After days of deliberation, a jury has acquitted all six of the people charged with felony property destruction, misdemeanor conspiracy to riot, and misdemeanor rioting for taking part in anti-Trump protests in D.C. during last year’s inauguration.
The six defendants have been on trial for nearly a month: They are the first of 194 protestors, bystanders, medics, and journalists to see court time following their involvement in an anti-Trump street protest on Inauguration Day. On the afternoon of the protest, colloquially known as J20, an unknown group of marchers—some in monochrome and masked up in typical black bloc fashion—smashed windows and caused what the state claims was $100,000 dollars in property damage.
That afternoon, police in riot gear rounded up more than 200 people, including legal observers, using a mass-arrest tactic known as a kettle. The D.C. Attorney’s office opted to indict almost all of them. In the 12 months since the protest, many liberal news outlets have been quiet on the J20 trial, glossing over its details or using the shattering of a Starbucks windows as a parable about Violence On The Left.
In August, the venerable Washington Post editorial board dismissed the protests of “serious violations of public order that cannot be considered legitimate dissent,” suggesting the “hype” over the J20 trial was an overreaction.
But as Sam-Adler Bell writes in the Intercept, the trial’s real significance isn’t as much property destruction as a “novel theory of group liability”—namely, the prosecution’s attempt to try nearly 200 people for crimes even U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff admits were committed by a small number of protesters.
“You don’t personally have to be the one that breaks the window to be guilty of rioting,” she told the jury last month. In its attempt to prove that protesters in the vicinity of “rioting” people aided and abetted criminal activity, the state admitted evidence including video taken by the far-right Canadian blogger Laura Southern and the recently foiled Project Veritas, which received $1.7 million in funding from the Koch Brothers last year.
In closing statements, the prosecution compared wearing black and marching at a protest to driving a “getaway car” for a robber. Also at issue has been whether journalists covering protests should know their beats—Assistant U.S. Attorney Rizwan Qureshi argued, in the case of photojournalist Alexei Wood, that even knowing terms such as “kettle” and “black bloc” proved nefarious intent.
Together, the raft of charges could have carried sentences of up to 50 years in prison, and would have had an immediate and chilling effect on Americans’ right to assemble—or to be associated, broadly, with people who protest. The remaining defendants will go to trial in groups over the next year, and it’s not immediately clear how this will affect the more than 180 people left.
This is nonetheless a major victory in a year full of absolutely abysmal news, and we’re glad the jury of these protesters’ peers ended up being some of the last sane people left in 2017.