Two Philly protesters acquitted of charges in Trump inauguration riots

Police spray pepper spray into a line of photojounalists during clashes at a protest during the inauguration of Donald Trump January 20th 2017.

WASHINGTON — For nearly a year, Philadelphians Jennifer Armento and Oliver Harris feared that their lives could be stained for joining an Inauguration Day protest against President Trump.

Encircled in a mass arrest that Jan. 20 morning after some people in their anti-fascist, anti-capitalist march smashed windows and clashed with police blocks from the White House, the two were among nearly 200 charged with felonies — though prosecutors had no evidence they personally destroyed anything, encouraged anyone to do so, or aided the people who did.

On Thursday, Armento and Harris exhaled with relief: A jury found them not guilty, along with four co-defendants, of all charges in the first trial of those arrested that day. All faced felony counts for property damage and misdemeanors for rioting and conspiracy to riot.

Their nearly four-week trial in District of Columbia Superior Court was nationally watched as a test of the boundaries of free speech, and possibly a harbinger for the dozens of people, including several more from Philadelphia, awaiting trials on the same charges. First Amendment advocates worried that the sweeping prosecutions could chill protests.

Camera icon Clem Murray / Staff photographer
Jennifer Armento, a Philadelphia activist, was cleared Thursday of all charges stemming from her participation in a protest march that turned violent last Jan. 20.

Armento, 38, fought back tears as the jury foreman read off dozens of “not guilty” verdicts. Watching from a courtroom row, Harris’ mother, Andree Duhaime, put her fist to her mouth and let out an audible sigh. Her 28-year-old son can now go back to his Ph,D, work at Drexel University.

The room, packed with the protesters’ supporters and some people awaiting their own trials, erupted with emotion. Many cried. In the hallway outside, they wrapped their arms around the defendants and cheered. Outside the courthouse, Harris shuffled his feet in an improvised dance.

“Overwhelmed and elated,” he said. “It’s been all-consuming. It’s invaded every part of my life. It’s taken over my relationships, my professional life, my private life. It’s been traumatizing.”

He plans to go back to his research on lithium ion batteries.

In separate interviews, Harris and Armento said each had no regrets about joining a morning march that featured black-clad protesters denouncing Trump as racist and authoritarian. Prosecutors said the “black bloc” style crowd arrived ready for conflict — many wearing goggles, helmets and with masks covering their faces, some carrying crowbars or hammers.

Some threw rocks or bricks at police, spray-painted vehicles and shattered windows at two Starbucks, a Bank of America, a McDonald’s and other businesses, causing more than $100,000 in damage. Prosecutors argued that the chaotic black mass marching through downtown Washington helped conceal those committing crimes, and charged more than 200 arrested after a 33-minute demonstration that covered 16 city blocks. Twenty pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanors, and charges were dismissed against another 20.

The trial hinged on arguments about whether people who joined the march — but didn’t personally break anything  — could be held criminally liable for the damage.

“These six defendants agreed to destroy your city, and now they’re hiding behind the First Amendment,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Rizwan Qureshi, an Olney native, said in closing arguments this month.

But one juror, who declined to give his name, told reporters after the verdict that prosecutors had failed to show any “intent” by these defendants.

Armento and Harris, speaking to reporters for the first time Thursday, said they had been speaking their minds, unfairly disrupted by police and excessively charged.

“The entire process and procedure was punitive in and of itself,” Harris said.

Camera icon Clem Murray / Staff photographer
Philadelphian Oliver Harris leaving the Washington courthouse earlier this month.

Like Armento, he said he chose this protest for its message.

“I’m anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist and anti-fascist. There was no other march that met those characteristics, so I have no regrets of being there,” Harris said.

Armento said she wanted to join those rejecting Trump, and specifically his “allying himself with fascists.”

“This was the march that chose to march against that,” she said. “That was really important.”

It was one of numerous protests against the new president that weekend, but the only one that ended with widespread destruction or arrests.

Armento said she hoped prosecutors would now drop the charges against others awaiting trial on similar charges. Prosecutors gave no indication they would do so.

“We appreciate the jury’s close examination of the individual conduct and intent of each defendant during this trial and respect its verdict,” said a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington. “In the remaining pending cases, we look forward to the same rigorous review for each defendant.”

The next trial is scheduled for March.