Aurelia Taylor and other employees at the Starbucks at 13 and I streets in Northwest Washington were ready for big crowds the day of President Trump’s inauguration.
Taylor took an Uber to work around 4 a.m. to circumvent the expected traffic and road closures. When the shop opened around 7:30 a.m., the employees served coffee, danish and other breakfast favorites to customers downtown for the festivities.
Then, three hours later, around 10:30, Taylor said a group of demonstrators was walking by when someone threw a brick that shattered a shop window. “It sounded like thunder,” Taylor testified recently in D.C. Superior Court. “I had to get my [employees] to safety as quickly as I could,” she said. Then another window was shattered. And another.
Taylor was among the victims of the Jan. 20 riots who so far have taken the witness stand during the ongoing trial of four women and two men who prosecutors say were part of a large group that protested that day, with some among the group vandalizing businesses and property and violently clashing with police.
Prosecutors have charged 212 people with rioting on Jan. 20. Since then, 20 people have pleaded guilty and prosecutors dropped cases against an additional 20. Trials for the others, in groups of five or more, are set to occur almost monthly through late 2018.
Prosecutors say there is no evidence that six defendants now on trial caused any of the damage directly, but the government said it considers the entire group to be responsible.
Defense attorneys have repeatedly argued that their clients were merely protesting Trump’s election and never threw rocks, wielded any weapons or participated in any vandalism. The attorneys say police failed to identify and arrest the actual rioters and unfairly rounded up the entire group.
Prosecutors are calling Taylor and others caught up in the violence to recount those tense moments in hopes their voices — and faces — will help convince jurors that the defendants should be found guilty of rioting charges.
Prosecutors allege that a group called Disrupt J20 helped plan some protests that pulled in participants from across the country. They said some rioters used “black bloc” tactics — wearing all black and hiding their faces with masks and goggles so it would be harder to identify them. The group was part of an anti-capitalist, anti-fascist movement, organizers said.
Employees from several businesses took the stand in between testimony from D.C. police officers, who spoke about watching a handful of people in the crowd, dressed in black, throwing bricks and rocks and carrying hammers and crowbars.
As the glass windows broke at the Starbucks, Taylor said, employees and about a dozen customers frantically looked for cover as shards of glass showered down. “The customers were crouched down on the floor. We were wondering what was going on,” Taylor recalled.
A video played by prosecutors showed a handful of Starbucks customers getting off the floor, looking out the door and walking out of the shop, some hand-in-hand. For four days, the coffee shop remained closed as the damage was repaired.
Fitsum Menna told jurors she was a little more than three hours into her 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift at the BP gas station at 13th and N streets NW when she saw about 100 people marching from Logan Circle to downtown Washington.
As the crowd moved down 13th Street, Menna said one man broke away from the group, ran to the window she was sitting behind and began punching the glass.
“I heard this loud banging sound. I just tried to hide and get down,” Menna said softly. She testified she then watched another man run up to the gas station and break the window on the front door.
Frightened, Menna dragged a case of bottled water against the door, she said. “I was scared they were going to break the door. I didn’t know if they were coming inside. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Limousine driver Luis Villaroel testified that he could stand only on the sidewalk next to his limo, with his hands in his pockets, as he watched a couple of rioters peel away from a crowd and smash the vehicle’s windows, including the windshield. Villaroel had just dropped off his passengers and had parked at 13th and K streets when he saw a group of about a hundred or so protesters walk by him, many of them wearing black with their faces covered.
Villaroel said he was fearful of doing anything.
“I have a daughter,” he said. “I didn’t want to risk myself.”
Villaroel testified that minutes later, one of the rioters threw an open flare into the back seat of the car. He said he rushed to the limousine and was able to stamp out the flame as it was burning the carpet. “I was very upset. Very angry,” he said. “This vehicle we use to make our living. Now we are one vehicle less.”
Hours later, after police arrested the group, including the six currently on trial, prosecutors say another wave of protesters marched in the city and at least one of them set fire to the limousine, which was waiting to be towed.
Miryeong Kim said revenue at her business, the Atrium Cafe on I Street NW, has not recovered since three windows were shattered.
Kim was not at work Jan. 20, but her building’s manager called her hours after the windows were shattered. Kim said she was unable to sleep, worrying about the cost of repairs. “I was upset. I was terribly worried it would cost a lot of money,” Kim, speaking in Korean, said through an interpreter. She ultimately had to pay more than $6,000 to have the windows replaced and did not reopen her shop until a day and a half later. One window had a logo with her deli’s name that she has not been able to replace, she said.
The first defendants to face trial are Michelle Macchio, 26, of Naples, Fla.; Jennifer Armento, 38, of Philadelphia; Christina Simmons, 20, of Cockeysville, Md.; Alexei Wood, 37, of San Antonio; Oliver Harris, 28, of Philadelphia; and Brittne Lawson, 27, of Pittsburgh. The six face felony counts of inciting a riot and destruction of property, charges that carry a maximum penalty of 10 years each.
The trial is expected to continue at least through mid-December.