Six journalists face potential 10-year sentences and $25,000 fines for reporting on inauguration protests
Over 230 people were indiscriminately arrested after incidents of property destruction
Journalists identified themselves, but police refused to acknowledge their credentials
Charges of felony rioting are now being challenged in several lawsuits
Six journalists and at least one legal observer were among some 230 arrested in Washington, D.C., Friday amid protests and mild riots erupting in response to the looming inauguration of Donald Trump.
Charged with felony rioting, each arrestee — including the journalists who were literally doing their job at the time — faces a potential ten years in prison and fines of up to $25,000.
Freedom of the Press Goes on Hiatus
Painting a dark portent on the future of a free press essential to the dissemination of factual information, the arrested journalists had not participated in the property destruction that led police to kettle the group of over 200 people at 12th and L Streets on the morning of the inauguration.
Nonetheless, broken store windows, vandalized vehicles, fires, and various other pernicious acts drove officers from D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department and the U.S. Park Police to target the group they believed responsible for the damages.
Prior to Friday morning, law enforcement seemed to allow a bit of leeway for protesters — turning a guarded but blind eye to mild property destruction in favor of going after the so-called bigger fish. But vandalism continued, forcing officers to use pepper spray and ‘sting balls’ in attempts to corral and control the unruly.
Once those acts looked more like a trail of destruction, police reached a breaking point, and moved to corner the disparate group between a building and a wall of officers with riot shields. Though a few people reportedly managed to escape before the full kettle could be put in place, journalists, legal observers, non-violent protesters, and others exercising First Amendment rights lawfully found themselves grouped with alleged, actual agitators and subject to arrest.
Without warning or orders to disperse, police indiscriminately arrested the entire group. Journalists reportedly attempted to plead with police, offering credentials and contact with their respective organizations to be freed from detainment. Indeed, a large crowd gathered just beyond the kettle jeered and begged law enforcement to free the captives — all of this to no avail.
Questionable Police Tactics and Report Discrepancies Spark Legal Action
Only two reporters with NBC and independent journalist, Tim Pool, were released without charges shortly after being arrested.
Evan Engel of Vocativ; Alexander Rubinstein of RT America; Shay Horse, an independent photojournalist and activist; Aaron Cantú, an independent journalist who has written for The Intercept, VICE, Truthout, and others; Matt Hopard, independent journalist and livestreamer; Jack Keller, a producer for the web documentary, Story of America; and at least one attorney acting as a legal observer, Benjamin Caraway, have been charged with felony rioting.
According to police reports cited by several outlets, the total damage inflicted on businesses and individuals tallied well into the tens of thousands. However, quite a curious caveat was discovered by U.S. News, which reports, with emphasis added, “the charging papers for the mass-arrested group state a property damage estimate in excess of $100,000 and describe a big-ticket limo fire that occurred Friday afternoon in a different location and after the mass arrests took place.”
Facing a potential maximum of ten years behind bars and hefty fines for doing their jobs, their ordeal drew sharp attention from the media and legal communities, and at least one class-action and several individual lawsuits were nearly immediately filed.
Attorney Mark Goldstone, who now represents some 50 of those in the mass-arrest group, told FOX News police “basically identified a location that had problems and arrested everyone in that location,” and the case of serious overreach included “everyone in a single location including reporters, lawyers, law students and non-riotous protesters.”
Jeffrey Light, a D.C.-area attorney who filed the aforementioned class-action suit over the arrests, noted, “What they [the police] can’t do is round up everybody who was there and indiscriminately arrest everybody who happened to be on the block.”
With phones and devices confiscated, Light has had numerous difficulties communicating with the journalists and other arrestees.
“Everybody who was arrested had their phone taken and across the board police have not been returning any of the cellphones or cameras,” Light said.
“It’s hard to get in touch with everyone now because they don’t have their cellphones,” he explained. “What happened here was excessive and unnecessary.”
Mass-Arrest Déjà Vu: D.C.’s Interim Chief Is No Stranger to Controversy
That journalists and legal observers with proper identification were unable to persuade law enforcement of erroneous detention at the scene to avoid being swept up in the mass arrest portends a dangerous foray into curtailment of press freedoms. But it wasn’t the first time D.C. experienced similarly questionable tactics — nor was it the first time Interim Police Chief Peter Newsham coordinated a flawed and indiscriminate crackdown.
“I did not have any concerns that I have seen to this point with the way the rioters were handled,” Newsham reportedly stated.
As assistant chief, Newsham ordered the mass arrest of some 400 people — including journalists, students, observers, bystanders, and other nonviolent and violent actors — during a demonstration against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Pershing Park in 2002.
Payouts from that contentious case total nearly $17 million by some accounts, and subsequent rulings in the matter have further muddied the definition of rioting and provided some flexibility for police.
However, Friday’s arrests are largely viewed as equally ludicrous as those in 2002 — particularly as it’s unlikely prosecutors will be able to prove individual responsibility.
“If they cannot establish individual culpability, it’s difficult to see how they could convict the individuals or avoid a later lawsuit for unlawful arrest,” explained George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who represented student journalists in the previous case.
For journalists arrested on Friday under questionable circumstances, both personal freedom and the freedom to perform the duties of journalism hang in an uncomfortable balance until February court dates or the resolution of pending lawsuits.
Police are still seeking rioters and agitators, and further charges could come anytime.