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The indictment of journalist Aaron Cantú portends grim future for First Amendment

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(Editor’s Note: Aaron Cantú has reported for Mondoweiss and is now facing up to a possible 70 years in jail for his reporting during the Trump inauguration. Thanks to Baynard Woods for sharing this important story with us.)

Dozens of defendants, each sitting with their own lawyer, fill a Washington, D.C. courtroom, looking like college students wearing their nicest clothes for a job interview. It is far more serious than that. They are all facing charges of felony rioting, conspiracy to riot and destruction of property on the morning of Donald Trump’s inauguration, when they were scooped up en masse by police with a controversial crowd-control technique which corrals protesters in a “kettle.”

This is only one of the four groups among the 215 defendants who have been indicted on nearly identical charges. Many had to travel back to the District to be arraigned today.

One man who traveled from Santa Fe is sitting with his lawyer off to the side. He wears a black suit and has a black goatee and identifies himself as Tejano. He looks around the room like he is taking notes. Everyone else has already been arraigned before Judge Lynn Leibovitz. But this man, Aaron Cantú, wasn’t indicted until May 30, just a week before the hearing. He is a journalist, who has written about policing, propaganda, drugs, and politics for The Intercept, Al Jazeera, The Baffler, and many other publications. Reporting from the RNC on the possibility of a Trump presidency, Cantú wrote, “dream darker.”

Now, like the others being charged, he’s facing 70 years in jail.

As various protests spread through the city on the morning of the inauguration, one group used “black bloc” techniques—wearing all black and acting in concert to attack symbols of multinational capitalism in a semi-anonymous fashion—in an attempt to disrupt the spectacle of the event, breaking windows of businesses like Starbucks and Bank of America.

“Individuals participating in the Black Bloc broke the windows of a limousine parked on the north side of K Street NW, and assaulted the limousine driver as he stood near the vehicle,” the indictment reads, “as Aaron Cantu and others moved west on K Street NW.”

These black blocs have received widespread media attention in America since 1999, beginning with the Battle of Seattle at the World Trade Organization summit. A black bloc action is newsworthy. And yet, according to the indictment, Cantú is being charged for moving in proximity to the group he was covering.

The indictment alleges that Cantú wore black and discarded a backpack as further evidence of his part in the conspiracy. Because members of a conspiracy to riot wore black, anyone wearing black, it seems, is a member of the conspiracy.

It is a crazy, complicated, sprawling case involving evidence from somewhere around 200 cell phones and various cameras. The discovery process will take months.

In Washington, D.C., criminal cases that elsewhere would be handled by the state are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s office—so each prosecutor here ultimately answers to the president of the United States. Although the charges were first brought by an Obama appointee, this is a perfect example of what justice may look like in the Trump era. Like the travel ban, it is a grand draconian gesture followed by a lot of confusion.

[During the arraignment, prosecutor Jennifer Kerkhoff expressed concerns about finding herself in a “Brady trick bag,” referring to the law that requires the prosecution to turn over all relevant evidence in discovery. How does she know what material on someone else’s phone might be relevant to another’s case? And how does the prosecution protect the privacy of co-defendants with data that is not relevant?

“Can I just stop you?” Judge Leibovitz says to Kerkhoff as she talks about efficiency. “You brought charges against 215 people.” She does not have to finish. Her look says “so deal with it.”]

Leibovitz set most of the trial dates for October 2018, so that all evidence can be properly dealt with.

“It’s concerning and confusing,” says Christopher Gowen, an American University law professor and partner at his own firm who was appointed to the case. “The fact that we are already here and the amount of resources being spent to get to where we are now leads me to believe we are going to have to sit through all these trials. All this taxpayer money is going to be wasted.”

Gowen says that his client, Cabal Bhatt, was charged on the basis of wearing a bandana on his face to protect from police pepper spray.

As the names of each of the defendants are called—Cantú and his co-defendants all plead not guilty—I think about how I was almost arrested reporting on the same events that day. I watched as the black bloc came around the corner, flanked by police. Trash cans rolled through the street. Pepper spray came out. An officer ran at me with her stick. I held up the media credentials hanging around my neck and and yelled “Press!” and she went around me. I was lucky.

At the advice of his lawyers, Cantú isn’t talking to the press. I ask Julie Ann Grimm, his editor at the Santa Fe Reporter, which hired him in April, if the impending charges makes her more reluctant to assign him to certain stories.

“His arrest was scary, the threat of being imprisoned for the rest of your life for just doing your job and observing a protest is … I don’t even know how to finish that sentence,” she says over the phone. “I think Aaron is nervous about covering protests. I’m slightly nervous about sending him out to them. But we’re really not going to let this action by the federal government or by the prosecutors in Washington, D.C. slow him down or to put a muzzle on his voice as a journalist.”

Still, she says, he might do a couple things differently now. “He will probably try to stay very separate from the people who are a part of the news event, and he will probably wear something like a tie.”

But Grimm is quick to stress that Cantú is not the only one in this case whose rights are being violated.

“We’re all standing up for Aaron, and this affects our industry and our identity as journalists,” Grimm says. “But the larger sort of corralling, the kettling, the mass-arresting is also troubling.”

“Imagining the worst possible future your mind can conjure is an essential step to avoiding a world you do not want to live in,” Cantú wrote from the RNC. “Things are bad, very bad, and we will fuck them up even worse if we can’t acknowledge how very bad they are.”

About Baynard Woods

Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. He founded Democracy in Crisis, where he writes a column syndicated in 20 alternative weeklies and hosts a podcast on national politics. He is the author of "Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff."

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18 Responses

  1. Keith
    Keith on June 16, 2017, 3:56 pm

    “…breaking windows of businesses like Starbucks and Bank of America.”

    The “black block” is usually government assets who initiate petty violence in order to provide the police a pretext to crack down hard on peaceful protesters. The actual “black block” members will rarely be arrested or charged.

    • annie
      annie on June 17, 2017, 3:25 am

      in seattle the anarchists were there. it was a prepared intentionally planned (anarchist) event. albeit people came from all over the world, tribes of indigenous peoples from many continents and the vast majority of the 40k+ crowd was non violent. i was there. when we reached downtown i saw what was going on. the general crowd didn’t join the black bloc (although some did) but they didn’t outright reject them either. they were probably infiltrated (no doubt) but it was intentional to bring world attention and prevent the members of the wto from entering the event. i was with my son who was early teens and i had pulled him out of school to attend the event. first we gathered at an arena at seattle center and heard speeches from people around the world and then participated in forming the blockade. it resulted in 100’s of arrests and 7 years later .. “On January 30, 2007, a federal jury found that the city had violated protesters’ Fourth Amendment constitutional rights by arresting them without probable cause or evidence.”

      the protest was viewed as a success, and worth it

      • Keith
        Keith on June 17, 2017, 10:05 am

        ANNIE- “in seattle the anarchists were there.”

        Yes, and how many anarchists were arrested for vandalism? All of the police were in riot gear, the normal downtown patrols withdrawn. The “black block” broke windows with impunity while the police gassed the peaceful protesters. After the union marchers departed, it turned into a police riot with bystanders being gassed and arrested. I live in Seattle and marched. And it has gotten worse since then. The police have been turned into militarized thugs.

      • Mooser
        Mooser on June 17, 2017, 11:34 am

        “And it has gotten worse since then”

        Kitsap County is the place you oughta be. So load up the truck, and put it on the ferry. To Bremerton, that is. Methed-up fools, crazy bars.

        Sit a spell, take your shoes off. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

      • Stephen Shenfield
        Stephen Shenfield on June 18, 2017, 8:45 am

        I am wondering whether the institution of citizen’s arrest might be used to expose the provocateurs. Provisions for citizen’s arrest vary greatly from state to state, with some states not permitting it at all, but in many states an eyewitness to an offense has the right to arrest the offender, using reasonable force if necessary. Having made the arrest, the citizen would then request a nearby police officer, ideally one who has also witnessed the act of vandalism, to take the culprit into custody. The police officer would presumably refuse to do so and might instead arrest the citizen arrester on some pretext. What would the legal situation then be? Could the police be sued for failing to perform their duty to maintain law and order?

        If this is a viable line of action, then the owners of the stores vandalized by the provocateurs might be willing to give support. Or perhaps they are already compensated somehow for the damage to their property?

      • YoniFalic
        YoniFalic on June 18, 2017, 11:00 am

        Don’t even think of making a citizen’s arrest! In US law POs are shielded from possible liability in case of false arrest by probable cause. The citizen, who makes an arrest, can only avoid false arrest liability in most US jurisdictions only if the person he arrests is actually convicted of a crime. And that is only the start of possible problems. US legislatures really only want arrests to be made by those, who are officially invested with proper authority. It makes sense in a way because any error in an arrest can make conviction impossible.

      • Keith
        Keith on June 18, 2017, 3:19 pm

        STEPHEN SHENFIELD- “I am wondering whether the institution of citizen’s arrest might be used to expose the provocateurs.”

        A citizen’s arrest of some guy swinging a tire iron? Why didn’t I think of that? And since he is breaking windows and not threatening me personally, would I be charged with assault? And when the media supports the government’s spin, there is little to be done. Blame it on Putin?

        Speaking of blaming Putin, below I link to a video of Stephen Colbert’s disgusting red baiting of Oliver Stone during a brief interview promoting Stone’s interviews with Putin. Colbert refers to Putin as a brutal dictator. Notice how everyone that the empire demonizes is transformed into a dictator even after winning a landslide election. Same with Hugo Chavez. “Liberals” are the new McCarthyites. Stone is trying to promote his film therefore doesn’t take Colbert on. Stephen Colbert is a prime example of the truth of Chris Hedges reference to the death of the liberal class. Politics has become nothing more than identity politics, the marketing of labels and group solidarity totally devoid of principles.

      • Mooser
        Mooser on June 18, 2017, 4:13 pm

        “Speaking of blaming Putin…”

        I noticed the Senate just re-affirmed the sanctions on Russia, and proposed making them stiffer. They gave as the reason, explicitly, Russian meddling in US elections.
        Putin would like those sanctions to go away.

      • annie
        annie on June 18, 2017, 5:09 pm

        I am wondering whether the institution of citizen’s arrest might be used to expose the provocateurs.

        i think we might be all over the map on our opinions here. keith said “The “black block” is usually government assets who initiate petty violence in order to provide the police a pretext to crack down hard on peaceful protesters”, which for the most part i agree with (certainly the WTO in montreal when they were busted by a photographer and all the time in palestine to justify shooting protestors).

        because the author referenced “widespread media attention in America since 1999, beginning with the Battle of Seattle at the World Trade Organization summit”, and i participated in that protest i shared my personal opinion, that the black box there, while likely infiltrated, included genuine anarchists who were smashing windows downtown. and as a bystander to that action i thought the destructive actions of the black box anarchists were warranted and served a worthwhile purpose. the summit was shut down and it did garner worldwide attention which i don’t believe would have happened without the dramatic climax of the vandalism. i would draw the line at violence towards people but do i think vandalism to corporate buildings should necessarily be off limits? not under all circumstances, no.

        The “black block” broke windows with impunity while the police gassed the peaceful protesters. After the union marchers departed, it turned into a police riot with bystanders being gassed and arrested

        this is true. the police used the actions of the vandalizers to justify starting a riot with the crowd and making sweeping arrests. the police are militarized thugs at these events. but my point is i believe there are anarchists who vandalize who are not gov assets. in certain circumstances i support them. for example if trump tried to sell off chunks of our federal lands, ie threaten california’s giant sequoia national monument, i would regard eco vandalists as brave national heroes, like the fictional monkey wrench gang. i don’t know if i would have the courage to take that sort of action but i would support it.

        i think the ptb have every intention of placing more and more restrictions on the general public/society and use these eco actions as a pretense to crack down on the public and use actors/assets especially in circumstances when an actual threat is not present. but i think sometimes violence is necessary, especially during a revolution. i don’t believe in all circumstances government forces are the only actors who can morally justify using violence. ie, i would not make a citizen’s arrest of someone vandalizing hewlett packard — i’d more likely donate to their organization.

      • Keith
        Keith on June 18, 2017, 8:40 pm

        MOOSER- “I noticed the Senate just re-affirmed the sanctions on Russia, and proposed making them stiffer. They gave as the reason, explicitly, Russian meddling in US elections.”

        More lies and deceptions! This “hacking the election” meme is a pretext that fools only the willfully blind. Uncle Sam is intent on driving a wedge between Russia and Europe. This will likely succeed. The big loser will be Europe. The sanctions temporarily hurt Russia even as they forced Russia to re-emphasize domestic Russian manufacturing. This latest round is designed to force Europe to buy American oil and gas instead of Russian oil and gas. And Germany is unhappy about it. The oligarchs who call the shots are inherently dishonest and never reveal their true intentions and reasons. “By way of deception” is a way of life for them.

        “Germany’s Foreign Ministry published a sharply-worded press release Thursday from Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (Social Democrats, SPD) and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern (Social Democrats, SPÖ) denouncing the United States’ foreign and economic policies.
        Gabriel and Kern brusquely rejected the US Senate’s measure. The bill was really about “the sale of American liquefied gas and the sidelining of Russian gas supplies in the European market,” according to the two social democratic politicians. That emerges from the text “particularly explicitly.” The goal was “to secure jobs in the American oil and gas industries.”
        (Johannes Stern)

      • Mooser
        Mooser on June 19, 2017, 10:17 am

        “More lies and deceptions! This “hacking the election” meme is a pretext”

        No pretext about those sanctions, tho. Putin would like them reduced or gone, and Trump can’t deliver, which much reduces Trump’s utility to Putin.

  2. JosephA
    JosephA on June 16, 2017, 11:46 pm

    70 years for breaking glass?

    • Keith
      Keith on June 17, 2017, 10:31 am

      JOSEPHA- “70 years for breaking glass?”

      No, for being in the vicinity of those who break glass. The people who break the glass are frequently government assets who will not be brought to trial for these relatively minor offenses. In Seattle, some of these black clad vandals were demonstrated to be youthful military personnel who provided the pretext for the crackdown then slipped through the lines to change clothes. Another example is of pacifist anti-war activists who are put on no-fly lists while known jihadi assets are allowed to fly in and out of the country.

    • Marnie
      Marnie on June 21, 2017, 12:34 am

      Jefferson Beauregarde Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Sessions must be having an extreme case of the vapors with this. What will they do next?

  3. annie
    annie on June 17, 2017, 2:39 am

    i went to new york city for a big protest during the gop national convention in 2004. at least a million people, no doubt. there’s a lot i could write about the “security” aside from the city hiring/importing 10k extra police. the “kettling” was everywhere. the night before the protest we were walking along the street and we came across a large blocked out area completely surrounded by a 10 ft tall chained link fence. we heard it was for the upcoming arrests. reportedly they arrested 1800 people (a moderate estimate lik everything else that day). but the scene — lining the streets on either side were riot police with not a foot between them. it was surreal. the entire protest was “kettled” into a revolving circle coming from side streets and emptying out in the direction of central park so that at no time could the entire crowd be in one place (they would not permit the demonstration to be in the open in a large area). there were photos taken from above but they were not allowed to march in one long line, probably because it would have gone on for miles and miles.

    very strange. it was the first time i understood the US does not want large gatherings, nor to have them exposed. but seeing that block area in chained linked fence the night before…. a human cage, very weird.

  4. Citizen
    Citizen on June 17, 2017, 4:12 am

    Using Israeli-refined crowd control tactics?

  5. Rashers2
    Rashers2 on June 17, 2017, 6:50 pm

    “Kettling” is the controversial crowd control technique whereby protesters are contained or boxed-in by the police or military within as confined a space as possible. It can be particularly dangerous in an urban setting (narrow streets, etc.). In Britain, it has resulted in fatalities (on occasion, of non-protesters). I believe the last death in the UK where the police had kettled a protesting crowd was around eight years ago (London G20?). There has been extensive litigation, some of which went against the police, but recently (2012) both the Court of Appeal and the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ultimately ruled in favour of the authorities. Crowd dispersal carries less risks but then, of course, the protesters can “evaporate” and avoid detention; the police would also argue that dispersal allows for subsequent re-grouping.

  6. Elizabeth Block
    Elizabeth Block on June 20, 2017, 9:02 pm

    There was kettling in Toronto kn 2010 (I think) during the G-20. In the pouring rain. Including people who weren’t involved in the demonstrations, just wanted to get home. It was downtown in a big city, and people live there! Hundreds were taken to a temporary detention centre – it looked like they wanted to fill it up with anyone handy.
    There was also a Black Bloc. They broke windows and burned a police car, which had been left there unattended. When the actual vandalism started, the police were nowhere to be found.
    We don’t know who gave the orders. We may never know. But it wasn’t the Toronto police chief. I think it was the federal minister of justice.
    This was during the Harper regime, and he was probably expecting to provoke violence which would be condemned by the public at large, thus enabling him to crack down on civil liberties. It backfired.

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