During the opening minutes of the trial of six people charged with rioting during President Trump’s inauguration, a D.C. prosecutor described the scene as storefronts were smashed and a car set afire.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff told jurors about a cafe owner whose shop windows were shattered by rocks, forcing her to close her business for days. She described how a Starbucks employee and customers took cover as that shop’s windows were smashed, sending shards of glass across the floor. And she told them about a police officer whose wrist was broken when protesters pelted him with bricks, hammers and crowbars.
Though there is no evidence the defendants caused any of that damage directly, Kerkhoff said, the government considers the entire group of protesters to be responsible.
“All of these people went to work on January 20, who work here in the District, who were impacted by the riot that each of these defendants participated in, each playing a role in the violence and destruction moving together through this city,” Kerkhoff said.
The rioting spanned more than 16 blocks, beginning just after 10 a.m., lasting 33 minutes and racking up more than $100,000 in property damage, prosecutors said. Kerkhoff said about 200 individuals moved “as a group” vandalizing downtown Washington businesses near Franklin Square. She referred to the group as “a sea of black masks.”
Prosecutors alleged that a group called Disrupt J20 helped plan protests that pulled in participants from across the country who converged on the District. 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. It’s a reference Kerkhoff repeated several times during her hour-long opening statement to the jury.
But defense attorneys argued that authorities indiscriminately and illegally arrested hundreds of peaceful demonstrators, wrongfully lumping them together with individuals who participated in the unlawful violence and vandalism.
Each of the six attorneys argued on their client’s behalf. Attorney Steven J. McCool told jurors that authorities had failed to isolate those causing the vandalism from the larger group of lawful protesters.
“This case is about our freedom to associate with one another and express political views freely,” argued McCool, a former prosecutor turned defense attorney. “The police failed to discriminate between lawbreakers and protesters. They may have dressed in black, but they did not behave the same way as the lawbreakers.”
Defense attorney Carrie Weletz argued that D.C. police failed to follow their own protest handbook in rounding up the entire group instead of identifying particular lawbreakers. “This is not guilty by association,” she argued.
In all, prosecutors charged 212 people in connection with the riots. So far, 20 people have pleaded guilty, and prosecutors have dropped cases against another 20.
The current trial could set the stage for the remaining trials, as attorneys and co-defendants crammed into Judge Lynn Leibovitz’s courtroom Monday, busily taking notes as they listened to the evidence and arguments outlined by both sides. Trials for the other defendants, in groups of five or more, are set to occur almost monthly through mid-2018.
During their opening statements, prosecutors and defense attorneys relied heavily on videos from cellphones, security cameras and body cameras worn by police. Prosecutors played videos showing the violent shattering of windows of businesses and chanting from the crowd, while videos played by defense attorneys showed police officers using pepper spray on participants and pushing some marchers to the ground.
Kerkhoff argued that the defendants were as guilty as those who actually vandalized the businesses because they continued to walk with the group through the city. She said other demonstrators left the group when they saw the violence. “It was their choice to stay,” she said.
Kerkhoff said there was video that showed the co-defendants changing out of their black clothes and removing their masks to avoid capture, an effort, she said, that proved they were connected with the rioting.
McCool argued that the protesters “never had a chance to leave” the group as the vandalism broke out and before police descended on them.
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 trial is expected to last about a month.