In a blow to the Trump administration’s efforts to silence dissent, the first trial of people arrested at Inauguration Day “Disrupt J20” protests ended Thursday with all of the defendants found not guilty of all charges. Six people faced multiple felonies and 50 years in prison for just being in the area where anti-fascist and anti-capitalist protesters were marching. During the protest, police blockaded more than 200 people into a corner in a process known as “kettling” and carried out mass arrests of everyone nearby, including medics, legal observers and some journalists. This first case was closely watched as a bellwether for free speech, because one of the six people on trial was Alexei Wood, an independent photojournalist from San Antonio, Texas, whose work focuses on resistance movements. He came to document protests during the inauguration on January 20 and live-streamed the street detentions by police and even his own arrest. Alexei Wood joins us from Washington, D.C., and we speak with Jude Ortiz, a member of the organizing crew of Defend J20 and the Mass Defense Committee chair for the National Lawyers Guild.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. In a blow to the Trump administration’s efforts to silence dissent, the first trial of people arrested at Inauguration Day “Disrupt J20” protests ended Thursday with all the defendants found not guilty on all charges. Six people faced multiple felonies and 50 years in prison for just being in the area where anti-fascist and anti-capitalist protesters were marching. During the protest, police blockaded more than 200 people into a corner in a process known as “kettling” and carried out mass arrests of everyone nearby. Those arrested included protesters, medics, legal observers and some journalists. Many were trapped in the kettle for as long as nine hours, after police had doused them with pepper spray. They were denied food, water and access to bathrooms.
This first case was closely watched as a bellwether for free speech, because one of the six people on trial was Alexei Wood, an independent photojournalist from San Antonio, Texas, whose work focuses on resistance movements. He came to document protests during the inauguration on January 20th and live-streamed the street detentions by police and even his own arrest. Prosecutors played his entire 42-minute video stream in court, noting he could be heard cheering at some points when some of the protesters painted graffiti or broke windows. Earlier this month, the judge in the case cited the video when she dismissed the “inciting a riot” felony charge, saying cheering is not enough evidence to prove incitement. Judge Lynn Leibovitz of the D.C. Superior Court said, quote, “Personal enthusiasm for the destruction … is qualitatively different from urging others to destroy,” she said.
After the not-guilty-on-all-counts verdict came down on Thursday, supporters gathered outside the courthouse to meet the defendants, and held a banner that read “Love for all who resist.” This is Alexei Wood’s attorney, Brett Cohen, speaking after the verdict.
BRETT COHEN: The journalism issue was greater for Mr. Wood. And freedom of speech was kind of there, as well, because—I spoke about it a little bit in closing, that if you just turned off the volume, you don’t hear—you know, you wouldn’t think that Mr. Wood was doing anything wrong. So, a lot of it was about what he was saying. He didn’t come with an intent to be with the protesters for protesting. He was just there to cover whatever he thought would be a juicy story that he could sell to others.
AMY GOODMAN: All this comes as 188 people still face trials over the next year after being arrested during that Inauguration Day protest against Trump, including another Texas native, journalist Aaron Cantu.
Well, for more, we’re joined in Washington by Alexei Wood, the independent photojournalist who just found—was just found not guilty along with his five co-defendants in the J20 case. And in Houston, we’re joined by Jude Ortiz, a member of the organizing crew of Defend J20 and the Mass Defense Committee chair for National Lawyers Guild. He’s been in the court throughout this first J20 trial.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Well, Alexei Wood, let’s begin with you. This is the first time you are speaking out during this trial. It just ended. What is your response? What was it like to hear the 42 not-guilties yesterday?
ALEXEI WOOD: I was in utter tears. I just couldn’t handle myself emotionally. I was just so happy for everybody, that everybody got full acquittals on every single one of these ridiculous charges.
AMY GOODMAN: And how do you feel, your own vindication?
ALEXEI WOOD: I mean, I can—I can woohoo now, but it’s kind of a—it would be a shtick at this point. I feel utterly stoked, you know? I feel calm. I feel grounded. I feel just as innocent now as I did when they were arresting me. And there’s 188 more defendants to go, so let’s get ’em.
AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip of you, Alexei Wood, during your live-stream coverage of the protests during Trump’s inauguration.
ALEXEI WOOD: So, howdy, folks. We got ourselves—let me see how many—three blocks of black bloc.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is a video of our guest, Alexei Wood, filming his own arrest during his live-stream coverage of the protest against Trump’s inauguration.
ALEXEI WOOD: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. I am currently being arrested.
POLICE OFFICER: Put your hands down.
ALEXEI WOOD: Yes, sir. Let me—let me do it so it’s facing me. I am currently being arrested. I am publishing. I will do—I will follow any lawful order you give me.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Alexei Wood, they played the entire video of your live stream in the trial. Talk about that day you were arrested and what it felt like to live-stream your own arrest and what was happening there.
ALEXEI WOOD: Sure. I mean, on January 20th, there was a massive show of resistance to the inauguration of Trump. I mean, it was everywhere. The city was alive, buzzing. And I found the anti-capitalist, anti-fascist march and protest. And I was just like, “Voom! I’m going to go check that out.” And, you know, I started live-streaming, and I just spoke freely. And, you know, I was stoked, you know? I know the prosecution wants me to feel horrific about broken windows or whatever, but like it was so fun, and, you know, like it was—it was, you know, resistance with teeth. And I think this country could really use that.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you feel when Judge Leibovitz said that your own personal cheering, captured on the live stream, was not an incitement to riot, you were just expressing your own feelings?
ALEXEI WOOD: Whoo! Yeah! For sure! That was a—that was a close one. I mean, this is narrative warfare, you know? The government and prosecution has their narrative. You know, resistance movement have their narratives. You know, there’s a lot, a lot of things going on here. So to have something so genuine that I just—I just put myself out there. I didn’t know it was going to be this big, huge deal. And for somebody—i.e. the government—to be like, “You are an evil criminal person,” like it was just BS. But, you know, I don’t know, you just—things get projected on you, and you just have to know your own boundaries.
AMY GOODMAN: Alexei, if you could talk about how you felt your video was used?
ALEXEI WOOD: Thank you. You know, I’m stoked that people can watch it from beginning to end. It became this big old First Amendment issue, press freedom issue. It’s every single thing I did and said or didn’t do or didn’t say is there. That part, I love.
The fact that it’s being used against other co-defendants, I hate that. I hate that so much. You know, it’s a live stream. It’s out there. But, I mean, this was a targeted mass arrest dragnet, where journalists and legal observers—I mean, everybody, and they’re just trying to pin this on somebody. And that is not OK. It’s absolutely not OK.
AMY GOODMAN: How did they get your video, Alexei?
ALEXEI WOOD: Well, I put it out there, you know? The original time stamp is on Facebook. I put it on YouTube. I put it on Vimeo. I mean, I promoted it. I wanted people to know about that day, about what was happening.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, at the time, Alexei, you were even saying things like, “Oh, wow! I’ve got only like two viewers.”
ALEXEI WOOD: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, exactly. I don’t care. I don’t care who my audience is. I’m just doing my thing. And it could be a thousand. It could be two. Like, I knew it was a historical moment, and specifically the anti-capitalist, anti-fascist march and demonstration. It was just like—I mean, people are pissed off. And—you know?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to ask you about the prosecutor Qureshi’s comments, when—
ALEXEI WOOD: Oh, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —when he said in his closing arguments that a street medic was guilty by being present, and asked, “What do you need a medic with gauze for? She was aiding and abetting the riot. That was her role.” And yet, your video, that they wanted to use against you and others, showed police attacking protesters, which showed the need for medics.
ALEXEI WOOD: Yeah. I mean, the whole thing was ridiculous. I mean, you know, even reasonable doubt was—”Don’t put too much weight on it,” according to the prosecution. I was like, “What?” Yeah, a medic with gauze—I mean, just grasping at their narrative of the criminal. This was about protest. This was about free speech. This is freedom of the press. I don’t care if I cussed. You know, like I’m trying not to do it here. I understand. But I don’t care. And that day was so wicked awesome.
AMY GOODMAN: In her opening statement, in this first J20 trial—
ALEXEI WOOD: Oh, Qureshi.
AMY GOODMAN: —where you were on trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff told the jury, on November 20th, quote, “We don’t believe the evidence is going to show that any of these six individuals personally took that crowbar or that hammer and hit the limo or personally bashed those windows of that Starbucks in. … You don’t personally have to be the one that breaks the window to be guilty of rioting.” That was Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff.
Now I want to turn to one of the jurors from this first J20 trial describing their decision-making process, after they returned acquittals on all charges. The juror, identified as Steve, told the media collective Unicorn Riot on Wednesday, quote, “It was not a close call. The prosecution admitted the morning of day one that they would present no evidence that any of the defendants committed any acts of violence or any vandalism. From that point, before the defense ever uttered a sound, it was clear to me that ultimately we would find everyone not guilty. And while there was a great deal of careful discussion among the jurors, it ultimately at no point … did it seem even possible that a guilty verdict would come down. This was not close.” Again, those the words of a person named Steve, a juror named Steve. Alexei Wood, your response?
ALEXEI WOOD: Yeah, Steve! Yeah, I think—I mean, you have to understand that. I mean, they—I got indicted twice, on superseding indictments, so three times—conspiracy, aiding and abetting theory for property destruction. I mean, it was just like mind—it was like five weeks of mind-boggling, like, legal gymnastics, if—or like contortion even. And full acquittals on all of us, you know, like, so I praise the jury for sitting there for five weeks. You know—
AMY GOODMAN: Alexei—
ALEXEI WOOD: Yeah, what’s up?
AMY GOODMAN: —will your video be used in the next trials? I mean, there are trials now for the whole year that are coming up. You talk about the video being used against protesters. But in a sense, didn’t the video also vindicate people, showing the police beating on protesters?
ALEXEI WOOD: I mean, anybody who was filming that day got police beating up protesters and pepper spray. I mean, like, it was—you know, my little live stream that the prosecution is using, you know, they made a big deal about it. They hyped it up. But there was so much video out there, that is all being used as this—in like this surveillance state, like wicked—wicked interesting way. But, you know, like, it was a protest. You know, you don’t like the message? Tough. And here we are.
AMY GOODMAN: Alexei—
ALEXEI WOOD: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we go—
ALEXEI WOOD: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —do you plan to continue to document resistance movements?
ALEXEI WOOD: Oh, hell, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to bring in Jude Ortiz, as we wrap up. Jude, what does this 42 non-guilty verdicts, 42 not-guilties in the first trial, everyone completely acquitted—what does this mean for the more than 180 people who are going on trial in the next year?
JUDE ORTIZ: Well, the full acquittals are a resounding victory for resistance movements. For the remaining defendants, there’s still like a lot of fighting to do, a long way to go. The next trial block has an uncertain date at this point. The next set of series is in January. And then there are trials set from March all the way through October. And so, it’s still a lot of fighting to do, a lot of legal battles and maneuvering. But everyone is feeling very strong and very emboldened like by this clear victory. And we’re looking forward to getting more acquittals in the coming year. And also, people all around the country, around the world, will continue to support the defendants as they fight their charges.
AMY GOODMAN: Each case now has a different judge? And finally, what did the—was the significance of the points of unity that 130 of the defendants agreed upon? And explain that.
JUDE ORTIZ: Yeah, so the points of unity were formed very early on, after people were charged. And that was basically a statement of solidarity and unity together in fighting back against the state repression. So, the vast majority of the defendants signed onto that and agreed basically to work collectively and cooperatively in order to figure out a way of handling their cases that would not aid in the state repression and would not allow the government to pit each other—or each defendant against the other.
So, this was a really historic development, a historic statement in the case. There’s been a lot of historic events that have come up with this case, including this historic victory by the full acquittals. And so, as we move forward into the remaining trials and as defendants continue to fight back and push back, I think we’re going to see a lot more historical developments, and hopefully a lot more historic losses for the state in trying to repress radical-left social movements.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jude Ortiz, I want to thank you for being with us, member of the organizing crew of Defend J20. And I want to thank Alexei Wood, independent photojournalist, found not guilty in the first J20 trial, a very stoked independent photojournalist. Forty-two not-guilties handed down yesterday. All defendants were found not guilty. At the beginning of this trial, a number of them faced 75 years in jail.
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