The Washington Post reports on the trial of six defendants who are charged with what the Post calls the “fiery, glass-shattering civil disturbance on President Trump’s Inauguration Day.” (“Fiery” as in setting fires). The trial began today. The Post story was written after jury selection but before the opening statements and the presentation of evidence.
The defendants face felony charges of inciting a riot and destruction of property. Each offense is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
According to the Post, activists backing the defendants are casting the prosecution as an attack on free speech.
“The repression of dissent against Trump has been rife in this case,” the defendants’ supporters said in a statement. The group’s spokesman noted that the four women and two men on trial are not alleged to have personally caused any damage. Instead, they are accused of taking part in a demonstration that they knew was organized for the purpose of wreaking havoc in the city, including costly vandalism.
“This case could have many implications for the future,” the statement said, “as the prosecution is attempting to establish a conspiracy based on clothing, chanting, and the same sort of organizing that goes into any march or protest.”
One activist asserted:
People are being railroaded in this case. What the government is saying to us is, dissent is not an acceptable form of expression in this country, and if you choose to go out on the street and express yourself, then you risk being arrested and seriously prosecuted. And we’re trying to push back against that.
It’s significant that these “activists” cast their complaint in terms of the repression of dissent “against Trump.” Left-wing activists have no problem with the repression of dissent from left-wing orthodoxy. In fact, they regularly encourage and engage in it on college campuses throughout America.
In any event, their complaint in this case is a dodge. The Post informs us that the trial judge has already ruled that to secure guilty verdicts on the rioting counts, the government will have to do more than show a defendant took part in the protest. There must be proof that he or she helped organize or incite the mayhem. Thus, the prosecution is not an affront to free speech or the right to protest. There is no free speech right to organize and incite window smashing and fire setting.
Proving guilt to the satisfaction of a District of Columbia jury may be difficult. The judge dismissed one juror after he said:
You know, you go back to that date, and from where I stand, I’d probably be in the riots, too, but I was busy. You know, to be honest with you, I’m with the cause.
I wouldn’t be surprised if one or more of the D.C. residents who were selected to serve on the jury share something close to that sentiment.
Many more than just six people participated in the Inauguration Day mayhem. The U.S. attorney’s office says it intends to put at least 150 additional defendants on trial in groups of about a half dozen.
Assuming the government has the evidence, that’s good. However, whether this series of prosecutions comes to pass probably depends on the outcome of the first few trials. As the Post says, “if the defendants mostly prevail in the early trials, it is possible that the government will rethink how it handles the rest.”