By Aaron Kesel
Independent journalist Alexei Wood faces decades in prison for covering rioters (J20) as they protested President Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20th, Tech Dirt reported. This is a chilling attack on First Amendment freedoms.
According to Wood, a 37-year-old freelance photojournalist based in the American Southwest, he was live streaming the protest which quickly turned violent – videotaping events and uploading videos to the Internet as they happened.
He said the livestream is still online, and shows he did nothing wrong. His only crime was being in the vicinity of “destructive criminal activity.”
“It documents everything I said or didn’t say, do or didn’t do – clear evidence,” Wood said. “Even the judge said there was ‘zero evidence’ I did property destruction.”
Wood is one of nine journalists who, with a group of more than 200 protesters, were penned in and arrested that day. Charges against seven of the journalists have been dropped, while two remain charged pleading for the public’s assistance to help their calls for freedom. Besides Wood, another journalist, Aaron Cantú, also faces charges for doing nothing more than holding a camera doing his job covering an event, The Guardian reported.
Other journalists arrested on K and 12th Streets on Jan. 20 were Evan Engel, a senior producer at Vocativ; Jack Keller, a producer of the web documentary series “Story of America”; Matthew Hopard, a freelance photojournalist whose work has been published by The New York Times and Fox News; Alexander Stokes, an independent journalist who has a show on a public access news channel in Albany; Cheney Orr, a freelance photographer; Alexander Rubinstein, a reporter with RT America; and Shay Horse, a freelance photojournalist whose work has been published by Rolling Stone, Al Jazeera America and other outlets.
A video of the live stream of the events leading to his arrest can be seen below, and nothing in it shows Wood participating in any type of destructive acts against the capital. What it actually shows is him recording others around him committing vandalism against the city and assault on the police, not him participating in the acts.
However, in the video, Wood appears to express support for those engaged in the destruction of the capital. In one part, Wood shouts “woohoo!” as someone tries to smash the window of a bar called Maddy’s Taproom. At another point, Wood appears to celebrate as a masked individual spray-paints “revolution or death” on a garage door. “We’ve got some gra-fee-taaay,” he says, adding an approving “woohoo!” as the spray-painter finishes, Huffington Post reported.
But Wood also says “woohoo!” as police fire concussion grenades. So using the expression against him would be interesting, to say the least.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press say Wood’s political utterances during his documentation of the event should not result in any charges, let alone severe felonies, The New York Times reported.
On April 27, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia returned a superseding indictment which can be read in full here. It added additional felony charges for some 212 defendants, three of whom had not previously been charged, ABC WJLA reported.
According to the indictment, 101 have been charged with a misdemeanor assault of an officer, one in a separate incident. Another person has been charged with three felony counts of an assault on an officer while armed.
With new felony charges including urging to riot, conspiracy to riot and destruction of property, many of the defendants are facing up to 80 years in prison. Other defendants, among them journalists, are facing more than 70 years for their alleged offenses. In short, everyone alleged to be involved is facing life in prison.
When a “conspiracy to riot” describes the act of documenting a riot we are in serious trouble. With over 212 people being charged this pushes people towards accepting plea deals, even if they haven’t done anything wrong. Despite this, prosecutors insist on invoking the Riot Act, which holds members of an entire group responsible for the actions of a few.
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia, Metropolitan Police Department officers, and D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham for making unconstitutional arrests, using excessive force, denying arrested people food, water, and access to toilets, and invasive bodily searches of protesters exercising their First Amendment rights on Inauguration Day.
“The MPD’s extreme tactics against members of the public, including journalists, demonstrators, and observers, were unjustifiable and unconstitutional,” Scott Michelman, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of DC said. “People from all over the country come to the nation’s capital to exercise their constitutional right to protest. MPD’s wanton and vindictive conduct on January 20 chills free speech, which is a vital part of our democracy.”
What this will do is set a precedent for independent citizen journalists or those who are a part of smaller outlets not to cover protests for fear that they will be arrested and charged with a felony. In doing so, the right to a free press unimpeded by extortion and intimidation by the State is threatened. Which means that the First Amendment itself is imperiled, and the result of a potential trial could have an everlasting effect on all of our rights here in America.
This country used to be a beacon of free speech and political expression, that all may change soon.