ‘I’m in.’ He did not smash a limo or scare people in a cafe … Evidence will show that it’s easier [for police] to treat everyone the same … They dressed the same, but they didn’t behave the same.”
Defense lawyer Carrie Weletz, who represents Harris’ co-defendant Jennifer Armento, echoed the First Amendment aspect of the case, and pointed out that police have a handbook of instructions on how to deal with unruly demonstrations when deploying pepper spray and tactical grenades that scatter rubber pellets out to a 50-foot radius. However, Weletz said, the police did not issue proper warnings as required by their own procedures. “Those instructions were not followed that day,” she said.
Weletz also asserted there is no evidence that Armento knew about plans to destroy property, no evidence of her destroying property or breaking the law, and no video evidence of where she was until her day ended in the kettle at 12th and L streets, where she waited with a couple hundred others to be arrested and processed. “The government would have you believe that she is guilty of association just be being there and not leaving.”
Opening statements on behalf of the other defendants concluded in the afternoon, and the prosecution began to put on its case by presenting a bakery manager and Officer Anderson as witnesses.