David Griscom

‘With The Eyes Of The World On Us’

David Griscom
‘With The Eyes Of The World On Us’

With the eyes of the world on us, our officers stepped up to the plate and performed.

-DC Mayor Muriel Bowser 

When the police surrounded the activists at Disrupt J20 it felt like there was no escape. Demonstrating against the inauguration of Donald Trump these activists would face the cruelty that fueled his ascent to power. With the DC police behind the demonstrators and a wall of police in front, some charged forward. A few, a lucky few, broke away from the police line. The rest were kettled and faced a long uncertain night in prison. Without knowing the charges against them, without food or water, the activists waited for hours as they were carted off in DC police vans. For some, the horrors were only beginning. An ACLU lawsuit alleges that two activists were sexually assaulted by officers, who stripped them, grabbed their genitalia and inserted their fingers inside of the activist’s rectums, all in front of an audience of laughing officers. The latent barbarity that propelled Trump was given form by a DC city government and a police force eager to impress its new resident. Around a month later DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, officially announced that the man in charge of the police that day, Peter Newsham would officially become Chief Of Police. Mayor Bowser said to the press, “With the eyes of the world on us, our officers stepped up to the plate and performed.” The activists were charged with felony rioting, which carries a maximum sentence of over 75 years.

The police spent the rest of the afternoon of Trump’s inauguration indiscriminately pepper-spraying protesters and launching stinger grenades into crowds. Early in the day, but after the mass arrests, police pepper-sprayed a woman hobbling out of the way and a man who was on crutches. As people ran forward to help them escape they were met with pepper spray. Shop windows, broken earlier in the day, were the justification that police gave for their day-long assault on protesters and the hundreds they arrested. The bruised bodies of the protesters were retribution for the shattered glass. Capital will stop at nothing to protect itself. Its servants are empowered and they will act with impunity. We must be prepared.   

Broken windows, at a Bank of America, a Starbucks, a McDonald’s, and BP gas station, were the justification for the mass arrests and the tactics of the police. The actions that day were the literal embodiment of broken windows policing. People expressing a fundamental democratic right were punished, beaten, and threatened by the police. All those arrested were not involved in the breaking of these windows, all those attacked by the police were not either. But most importantly, those who did participate in the breaking of windows do not deserve to face decades in prison. Decades in prison is not an equivalent punishment for vandalism, no matter how unsympathetic you may be with the protesters. We must refuse any ideology or worldview that believes that your rights can be revoked by association. We must reject any attempt by the state to threaten a virtual life sentence against people for attending a protest.    

Events Of Disrupt J20

The DC Office Of Police Complaints (OPC) released a list of the violent and intimidating acts perpetrated by the police at Trump’s inauguration after the police conducted their mass arrests. It began with the indiscriminate firing of pepper spray into the crowds of protesters standing behind a yellow tape police line near the mass arrests. Among those sprayed without warning were the OPC monitors themselves, even those who were clearly uniformed as observers. Following this, the police began to throw stinger grenades into the crowd, something the police initially denied. These grenades are filled with rubber pellets, smoke, and a chemical irritant, exploding in a radius of 50 feet. They make a disorienting noise that is designed to cause panic. Behind the exploding grenades, the police marched at the protesters with their riot shields raised, pepper spraying those unable to move back quick enough, including an elderly woman unable to flee in time. As the protesters began to run they crossed an intersection where confused motorists had gotten out of their cars to see what was happening. Police threw more grenades that landed near the cars panicking the drivers who appeared to be unaware of what was happening. Later in the day, one “OPC monitor was struck in both legs in multiple places with the rubber pellets from the stinger.” Because of this OPC was ordered to observe the rest of the police actions that day from a distance, preventing them from witnessing all of the police actions that day.

The OPC listed two primary concerns with the behavior of the police at Disrupt J20. The first was the indiscriminate use of non-lethal weapons on protesters, journalists, and bystanders. Many of these were deployed without warning or provocation. The second relates to the arrest of the Disrupt J20 activists. Under DC law police are required to give a warning before arresting a large group of people. Instead, police chased a large group of protesters corralling them, not allowing them to leave. The protesters who were kettled in the corner were tightly pressed against each other. With little food or water, or any place to relieve themselves protesters “rummaged in trash bins for empty bottles to piss in,” according to Sam Adler-Bell in Mask Magazine. The full repressive state apparatus was on display that day.  

But to the media and many liberals the shattered glass, generously insured, was the victim. In the words of Vox writer German Lopez who wrote about the broken windows, “property damage is awful, tragic, and unnecessary.” Such emotion over shattered glass, but where has the outrage been over the 212 protesters, the lives threatened with decades in prison? What of the blanket charges against the activists, virtually a life sentence? The state is threatening the lives of these activists, are their lives the necessary casualties in retribution for a few windows? There was no action that day tantamount to the abuse faced by the hundreds of activists that day and into the future.

Those whose lives are connected to the preservation of a system that exploits and profits from the misfortune of others are indifferent to the abuse. The treatment of the J20 activists and charges against journalists can be seen as nothing else but a threat against the right of free assembly, free speech, and resistance. The voices of the Resistance™ have been noticeably silent as anti-Trump protesters are threatened by the state in the most egregious way.

Thousands of people marched against Donald Trump that day. Being in the vicinity of broken windows does not take away your right to protest or expose you to decades-long prison sentences. But for many liberals, once there is any kind of disruption or vandalism, the police can act with impunity.

The corporate media was attracted to the spectacle, much of it created by conditions the journalists themselves created. It was almost too unfortunate of an accident that the spillover of protesters after the initial police attacks and kettling of protesters ended up in front of the Washington Post’s offices. I cannot forget the sight of a wall of photojournalists surrounding a small trashcan that was lit on fire.

A Scandalized Police Chief

This, of course, would not be the only image, used against the protesters. A limo that was parked on K Street was set on fire later in the afternoon. This limo fire was not started until five hours after the protesters were arrested. Misleadingly, USA Today posted a graphic which claimed the fire was started by those arrested at 10:30 AM and both ABC and NBC looped the videos of trashcans and the burning limo throughout the day. Though this fire started hours after the protesters were kettled and were being arrested DC Chief of Police Peter Newsham, knowingly lied when he appeared on the Kojo Nnamdi Showand used the dramatic image as justification for the mass arrests that happened that day. He made this claim six months after the January 20. Newsham obviously had ample time to study the facts and the entire department at his disposal but deliberately chose to misinform. But it is not surprising that Peter Newsham feels liberated from the facts today. With an unquestioning media that overwhelmingly touts the police line, there is too little institutional challenge on the DC police.

Policing continues to get safer and safer each year, with a dramatic drop in police deaths in the past 30 years. Nonetheless, the police and their conservative allies continue to claim that there is a “War On Police.” This paranoid and revisionist world-view fuels the desire of the police to act with violence against protesters for the slightest provocation. Encouraged by a narrative of their vulnerability, the police met the protesters with itchy-trigger fingers on their pepper spray canisters and a desire for revenge against their perceived attackers.

This was the first major test for Peter Newsham, who at the time was the interim Police Chief. Newsham orchestrated a similar mass arrest in 2002 against leftist protesters, which lead to a multi-million settlement. As is typical with these kinds of figures Newsham has a long and questionable past. While he was in charge of investigating sexual assault in Washington Newsham oversaw the case of Danielle Hicks-Best who was raped at the age 11, twice. The young black woman did not receive the support of the police despite overwhelming DNA evidence. Not only did the police not help the young victim the police even charged her with filing a false police report. She has spent the subsequent years as a ward of the state and is now struggling to regain her life. At the time Peter Newsham was in charge of the unit that abused her. Throughout the 1990s he was accused of debilitating alcoholism and was scandalized after a well-documented case of domestic abuse with his wife. Domestic abuse is rampant in the DC police department. DC Metropolitan Police Lieutenant David Hutchinson was recently arrested for attacking a child in a domestic dispute on October 30. His attack left the child’s throat, face, lips, and ears bruised and swollen.

Disrupt J20 Trials Begin

The trials for the first six activists began this week. This first group of activists invoked their right to a speedy trial along with another group of activists whose trial will begin in December. Activists in the subsequent trials will be down in groups of 6-8 people. On November 1, Judge Lynn Leibovitz revised two of the original felony rioting charges, which comes with a maximum penalty of 75 years in prison, to misdemeanors. But while some felony charges have been lowered to misdemeanors the other felony charges still carry a massive potential penalty of 60 years. We need to speak clearly about this, these protesters are being persecuted harshly to signal a threat against all who oppose this government. It is not just Trump, but the government as a whole that is working to sacrifice these people to dissuade all future challenging of authority.  

From reports on the trials, the prosecution of the first group of activists has been riddled with contradictions. One of the main arguments from the prosecution is that the J20 protest was not a protest but an excuse for people to come to DC and cause mayhem. To me, it is hard to imagine that people marching in the explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-fascist bloc were not clear about their political positions. The prosecution contradicted their own argument when selecting the jury during the questioning period potential jurors were asked whether or not they supported Donald Trump. The goals of the Disrupt J20 marches were clear to oppose Trump’s inauguration and the forces that enable him and the prosecution knows it.

The police have also been caught lying in the first few days of trial. According to Unicorn Riot, who is coordinating much of the courtroom coverage for J20 activists, Officer Omar Forrester claimed he was ordered to “hold the line,” and then recounted being “charged” by protesters who broke through the police line. The defense replayed his body camera and it was revealed that the incident he was describing was a group of National Lawyers Guild legal observers asking to be let go. He refused to let them go and that was that.

Later Officer Bryan Adelmeyer testified that he had infiltrated Disrupt J20 training camps in the days leading up to the inauguration. These camps were set up by Disrupt J20 to instruct protesters about their legal rights if they were arrested and to highlight the planned routes for the different marches and actions that day. With Adelmeyer lacking any video or audio evidence, Assistant US Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff moved to introduce video evidence about the meetings before Disrupt J20. Only days after Project Veritas was publicly shamed for trying to trick the Washington Post, the prosecution introduced videos from the smug stooge James O’Keefe’s organization. Despite the prosecution’s best efforts, this video was reportedly a flop since the unedited version does not paint the sinister picture that O’Keefe presented to his delusional Youtube followers. In the past Project Veritas has received massive donations from Donald Trump in the past. Project Veritas typically tries to entrap its subjects by using undercover journalists. Project Veritas used the same tactic with Disrupt J20  activists sending undercover journalists who posed as protesters to take the videos. When examined by the defense Adelmeyer admitted he was unable to discern between Project Veritas journalists and Disrupt J20 activists. This makes the video even more dubious as evidence, as the sources of all of the voices in the video are not clear.    

It Is Up To Us To Support One Another

The charges that have been made are an attempt by the government to intimidate dissent. It is a warning shot. The mainstream media has been a willing, even gleeful, participants in the suppression of democratic rights of protesters. Property over people was the motto of the day for the Washington Post, NY Times, and Vox. Since the initial arrests, the press has been almost silent on the growing charges against journalists and protesters. The Washington Post and New York Times who jump on any similar story in Russia, as Adam Johnson points out in FAIR, are tellingly silent about the actions of the DC police on Disrupt J20. Their complicity in the abuse faced by Disrupt J20 protesters should serve as a reminder to us all, that even though these outlets publicly feud with Trump and his allies, they are comfortable with the state squashing dissent in this country that is not representative of the views of corporate elites.   

It is also a false hope to look to corporate and neoliberal politicians to preserve crucial democratic rights. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser had no problems with the actions of the police on the inauguration she even praised them. Bowser, the great friend of the developer in the rapidly gentrifying DC and now of the police, is representative of an institutional rot inside nominal ‘liberal’ cities. Governments backed by real estate developers and major corporations have no time to fight for human rights in between courting Amazon and closing down homeless shelters to make new development more profitable.

We must rely on one another for support, as across the country the right to protest is being threatened, by police brutality and laws designed to allow ordinary reactionaries to fight the battles of the state. This year six states have introduced legislation that would make it legal for drivers to hit protesters if they are on the road.

Since the first protesters were arrested there has been an outpouring of solidarity and support by many on the grassroots level. Many participated in jail support, others helped pack the courts, and others volunteered their time and money to fight the legal cause for all those wrongly charged. We must continue to support one another because no one else will. As the trials go on we must remain vigilant and untiring in our support for the Disrupt J20 protesters. We must remind the state, the police, and DC, that indeed the eyes of the world are upon on them.