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At the first mass trial of some 200 people over the J20 anti-Trump Inauguration Day protest, the prosecutor acknowledged that there is no evidence that the six defendants damaged property. So why do they face 60 years behind bars?

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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The first mass trial in the case of the J20 has begun. Some 200 people face charges for taking part in a protest on Inauguration Day against Donald Trump. Opening arguments were heard today in the case of six defendants who each face about 60 years. Chip Gibbons is Policy & Legislative Counsel for Defending Rights & Dissent. Welcome, Chip. You were there today at the trial. What happened? CHIP GIBBONS: The prosecution, as well as the attorneys for the six defendants all gave their opening arguments. The prosecution, in their opening argument, first focused on these really sort of melodramatic stories about different individuals who were inside the Starbucks or the bread store when the windows were smashed. She started by telling this story about this person who owned a small business that was, I guess the window was smashed. She wasn’t actually there. And she kept mentioning that all of these people went to work that day with this implication that the protesters, I guess, should’ve been at work. But then she kept describing the protesters as being a sea of black masks. She had this argument that they all wore black in order to be unidentifiable and that people would pop out of the protest, attack parking meters or trash cans. She kept mentioning the trashcans were turned over. It’s a very dramatic thing, I guess, in her mind. And they said they would jump back in the crowd. She mentioned that the police followed them for 33 minutes and 16 blocks and did nothing. She seemed to think that helped her case, but every time I heard, “Oh, the police did nothing,” all I could think was, well, must not have been that big of a deal, these trash cans being flown around, if the police didn’t feel the need to act. Though at one point, she mentioned a particular police officer felt powerless to do anything because the protesters had “weapons” in the form of bricks and the police had nothing, I guess. That’s a ridiculous assertation. The most interesting thing to me, though, is that she said, “I’ll be very clear. We don’t believe any of the defendants personally engaged in property destruction.” So, she’s very straight off the bat that these people aren’t on trial for property destruction they did not commit. They’re on trial because, in her mind, the anti-capitalist, anti-fascist bloc was a premeditated riot and that participation in it was unlawful and that everybody who showed up is guilty of a crime. And it got really bizarre because she kept acting like being a medic, there are two medics on trial including a registered nurse, was something nefarious. She goes at one point, “Oh, these medics, they’re not your first aid technician at a charity walk. Oh, no. They had tourniquets and gauze,” as though the fact that the protest had medics at it, that there were legal observers, that there were jail solidarity was all evidence of a premeditated riot. And her argument is that people planned from the very beginning to have a riot. They publicly advertised this riot because, I guess in her mind, that’s what you do, and they showed up and did this. And I thought the defense attorneys did a wonderful job at just debunking this case. AARON MATÉ: Let me stop you there. Chip, let me stop you there. CHIP GIBBONS: Yes. AARON MATÉ: The prosecutor acknowledged that she thinks that none of the defendants engaged in the property destruction that took place that day, so how can they be charged? Because they’re part of a premeditated plot to destroy property? CHIP GIBBONS: Conspiracy. It’s a conspiracy. It’s a conspiracy to commit a crime. AARON MATÉ: What proof was offered for the conspiracy? CHIP GIBBONS: They all wore black. They all attended the protest. They all moved at the same time. There was a police infiltrator in the organizing meetings. One of the defendants, not one of the ones on trial this week but one on trial later on, went on a podcast and said it was a black bloc and his mother would like to be in a black bloc. Just stuff like that. With Alexei Wood, the journalist, her evidence is that he made celebratory remarks and cheers, such as “holy cow,” on the live stream he was doing, which is just, it’s very paper-thin evidence. She would show these videos of somebody bashing a parking meter with a rock, and it looked sort of, okay, that’s not very nice. But in the background, you could just see a normal march proceeding. And the defense actually said, “We’re not going to show you just video snippets. We’re going to show you a video of the whole march leaving.” And when you saw it, it was just a normal march. There was one person with a dog. There was one person who their leg was injured up on a scooter. So, clearly not a violent mob, a normal march. A handful of people broke some trashcans and a parking meter. But beyond that, it was very clearly a protest based on the video I saw during opening evidence. So, I don’t see how the prosecution has a chance, but I don’t want to, knock on wood. I’m surprised this case has gone this far. It’s that weak. AARON MATÉ: You never want to bet against the prosecution in … CHIP GIBBONS: You never want to bet against the prosecution of the United States. No. AARON MATÉ: Yeah. But were you- CHIP GIBBONS: They have a marvelous way of winning. AARON MATÉ: Yes. Meanwhile, you were about to say what the defense offered today. CHIP GIBBONS: Sure. The defense offered, like I said, that video of the first protest. Most of the defense arguments were around the fact that this was First-Amendment-protected march. Their clients did nothing other than participate in a march. They had no intent to engage in property destruction. They traveled here, in some cases, from out-of-state. With the medic, they talked about how she was a registered nurse who helps cancer patients and that she was there to help people and that being a medic is not nefarious. It’s actually quite good. So, the defense argument was, and then some of the individual defense attorneys would point out, “Every time someone mentions property destruction, listen for my defendant’s name.” They were very clear that property destruction did take place and that they thought it was bad but that there was no evidence tying their client to it. One of the attorneys also showed evidence of police brutality, including a police officer knocking someone over, spraying people indiscriminately with pepper spray. One of the defense attorneys was implying that the prosecution had charged them because the arrests were unlawful and that they knew if they had an unlawful arrest, the ACLU would sue them. The prosecutor objected to that and the objection was sustained. The defense also tried to suggest that one reason they may have brought protective gear like goggles and gas masks was because the alt-right and fascists could have attacked them but the prosecution also objected to that as well. I just thought looking at the totality of the evidence, you have video of what looks to me like a march and then you have an admission by the prosecution that there was no property damage committed by these particular individuals. The other thing the defense had that I thought was really persuasive was they had a recording from the police chief on the radio before the first act of vandalism was ever committed talking about how they were going to kettle the march, they didn’t use the word “kettle,” but they talked about corralling and then blocking them off. So it was very clear that the police intended, before the first act of property damage was ever committed, to engage in this mass arrest. AARON MATÉ: You know, Chip, I should qualify my previous statement. You should never bet against the prosecution in the US unless the defendants are- CHIP GIBBONS: A police officer. AARON MATÉ: Powerful people. CHIP GIBBONS: A police officer. AARON MATÉ: Or a police officer or representing powerful people. CHIP GIBBONS: Yeah. Yeah. That is the most- AARON MATÉ: These are protestors who are protesting the powerful, so the odds are stacked against them. On this front, as we wrap, let me ask you, this case has not gotten very much media attention, even though, as you mentioned, a few of the defendants, at least in this first trial, at least one of them are journalists. No matter your feelings about property destruction, 60 years in prison for some property destruction seems pretty excessive. Your thoughts on the relative lack of attention that this case has gotten. CHIP GIBBONS: The lack of attention has been really disappointing. I obviously have been on your program several times to talk about the case. The Nation has given me a platform. The Intercept has covered it. But the attention has been really disappointingly light. I will say on the press freedom front, Defending Rights and Dissent was joined by a number of press freedom groups including PEN America, Freedom of the Press Foundation, The Nation Institute, Free Press in sending a letter to the prosecution calling on them to drop the charges against the journalist because of the press freedom issues. I think The New York Times wrote an article on Alexei Woods’ case. But the coverage has not been very good. AARON MATÉ: Well, we’ll continue to cover it. And, Chip, I know you’ll be following this closely- CHIP GIBBONS: Will be. AARON MATÉ: So we look forward to having you back on to discuss it. CHIP GIBBONS: Thank you for having me, Aaron. It’s always a pleasure. AARON MATÉ: Chip Gibbons, Policy & Legislative Counsel for Defending Rights & Dissent, thank you. CHIP GIBBONS: Thank you. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Chip Gibbons is a Legal Fellow at the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and Defending Dissent Foundation, where he heads the Activism is Not Terrorism Campaign, which focuses on protecting the rights of activists with an emphasis on the increased use of anti-terrorism legislation against non-violent activists and terrorism as a pretext for the surveillance of First Amendment protected activities. Additionally, he is a freelance writer and journalist whose work has appeared at Truthout, Counterpunch, and the Dissent NewsWire.