WASHINGTON — They called the event “Disrupt J20.”
The idea, one organizer said weeks in advance, was to take to the streets hours before President Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration and turn downtown Washington into a “clusterf–k.”
Publicly, it was billed as an antifascist, anticapitalist march. About 500 people gathered that morning blocks from the White House. A handful came from Philadelphia, including Jennifer Armento, 38, and Oliver Harris, 28.
Most wore black. Many covered their faces and had helmets or goggles. Some carried signs opposing Trump, racism, and a peaceful transition of power.
Chaos came quickly.
Wielding hammers and crowbars, some shattered windows, threw newspaper boxes and trash cans into the streets and hurled rocks and broken pieces of sidewalk at officers.
Eleven months later, Armento and Harris are among the first six people on trial for that morning’s events. Jury deliberations began Friday. Each faces felony charges — although none are accused of any specific acts of violence.
In fact, for them and most of the 188 others awaiting trial, prosecutors acknowledge they have no evidence the defendants personally destroyed any property, or signs that that was their intention.
Instead, authorities say their presence alone that morning contributed to a “black bloc” that enabled the riot and more than $100,000 of property damage.
Defense lawyers and First Amendment advocates say those on trial have been unfairly charged for what other people did. They argue that such sweeping indictments could throw a dark cloud over protest and speech at a time of intense turmoil.
“On the face of it, that is not only a punitive move, it’s a punitive move and it’s meant to be intimidating,” said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor who has studied decades of protest movements.
He said he couldn’t remember another incident in which so many had been charged with such serious crimes at a demonstration. “It’s intended to have a chilling effect.”
‘These are good people’
In the gray, institutional hallways of the D.C. Superior Court, supporters try to bring moments of warmth to Armento and her codefendants, offering hugs, Fig Newtons and juice boxes.
She invariably smiles behind cat-eyed glasses and speaks softly. In court, the 38-year-old wears long dreadlocked hair in a businesslike bun.
To her friends, she seems an unlikely rioter.
Armento grew up in Blue Bell, Montgomery County, and has lived in West Philadelphia for 16 years. She works as a personal assistant to an associate dean at Drexel’s medical school, handling household tasks, errands like picking up dry cleaning, and hiring contractors and caterers.
“Jen’s super power is she doesn’t let anything go to waste,” said Sean Damon, a longtime friend and paralegal who has helped the accused Philadelphians navigate the criminal justice system.
If someone is throwing out a coat, Armento will take it, and find someone who needs it, Damon said. If there’s a half-eaten bag of chips at a party, she’ll get it to someone hungry.
Exactly why she and many of the others were drawn to this particular protest isn’t clear. Prosecutors have not asserted that they are part of a specific group, such as the far-left Antifa.
Harris, tall and broad, with a thick beard, helps cook meals for the homeless and serve them on the Ben Franklin Parkway, Damon said. He’s in graduate school, although friends were reluctant to disclose even that. Like the others, he has a court-appointed attorney, though a broad “Defend J20” network of support has sprung up to offer logistical, financial, and emotional backing for all those facing charges.
“These are good people,” said Damon, a Philadelphian who also joined the protest but was not arrested — a sign, he said, of the randomness of the prosecution.
None of the defendants testified, and most have been reluctant to speak publicly during the trial. But Damon said those who marched generally came to speak up against Trump’s “rising authoritarianism.”
Also on trial are Alexei Wood — a self-described independent journalist who pairs his suits with mismatched canvas sneakers; Brittne Lawson, an oncology nurse from Pittsburgh whose attorney says she was there as a medic; Michelle Macchio, a 26-year-old from North Carolina; and Christina Simmons, a slight, 20-year-old college student.
Harris’ mother has sat in the pews every day, along with protesters awaiting their trials, defense lawyers studying for their own cases, and dozens of the defendants’ supporters, mostly favoring black clothes and tattoos.
Before jury deliberations began late last week, Judge Lynn Leibovitz threw out one of the most serious charges — inciting a riot — but left intact multiple property damage counts and misdemeanor charges of rioting and conspiracy to riot. On paper, the defendants could face decades in prison, though legal experts say they are highly unlikely to get such stiff sentences.
‘They knew what was going on’
In a city accustomed to demonstrations, prosecutors have argued, those charged went far beyond expressing opinions.
Over 33 minutes, the crowd moved through 16 blocks.
Vandals shattered windows at two Starbucks cafes, a Bank of America, another cafe, and a McDonald’s. A BP gas-station clerk working her morning shift hid as rocks or bricks peppered her store. Several people swarmed a parked limousine manned by Luis Villarroel, a 59-year-old driver originally from Bolivia, smashing its windows.
“I was very upset. Very angry,” he told jurors. “That special vehicle is a tool for me and our company. We make our living driving those.”
Wood, who says he was there to document the protest, live-streamed the scene, excitedly narrating. As what looked like a National Guardsman got hit with a projectile, he called: “Homedude got a rock in the balls, motherf—er! Ohhhh my god I hope I got that.”
The crowd included street medics carrying bandannas soaked in vinegar, to combat pepper spray.
Police deployed it in streams, dousing both marchers and rioters. Sirens blared and the blasts of sting bombs and concussion grenades echoed through a glass and steel business district near K Street.
Eventually, police encircled the crowd. Some charged and escaped, but more than 200 were pushed into a corner and arrested.
“There’s no evidence that any of these people are blind or deaf — they knew what was going on,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Rizwan Qureshi, an Olney native, told jurors in closing arguments Thursday. The “sea of black” they joined allowed vandals to blend in after committing their crimes, making the defendants akin to “the tint on a getaway car.”
He noted that there were “dozens” of peaceful demonstrations during inauguration weekend. Few, if any, had major vandalism or mass arrests.
The evidence against Harris and Armento largely hinged on grainy photographs, blown up for jurors and replayed over and over. Each showed them moving or standing among the crowd — but not breaking anything.
More than they bargained for
The monthlong trial has tested the bounds of protest and illustrated some of the very factors contributing to national upheaval: the weaponization of media and information, technology’s unrelenting eye, and debates over police conduct.
The lead investigator in the case, Metropolitan Police Department Detective Gregg Pemberton, spent much of the year poring over hundreds of hours of videos that came not only from security footage, but also YouTube and Facebook accounts, police body cameras, and data from seized cellphones.
Some evidence came from conservative groups dedicated to taking down liberals and the mainstream media. The planning video was secretly shot by Project Veritas — the outfit that recently tried to sting the Washington Post. Those charged found their personal information posted on a website frequented by the far right, which is one reason even their supporters are reluctant to talk publicly.
Wood’s livestream has provided some of the prosecution’s most vivid evidence.
Meanwhile, defense lawyers challenged Pemberton’s motives by digging through his Twitter feed, including his “likes” and “retweets” of posts assailing Black Lives Matter, police critics, and “leftist goons.” They showed an interview clip in which the detective told a conservative news outlet that Trump appealed to cops with his “message of law and order.”
Though the case was largely overseen by an Obama administration holdover in the Justice Department, First Amendment advocates say the law enforcement response suggests Trump’s aggressive tone has already trickled down.
“They did not distinguish between lawbreakers and protesters,” Harris’ lawyer, Steven McCool, told jurors in his closing statement Thursday. “Why? Because it’s easier.”
Lawyers and civil rights activists say police indiscriminately unleashed pepper spray on the protesters, including on some who appeared to be walking away from officers, and held many for hours without food, water, or bathrooms. The local ACLU has sued.
Eugene O’Donnell, a former federal prosecutor and police officer from New York, said D.C. authorities are likely bringing such stiff charges to deter violence in future protests. Just forcing people through the court process is a punishment in itself, he said.
“The power of prosecutor is awesome,” said O’Donnell, now at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If you’ve been to a trial, a lot of people have suffered a lot more trauma than they bargained for already.”
Matt Fitzpatrick might agree.
A 28-year-old social worker from Philadelphia, he is among the many defendants awaiting trial.
Fitzpatrick would like to take a job in a school one day, but doesn’t know if that will be possible with a felony record, he said in a phone interview. The anxiety was all-consuming for months, and still comes in waves.
“It’s kind of debilitating in a way that it’s hard to plan what I want to do in my life, what I want to do for seven or eight years,” he said, “because I have a trial in July and I might be in prison for 50 years.”