Journalists at Inaugural protests charged with felonies
Six journalists await their legal fates after they were among the 230 people charged with rioting during the Inauguration Day events in downtown Washington.
The felony charge of “Rioting or inciting to riot,” carries the potential for 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000. The six were released the following day, each with preliminary hearings scheduled within the next two months.
All were near the #DisruptJ20 protests on the streets not far from where — and at about the same time as — President Trump was being inaugurated Jan. 20 at the U.S. Capitol. News outlets showed smashed windows in businesses and in vehicles in the area. Police charged those arrested with felony rioting, which is used when there’s property damage of $5,000 or more, or serious bodily damage.
According to police reports, protesters smashed out plate glass windows at businesses including Starbucks Coffee, SunTrust Bank and Wells Fargo Bank and destroyed a limousine. Damage caused was in excess of $100,000, police say, and some police officers were injured as protesters resisted arrest; one officer was taken to the hospital and since released.
“Based on the facts and circumstances, we determined that probable cause existed to support the filing of felony rioting charges,” said the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia in a statement about the 230 arrested. The office, which enforces criminal laws in Washington, D.C., would not comment on the actions of the six journalists.
The journalists charged were: Evan Engel, a senior producer with online news site Vocativ; Alex Rubinstein of RT America, the Washington-based channel that is part of RT, the state-sponsored media outlet originally known as Russia Today; documentary filmmaker Jack Keller, independent live-streaming journalist Matthew Hopard, freelance journalist Aaron Cantú, who has written for Vice and The Guardian, and independent photojournalist Shay Horse.
The charges were first reported by U.K.’s The Guardian.
Legal observers and medical personnel were also among the large group that police surrounded before arresting them, said Keller, who was covering the protests for the web series Story of America and the team’s upcoming documentary film on the social-political division in the U.S. called Journey into the Divide in the U.S. He was returned his video camera after being released, but not the video.
“I want to make it absolutely clear, as I did to the arresting officer, that I was there as a journalist and was simply observing the J20 protest,” he said in statement emailed to USA TODAY. “My hope is that the DA will drop these charges-for which they have no supporting evidence- against journalists and observers immediately.”
Press advocates have rushed to the journalists’ support, demanding the U.S. Attorney’s Office drop the charges on those working to cover the protests.
“These charges are clearly inappropriate, and we are concerned that they could send a chilling message to journalists covering future protests,” said Carlos Lauría, senior Americas program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We call on authorities in Washington to drop these charges immediately.”
At free speech organization PEN America, Executive Director Suzanne Nossel said, “By slapping these journalists with felony charges, the U.S. Attorney’s office is intimidating the press at a time when mass protests are expanding and there is a pressing need for accurate reporting in the public interest.”
The blurring line between activists and activist journalists may be a factor in what happens next. Slay Horse also calls himself an anarchist on his Twitter feed (@huntedhorse) and was documenting the protest. The Committee to Protect Journalists mentioned just three of the six journalists — Engel, Rubinstein and Cantú in its appeal; PEN America mentioned them and Keller.
Ben Carraway, a Colorado defense attorney arrested in the incident, filed a class action suit against the Metropolitan Police Department and U.S. Park Police, calling police action an “illegal mass arrest” executed with “use of excessive force.”
Story of America’s co-producer, Annabel Park, said that Keller and the others were held in a cell overnight, handcuffed by plastic ties with little food. “It goes beyond wrongful arrest,” she said.
Representatives from mainstream outlets were also taken in but weren’t charged, said video journalist Tim Pool, who was released at about the same time as them. Pool said he had previously been arrested and held in Ferguson, Mo., for “about an hour” before being released.
Journalists have been charged in past protests, such as the one in Ferguson in August 2014. Two journalists detained then, Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post, were arrested while working as journalists, then released, and charged a year later before those charges were dropped in May 2016.
The Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department “respects and protects the rights of journalists to have access and the ability to report on events of local, as well as national, importance,” said spokesman Dustin Sternbeck in a statement. “MPD members are directed to attempt to identify journalists and to not arrest them.”
Those individuals who presented appropriate media credentials or could otherwise confirm to be journalists were released.”
There is the potential for charges to be dropped. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the office continues to work with police to review evidence and, “as in all of our cases, we are always willing to consider additional information that people bring forward.”
The journalists who responded to contact from USA TODAY directed further communication through their attorneys. Vocativ issued this statement about Engel’s arrest: “The arrest, detainment and rioting charge against journalist Evan Engel who was covering the protests for Vocativ are an affront to the First Amendment and journalistic freedom. Vocativ will vigorously contest this unfounded and outrageous charge.”