By S.J. Harper
On January 20th, 2017, Elizabeth Lagesse ran through the streets of our nation’s capital, fleeing the cloud of pepper spray that the Metropolitan police department had used indiscriminately to chase over 200 people into confinement. After nearly 10 hours without relief from the chemical, or access to food, water, or restrooms, Lagesse found herself facing more than 50 years in prison. Prosecutors have pressed a slew of felony rioting charges against her, even as they acknowledge that Lagesse was not personally responsible for any act of vandalism or violence.
On April 25th, she filed a motion to drop the charges, citing the precedent set by the 129 nearly identical cases that have already been dropped. Lagesse’s motion argues that the zealousness of her prosecutors is a vengeful response to her participation in the civil suit that the ACLU has filed against the Metropolitan Police department and the District of Columbia regarding police treatment of protesters on the day of the inauguration, known widely as J20.
Lagesse and three others who were arrested during the inaugural demonstrations are among the plaintiffs in a case that the ACLU has filed against the District of Columbia and 150 individual police officers. The allegations against the officers include the the use of pepper spray and flash grenades against innocent people, denial of due process of arrestees who were confined for extended periods of time before being processed and charged, and the intentional use of rectal searches as a form of psychological torture. Plaintiffs Shay Horse and Milo Gonzalez, who were subjected to public rectal searches by a team of officers who openly laughed at their humiliation, have both said that the searches amount to rape.
In the ACLU complaint, plaintiffs graphically describe how police molested them. “Without warning, Defendant Officer John Doe 150 grabbed Mr. Horse’s testicles and yanked on them. He then put his finger into Mr. Horse’s rectum, through his underwear. As Defendant Officer John Doe 150 pushed his finger into Mr. Horse’s rectum, he ordered Mr. Horse not to flinch.” The officer, identified as John Doe 150, then did the same thing to another plaintiff, Milo Gonzalez, and others. According to the complaint, five to 10 other officers watched this and some of them laughed. “Defendant Officer John Doe 150 did not change gloves when he moved from one individual to the next”. While the ACLU’s complaint may seem shocking, the abuses it describes occur within the context of a political atmosphere that has become increasingly permissive of police violence. The Metropolitan Police Department used rape to punish citizens who protested the inauguration of a president who has often encouraged police violence.
Gonzalez is both a plaintiff in the ACLU’s suit and is among the 59 protesters who still face charges. Lagesse believes that the continued charges against Gonzalez, as well as those against her fiance, Michael Webermann, are vindictive. Lagesse says that Weberman is known to the prosecution as her romantic partner, and is in no other way distinguishable from the 129 defendants who have seen their charges dropped. Like Lagesse, Webermann and Gonzalez could spend more than 50 years in prison though they have not been accused of violence or even property destruction.
While Lagesse acts as a plaintiff in the case against the MPD, she still must contend with the charges levied against her when she was arrested. Prosecutors have claimed that every individual who was at the intersection of 12th and L streets just prior to their confinement was part of a conspiracy and is responsible for all of the property destruction that occurred that day.
In January of 2018, six defendants were found not guilty after Commander Keith Deville testified that when protesters where confined and arrested that he “wasn’t differentiating who was demonstrating and who was rioting.” Prosecutors then announced that they would redirect their efforts only towards defendants who:
“(1) engaged in identifiable acts of destruction, violence, or other assaulting conduct; (2) participated in the planning of the violence and destruction; and/or (3) engaged in conduct that demonstrates a knowing and intentional use of the black-bloc tactic on January 20, 2017, to perpetrate, aid or abet violence and destruction.”
Lagesse says that prosecutors have not revealed any evidence that her actions fall into the three categories. “They’re not saying that I’ve gone to a planning meeting, they’re not saying that I’ve engaged in any acts of violence or property destruction and they’re not saying that I had any specific knowledge of black bock tactics,” she said over the phone.
According to an e-mail exchange included in Lagasse’s motion, prosecutors allege that footage shows that when some of the confined protesters tried to escape the police who circled them, Lagesse was “charging/running at the police” to attempt escape. Her defence maintains that she was pushed forward by the momentum of the crowd. Her attorney argues that even were she attempting to flee police, such an act does not fall under any of the three categories marked for continued prosecution.
Despite the prosecution’s statement that they would narrow the scope of their focus, they have re-introduced the argument that all protesters in black clothing or carrying protection from pepper spray are guilty of using the black bloc tactic to aid in destruction. On April 27th, prosecutors submitted a Notice of Intent to Admit Expert Testimony, introducing FBI employee Christina Williams, who believes that black-block participants who do not personally commit crimes are indispensable to the success of the tactic.
Lagesse argues that it’s unreasonable to assume a person is guilty of a crime solely because there were nearby when the crime occured. “There are sports riots where people aren’t doing any of this important political speech activity,” she said. ”No one thinks that when a sports celebration turns into a riot that all of the fans are obligated to leave immediately if someone does something ridiculous.”
The prosecutor, The US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, has declined to comment.
Of the 217 people confined and arrested on the day of the inauguration, one has already served four months in prison after pleading guilty to throwing a rock through the window of a Bank of America. Six defendants were cleared of all charges in December of 2017 after prosecutors failed to prove that their presence at the protest was synonymous with intent to riot. That precedent resulted in the dismissal of charges against the 129 defendants who were considered to be outside of the purview of the three aforementioned categories.
Lageese has expressed concern that the unprecedentedly harsh jail sentences levied against peaceful protesters could be symptomatic of a growing culture of authoritarianism that is antithetical to democratic values.
“The US Attorney for the District of Columbia, the person who was ultimately responsible for this prosecution, was a direct appointee of Donald Trump,” she said. ”We’ve gone in a direction thats anti-first amendment, anti-protest, and authoritarian. Even if this isn’t directly connected to Trump, I think it’s pretty clear that police are more emboldened to behave badly and prosecutors are being encouraged explicitly by the Department of Justice and Jeff Sessions to really push how much they can get with.”