Credit: Photo by Baynard Woods

Democracy in Crisis is a syndicated column, a podcast, and a daily blog.

It was almost like a smaller, less intense recap of inauguration day as socialist Wobblies waving red Industrial Workers of the World and the black masked anarchist ranks of ANTIFA marched up to the line of police officers standing at attention outside the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse in D.C. on May 1.

The demonstrators ended the day of marches and demonstrations for workers and immigrants with a gathering to show solidarity with the so-called 12th and L Defendants—the 200-plus activists arrested here protesting Trump’s inauguration—to demand that their charges be dropped.

“This Thursday, not only were more people indicted, but they added seven new felony charges to everyone,” one of the event’s organizers said through a megaphone.

Last month, a Northwest D.C. residence was raided in connection with the case, and one of the occupants of that home, Dylan Petrohilos, along with several others who were not arrested on Jan. 20, have since been indicted for conspiracy to riot.

“Essentially the allegations against me are based on facilitating a public meeting for public protest,” Petrohilos says over the phone. “Prosecuting people based on participation in a public protest, at the federal level, seems like something that would happen in an authoritarian society. I would say they are a clear violation of First Amendment rights.”

I first met Petrohilos as he organized punk shows and benefits for political prisoners. Now, nearly a decade later, he finds himself on the other side of that equation, potentially a political prisoner.

The couple hundred people arrested on Inauguration Day have been charged with multiple accounts of felony rioting, conspiracy to riot, property destruction, and assault on a police officer. “I think what’s important to highlight is that many protesters are facing 75 years in prison,” Petrohilos says. “For most of these people, that’s the rest of their lives, for First Amendment-protected activity.”

The inciting or urging to riot charges are based on the protesters “not exercising multiple opportunities to leave the black bloc, choosing instead to stay with the black bloc, thereby allowing individuals in the black bloc to commit further acts of destruction.” They are also being charged for bringing “face masks, gas masks, and goggles to eliminate or mitigate the effectiveness of crowd control measures that might be used by law enforcement.”

Although there has been at least one guilty plea, many of the defendants are pledging to refuse to accept any deals.  “Plea bargains such as this legitimize the charges against us, and we will continue to fight our cases and demand trials,” a statement from about 20 defendants reads. “The risk of imprisonment, fines, and probation is far less meaningful than giving even tacit legitimacy to these charges.”

But with the ramped-up charges, the defendants acknowledge that things are looking rather grim. “I wasn’t scared in January,” says one seasoned activist facing charges. “I’ve fought bullshit charges before. I’m getting scared now.”

Many of the defendants have been charged with misdemeanor “assault on a police officer,” many for charging a police line in an attempt to avoid arrest. But one protester, Dane Powell, is being charged with three felony counts of assault on a police officer while being armed—holding  “a brick, rock, or piece of concrete, without justifiable and excusable cause.”

At the same time as these defendants protested their charges in front of the courthouse, another group of ANTIFA protesters in Portland captured the attention of the media by breaking windows, setting small fires, and overturning newspaper boxes. 

But everything in the District was pretty peaceful. During the much larger march, which the IWW and ANTIFA activists participated in before breaking off to come to the courthouse, there were almost two arrests resulting from an argument between a flag-waving protester and a white-collar worker who stole the flag and ran away. Police scolded both parties but ultimately made no arrests.

Outside the courthouse, the organizer continued speaking about the charges. “It’s really important that we fight these ridiculous charges now, so they don’t keep bringing them onto other activists, like they’ve already been doing at Standing Rock, they’ve already been doing across the country,” she said. One protester shouted, “Fuck the DA! Fuck the police! We won’t let them rest in peace!” which erupted into a chant. A second line of police arrived in single file on bicycles and formed an additional line of security between the courthouse and the protesters, who began dancing in a circle. Legba Carrefour of the Dead City Legal Posse was clapping and cheering on the crowd, his silver hair bouncing in the wind, and fist pumping the air as he led the crowd in an anti-capitalist chant. 

“I’m not even joining this circle,” said one of the defendants who came to the rally, fearing that he might be hit with additional charges. 

“It’s clearly blatant intimidation,” the organizer said through her megaphone. “The state still does not have individualized evidence about the vast majority of those that are charged. This is a collective punishment and a way of putting our ideologies on trial, and making sure resistance under Trump is trampled.”