Moral Low Ground


Felony Riot Charges for 6 Journalists Covering Trump Inauguration Protest

Journalists and protesters scramble for safety after police deploy “less lethal” weapons against them at a protest against Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington, DC. (Photo: ResistFromDay1/Flickr Creative Commons)

At least six journalists have been charged with felony rioting after they were caught up in a mass arrest of people protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington, DC last week.

US News & World Report reports police in the nation’s capital beat protesters, journalists and legal observers with batons and doused them with skin-burning pepper spray during the January 20 protests. Officers attacked a hunched-over elderly woman and a disabled man with a “less-lethal” chemical weapon and repeatedly struck a journalist after he clearly identified himself.

“You are all going to jail,” an officer told a group of people surrounded by police in a tactic known as “kettling.” Police aimed to catch and arrest fringe demonstrators who vandalized property, but ended up netting many innocent bystanders in the process. “Some members of the group were seen fleeing and were able to escape the cordoned-off area,” police charging documents admit.

Numerous journalists covering the protest including two from a local NBC station, one independent journalist and one from US News, were permitted to leave. But other journalists weren’t so lucky. These included: Vocativ producer Evan Engel, RT journalist Alex Rubinstein, VICE, Intercept, and Al Jazeera contributor Aaron Cantu, documentarian Jack Keller and independent journalist Matt Hoppard. The Guardian reports all six were arraigned in Superior Court on Saturday and released to await further hearings in February and March.

If convicted, the journalists, observers and protesters face up to 10 years behind bars and a $25,000 fine.

“The way we were treated was an absolute travesty,” Keller, whose cellphone was confiscated and kept by police, told the Guardian.

“It is a maddening and frustrating situation,” Keller’s editor, Annabel Park, added. “These are people who were there observing and documenting.”

“The arrest, detainment and rioting charge against journalist Evan Engel, who was covering the protests for Vocativ, are an affront to the First Amendment and journalistic freedom,” a Vocative spokesperson said on Monday. “Vocativ will vigorously contest this unfounded and outrageous charge.”

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG), which said 222 people were arrested at the inauguration protests on Friday, filed a lawsuit accusing Washington, DC police of “unlawful use of chemical and ‘less-lethal’ weapons.” NLG, whose legal observers were attacked by police at the demonstrations, condemned the arrests and police property confiscation — many arrestees said they were only given their wallets back.

“If the violence inflicted by police — including chemical weapons deployment without warning in violation of DC law —represents a return to the violence protesters were subjected in decades past, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is clearly following the lead of the Trump administration’s far-right rhetoric and reverence of white supremacy,” Maggie Ellinger-Locke, Washington, DC NLG mass defense chair, said in a statement. “These illegal acts are clearly designed to chill the speech of protesters engaging in First Amendment activity.”

The US attorney’s office for Washington DC, which is prosecuting the arrestees, said it was reviewing the evidence collected from police on Friday. “Based on the facts and circumstances, we determined that probable cause existed to support the filing of felony rioting charges,” William Miller, a spokesman for the office, said in a statement. “As in all of our cases, we are always willing to consider additional information that people bring forward.”

Police arrests and brutalization of journalists are a contributing factor to the United States’ relatively low ranking on global press freedom indices. The US is ranked 41st out of 180 nations in press freedom on Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index, falling under the “problematic” category behind several former dictatorships and Soviet bloc countries.

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