Donald Trump declared victory in the early morning hours of 9 November 2016 while gripping a lectern inside a Hilton Hotel in Manhattan, blocks from his Fifth Avenue penthouse. Hours later, anti-Trump demonstrations had erupted across the US.
At his inauguration on 20 January 2017, then president-elect Trump’s motorcade and the streets of Washington DC faced a massive protest drawing a line against his demagoguery and agenda with a warning to the nation about the nascent fascism that would follow.
Disrupt J20, or J20, sought to bring “widespread civil resistance” to Washington, with permitted protests, sit-ins blocking intersections and anti-capitalist marches to mark Mr Trump’s first day in office, with demonstrations harnessing a “force that can have an impact on Trump’s ability to claim a mandate, setting a tone of resistance for the coming years”, its organisers said at the time.
More than 200 protesters, journalists, medics and legal observers were arrested in Washington DC alone, not counting the dozens of arrests during simultaneous demonstrations in cities across the US – seven people outside of Trump Tower in New York, 16 in Chicago, 15 in New Orleans, six in Seattle, and so on.
The following day, millions of people across the US participated in the Women’s March, the enduring image of mainstream liberal “resistance” during the Trump administration.
But over the next few years, as press coverage of the J20 protests diminished, the defendants – some facing as many as 70 years in prison for unprecedented felony riot and conspiracy charges – were plunged into a protracted legal battle, supported by civil rights groups and facing a newly minted Trump-era Justice Department, marred by prosecutorial misconduct and relying on evidence from a Trump-backed far-right activist group.
Ultimately, more than 200 cases were dismissed, and 16 others faced trial. Not a single case was convicted by a jury. Twenty-one defendants pleaded guilty, all but one for misdemeanours. Only one person served any actual jail time – a four-month sentence for rioting and assault on a police officer.
On 6 July 2018, more than a year after their arrests, the remaining 39 defendants awaiting trial had rioting charges against them abruptly tossed out by federal prosecutors, capping an 18-month fight that upended dozens of lives through dragged-out hearings and detentions.
A lawsuit against Washington DC’s Metropolitan Police Department alleging excessive force and invasive body searches during the arrests is still making its way through the Superior Court in DC more than three years after it was filed.
Four years later, on another 20 January, the nation prepares for the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, and Washington braces for more far-right violence in the wake of a lethal pro-Trump insurrection at the Capitol. The violence – compelled by the president’s big lie that the election was “stolen” from his supporters – has shaken the halls of Congress and underscored J20’s urgent call to action.
“We protest to set a tone of resistance for the coming years,” DisruptJ20 organiser Lacy MacAuley said in a statement before the protests. “Trump is a sign of a dangerous shift toward fascism, hate and exclusion. Many of us protest because Trump represents a threat to our very existence. Many of us do not have the luxury of remaining quiet through this crisis. We simply must stand up, and stand against what Trump represents.”
Hundreds of people took to the streets on 20 January 2017; a small group broke away from demonstrations and busted store windows and set a parked limousine on fire. Footage of thick clouds of tear gas, smashed windows, graffiti, property damage and black-clad protesters dominated news coverage.
Officers from Washington DC’s Metropolitan Police Department “kettled” dozens of protesters for several hours and detained them without food or water, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the police department on behalf of a legal observer, a photojournalist and two other people who were also arrested that day.
“During the chase and then while detaining demonstrators for hours, police fired pepper spray, stingballs and flash-bang grenades at crowds of demonstrators, journalists, and legal observers, frequently without warning or justification,” the lawsuit alleges.
The city has agreed to settle the case, according to court documents; a decision is expected later this month.
“People from all over the country come to the nation’s capital to exercise their constitutional right to protest,” Scott Michelman, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of the District of Columbia, said in a statement accompanying the lawsuit.
He said that the police department’s “wanton and vindictive conduct on January 20 chills free speech, which is a vital part of our democracy”.
After their arrests on 20 January, protesters made their first court appearances, in batches of 10, the following day. Despite a lack of evidence linking most of the defendants to the chaos, most of them faced felony charges for rioting, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, if convicted. Prosecutors argued instead that the “group” was a criminal body, responsible for one of its members’ actions. In her opening argument in the first trial, US Attorney Jennifer Kirkoff said: “We don’t believe any of the defendants personally engaged in property destruction”.
The Trump administration has relied on the weight of federal charges, rather than state or local ones, against left-wing protests over the course of his administration and during Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the US in 2020.
Federal charges follow stricter sentencing guidelines and typically see higher conviction rates – in 2018, 90 per cent of people charged with federal crimes pleaded guilty, according to Pew Research.
In the years that followed, more than a dozen state and local governments enacted new laws to criminalise dissent. Hundreds of people were charged with felonies following Black Lives Matter protests, which the president sought to identify along with “antifa” as “terrorist organisations”.
On 27 April, the Superior Court of DC returned a superseding indictment adding felony charges to 212 of the J20 defendants, including inciting a riot, conspiracy and destruction of property. Others were also charged with assaulting a police officer. Altogether, the charges carried sentences of up to 70 years in prison, if convicted.
In an op-ed for The New York Times chronicling her experience, defendant Elizabeth Lagesse said: “Unlike more than 90 per cent of criminal defendants in this country, my co-defendants and I have chosen to take our cases to trial. I can’t speak to all of their motives, but I was unwilling to capitulate to a system dominated by petty tyrants willing to win at any cost.”
Another defendant told Teen Vogue: "I think the mainstream media never connected [J20 to] the authoritarianism of Trump and how dissent was at stake – they were never willing to think about what the consequences would be if people were actually locked up, and how it would actually stifle dissent when we needed it most.”
In December, a jury began deliberations in the first trial after DC Judge Lynn Leibovitz tossed out the riot charges that could have landed them with 10-year sentences. But they still faced a host of other charges, including felony property destruction and misdemeanor rioting.
The jury rejected prosecutors’ conspiracy argument and the first batch of defendants were acquitted. Prosecutors later dropped another 129 cases relying on similar arguments.
Following the verdict, the ACLU’s Michelman said the jury’s decision “reaffirms two central constitutional principles of our democracy: first, that dissent is not a crime, and second, that our justice system does not permit guilt by association”.
“For nearly a year, these people have been under the cloud of felony charges that have turned their lives upside down, subjecting them to the anxiety and expense of defending themselves against charges that should never have been brought,” he said. “No one should have to fear arrest or prosecution for coming to the nation’s capital to express opinions peacefully, no matter what those opinions may be.”
In 2018, a second trial resulted in an acquittal and several hung juries.
Meanwhile, the court found that prosecutors had withheld video evidence that it was constitutionally required to turn over to the defendants, constituting a so-called Brady violation. Superior Court Chief Justice Robert Morin sanctioned prosecutors for failing to disclose evidence that the defence argued could exonerate the defendants.
The government relied on undercover video from James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, the far-right activist group that has sought to expose liberal groups with deceptively edited footage. The group had filmed a planning meeting among Disrupt20 organisers. In the edited video, a speaker is heard promising to make the inauguration a “giant clusterf***.”
But a fuller picture reportedly shows an undercover police officer, referencing other organisers, saying: “I don’t think they know anything about any of the upper echelon stuff.”
Defence attorneys argued that prosecutors also withheld 69 other videos, half of which contained footage from planning meetings discussing how to de-escalate violence, undermining prosecutors’ argument. Charges were dropped against 10 defendants.
“The government has succeeded in misleading over 200 co-defendants, their attorneys, and three Honourable Superior Court Judges to believe there were only seven videos in its possession from Project Veritas,” attorney Andrew Clarke wrote in a court filing. “Only by Order of the Court and more recently, its own disclosures, we now know the truth, that the government withheld 69 additional recordings by Project Veritas and altered others.”
Prosecutors also initially sought a massive dump of online data from people who may not have even at the protests. In 2017, the Justice Department served the web-hosting company Dreamhost with a warrant for information related to the DisruptJ20 website, including IP addresses for people who visited the site – essentially a landing page with contact information, media statements and a schedule of events – along with emails from its owners, drafts of blog posts and photos.
Finally, in July 2018, the government voluntarily dismissed charges against the remaining defendants “in light of the results of the cases brought to trial” – effectively ending the government’s year-long effort to imprison protesters.
The motion dismissing the remaining charges said simply: “After further review, the United States, in the exercise of its discretion, has determined that these matters should be dismissed without prejudice.”
In a statement, the US Attorney’s Office in DC acknowledged its inability to secure any trial verdicts from the mass arrests.
“The destruction that occurred during these criminal acts was in sharp contrast to the peaceful demonstrations and gatherings that took place over the Inauguration weekend in the District of Columbia, and created a danger for all who were nearby,” the office said. “In light of the results of the cases brought to trial, however, the US Attorney’s Office has now moved to dismiss charges against the remaining 38 defendants in this matter.”
Then-chief of DC’s Metropolitan Police Department Peter Newsham said in a statement that “in the American criminal justice system, sometimes the bad guys win.
“That’s what happened in this case,” he said.
But a groundswell of support and legal aid from antifascist groups bolstered defendants throughout the ordeal, ultimately strengthening the movement undergirding the never-ending protest and actions against the Trump administration and its far-right legion.
Dylan Petrohilos, a J20 defendant whose charges were dropped in early 2018, told the Associated Press: “The solidarity we showed as defendants won out.”
“Solidarity was what won the case,” said Sam Menefee-Libey, a member of the legal support and activist collective DC Legal Posse. “I hope that organisers and people on the left study it.”