On Inauguration Day in Washington, anarchists and activists tore through the streets for 16 blocks, tossing bricks at police officers, setting trash cans and a limousine on fire and smashing windows, all in opposition to the new commander in chief.
Six officers had to be hospitalized and more than $100,000 in damage was done, resulting in 234 people being arrested or charged with a crime — among them an oncologist nurse, a UPS driver and a full-time nanny.
But 10 months later, well after the fires stopped and the windows replaced, the arrests are no longer minor side notes. A federal grand jury indicted more than 200 people with multiple felonies each. Nearly 200 still face six felony charges — inciting a riot plus five counts of destruction of property — together carrying decades in prison. The protesters originally also faced felony charges of engaging in and conspiracy to riot, but those charges were dropped to misdemeanors on Wednesday. The first trials are scheduled to begin later this month.
In turbulent political times, the trials will pit government and its resources against those who did the damage as well as frustrated activists who claim they were only there voicing their opinions. Others suggest the government is overreaching and trying to prove a point by charging so broadly.
The indictment alleges all the defendants played a part in encouraging and conspiring to form a riot. Collectively, they’re accused of damaging two Starbucks, a Bank of America, a D.C. sandwich shop and a McDonald’s.
Among those facing charges is Kyle Wright, who on the chilly Inauguration Day stood toe-to-toe with a police officer in downtown Washington as scores of protesters were being arrested.
He was hurt, injured sometime during the fracas in the shadow of office buildings, amid the flurry of pepper spray and fire. The 22-year-old from Chantilly, Va., despises capitalism and views government as an oppressive hierarchy. So, when the officer warned Wright not to step forward — he did.
“A self-arrest sort of deal,” said Wright, an EMT in training, a show of solidarity with those arrested. He received a fine and community service. Months later, he was indicted and has since decided not to cooperate with investigators. Wright explained his arrest that day was “completely separate” from the charges he faces in the indictment.
“I’m the kind of person that doesn’t back down from a fight and this is the state directly challenging me to a fight,” said Wright, who wouldn’t discuss certain aspects of the day for fear of interfering in his case. “Obviously, I don’t want to go to prison, but I’m where I need to be.”
Of the 234 people arrested or charged in the protests, 20 have had their cases dismissed and another 20 have pleaded to lesser charges, often misdemeanor rioting carrying a fine and community service. That leaves 194 people, including Wright, who’ve decided to challenge the charges by agreeing to a trial, the first of which start with jury selection on Nov. 15.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C., which is prosecuting the protesters, chose not to comment on the specifics of the pending cases.
When asked if he’s willing to go to prison, Wright doesn’t hesitate — “Absolutely. I’ve kind of mentally prepared myself for that” — but not everyone believes prosecutors have the evidence to convict everyone.
“The prosecutors don’t really want to put all these people in jail because they don’t have the time or the resources to do so,” said Michael Heaney, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies social movement and protests. “The real penalty there is going through the legal process.”
Elizabeth Lagesse was arrested at the Inauguration Day protests of President Trump. She faces eight felony charges. (Photo: Bruce Press)
Weeks before her arrest, Elizabeth Lagesse decided she’d put her pursuit of a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Johns Hopkins University aside.
She’d move back to California, where her tech and programming skills would be in demand. Now that dream is out of the question — at least for the moment — while she must be in D.C. Superior Court.
“All of this has just been incredibly infuriating and disempowering and frustrating,” said Lagesse, 30. “You get scared for a second, but then the ridiculousness of why you’re scared is so overwhelming that you get angry.”
She said she didn’t commit or witness any violence that day, but was pepper-sprayed and detained for 37 hours. The zip ties were so tight they made her wrists bleed and the pepper spray caused her skin to peel for weeks.
She went to protest the new president and arrived a half-hour late, beginning her march from Logan Circle with a bandanna and safety goggles to protect her from pepper spray. It’s not clear what she did judging by court documents and she also chose not to speak about details of the day. In her charging document, it states she “willfully engaged, incited and urged other people to engage in a public disturbance.”
The ACLU of D.C. is suing 170 members of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), its chief and the city on Lagesse’s behalf and three others. Among the many claims is that police grouped protesters in a “kettle” as the inauguration got started, arresting them without differentiating between those committing crimes and those who didn’t. The “kettle,” as the ACLU described it, involved the police blocking off streets in order to cordon the protesters in one area.
The prosecution “has asserted theories of guilt so broad that they could effectively sweep in anyone on the street that day who either was wearing certain clothes or had certain views,” said Scott Michelman, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of D.C.
Prosecutors allege the defendants aligned in a “Black Bloc,” a tactic wherein protesters dress in black and cover their faces so they can’t be identified by police.