Britt Lawson, a registered nurse from Pittsburgh, traveled to Washington in January to serve as a volunteer medic for a weekend of protest activities against president-elect Donald Trump.
Lawson ended up spending most of the weekend incarcerated by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). She and more than 200 other people, including journalists and legal observers, were indiscriminately rounded up by police on inauguration day and thrown into jail.
“I went to D.C. to use the skills I’ve learned as a nurse in order to support and care for folks standing up against what I view as a system of violence and oppression that will be made worse under a Trump administration,” Lawson said in an interview.
In an unprecedented move, U.S. federal prosecutors turned what would have been a normal legal response to a protest — presenting charges to a court against specific protesters who engage in vandalism or violence — into a broader attack on dissent. They charged Lawson and her fellow arrestees — who have become known as the “J20” resistance — with several felonies that could send them to prison for more than 60 years.
Out of the legal scramble, Lawson emerged as part of a group of seven defendants who will be first in line to have their cases heard in D.C. Superior Court. Under the current schedule, her trial will start Wednesday and is expected to last at least a couple weeks. Donations to J20 defense funds have helped pay for her travel and housing costs.
The case’s outcome could set a precedent that would affect all of the remaining defendants awaiting trial who face the same strict maximum sentence. “I’m feeling generally confident for the case broadly as well as for my specific case. I feel like it will be a helpful and a psychological boost if we get some early acquittals,” Lawson said.
Inaugurations have been the scene of raucous protests in the past. At Richard Nixon’s first inauguration in 1969, rocks, bottles, and improvised smoke bombs were thrown at Nixon’s motorcade as Secret Service agents battled to intercept flying objects. Protesters outnumbered supporters at George W. Bush’s first inauguration in January 2001. They burned flags and pelted Bush’s limousine with eggs and tomatoes as it traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Federal prosecutors didn’t pursue felony charges against large groups of protesters at either inauguration.
At this year’s inauguration, the large number of protest rallies and marches remained peaceful. Unlike at previous inaugurations, extremely tight security prevented protesters from getting close to the route of the inauguration parade along Pennsylvania Avenue. And at the women’s march on January 21, no arrests were reported as police officers were seen wearing the iconic women’s march hats.
The response of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C., under the direction of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to the protests at Trump’s inauguration has been “completely politicized,” Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology and the coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing, said in an interview. “They’re signaling that they’re going to take a tough, repressive stance on protests.”
Leading up to January 20, several groups organized protests rallies and marches against Trump’s inauguration. On inauguration day, one of those protest marches began in Logan Circle, about a mile north of downtown D.C. The large group, which included liberals, socialists, anti-capitalists, and anarchists, marched south on 13th Street toward the inauguration parade route. Several blocks into the march a handful of the participants broke off from the main march and smashed the windows of a coffee shop and bank.
The protest march eventually arrived in Franklin Square in downtown D.C. and then turned around and headed north on 13th Street where it eventually took a right turn onto L Street. At the corner of 12th and L Streets, the MPD surrounded Lawson and a couple hundred other people, refusing to let them leave — what the protesters quickly realized was a “kettle,” a notorious police tactic used by police forces to trap all people in the area, from protesters to journalists and passersby.
One of the viral images from inauguration day is a burning limousine, an action unrelated to the people detained at 12th and L Streets. The police corralling of the 200-plus people occurred at least an hour before the limousine was set on fire approximately four blocks away.
“It is not lawful for the police to engage in collective, indiscriminate punishment and arrests. In their desire to bring the protest to end as quickly and as decisively as possible, they decided to act in an extralegal fashion,” explained Vitale, who is serving as an informal adviser to lawyers for the J20 defendants.
Typically, what happens in these situations when the police have acted in a “clearly unlawful fashion” is the government dismisses the charges afterward because they know they won’t hold up in court, Vitale said.
Lawson, like many of her fellow defendants, has pledged not to cooperate with the prosecution. “I’m comfortable stating that I have absolutely no intention of taking a plea deal,” she said. “While I have no desire to shame anyone who has had to or will have to take a plea deal for personal reasons, I also think that accepting a plea deal in many ways legitimatizes the charges against us. And I am opposed to that.”
In a surprise move in April, the prosecutors, without providing any new evidence, filed additional charges — what is known as a superseding indictment — against the protesters that included felony “inciting or urging to riot,” “rioting,” “conspiracy to riot,” “destruction of property,” and misdemeanor “assault on a police officer.”
“Having about 1,600 felony charges total for a few allegedly broken windows is somewhat unprecedented in recent American history. It’s been very stressful, but also pretty inspiring to see the amount of solidarity and the ways in which defendants have come together and stayed fairly strong throughout this,” Lawson said.
The MPD had gotten in trouble for employing this illegal practice 15 years ago, forcing D.C. taxpayers to pay out millions of dollars in legal settlements. And yet D.C. police still rounded up people indiscriminately at Trump’s inauguration, as well as targeted protesters with tear gas, water cannons, and a type of explosive device known as “stingers”
“The kettling was arbitrary, indiscriminate, and lacked any and all dispersal orders or even opportunities to disperse,” Lawson said. “And it’s something that MPD has previously been sued for, essentially for the same tactic which has resulted in settlements of millions of dollars.”
During the 36 hours she was held, the police didn’t give her time to shower or change clothes. “I had pepper spray on my skin and in my eyes for hours and hours and hours. The zip ties that were used on me were covered in pepper spray so my wrists were in a fair bit of pain and mild chemical burns for several hours after the arrest,” Lawson recalled. “We were denied any ability to go to the bathroom or eat or drink for a very unreasonable amount of time. The entirety of the experience was dehumanizing and inappropriate.”
The police also confiscated Lawson’s medic kit and cell phone. Neither has been returned.
Along with her volunteer work on inauguration day, Lawson planned to serve as a medic at the women’s march on January 20. But she didn’t get to attend the historic event because she was stuck in jail.
Because of the seriousness of the felony charges, Lawson had to make several trips to Washington from her home in Pittsburgh to attend pre-trial hearings and discuss trial strategies. At first, she was able to make the trial preparations work with her schedule as an oncology nurse at a Pittsburgh hospital. She worked 12-hours shifts in the cancer ward. But as the trial drew closer, the scheduling conflicts proved a greater burden, forcing her to miss too many days of work. She had no choice but to quit her job, losing her only source of income.
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Lawson also could lose her nursing license in Pennsylvania if she is found guilty. She was required to alert the State Board of Nursing about her arrest on January 20. Lawson is confident she will be found not guilty and hopes to transition into emergency room nursing after taking a short break after this long ordeal with the trumped-up charges ends.
Experts view the new policing and prosecution doctrine in Washington as an effort by both the MPD and the Trump administration to “chill” a citizen’s right to engage in protest by prosecuting people for their associations. Mass arrests similar to what happened on January 20 have occurred before in Washington, although the practice of kettling was later rule by the courts as illegal. What’s precedent-setting is how prosecutors are using D.C.’s rioting law against people who were walking near other protesters who caused the property damage.
The felony riot charges represent “a chilling legal maneuver attempting to broadly define conspiracy and implement a problematic D.C. Riot Statute,” according to statement issued Tuesday by Defend J20 Resistance, a group established to support the defendants. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office not only seeks to put hundreds on the line for a few acts of vandalism—they are also attempting to criminalize political organizing and attending a protest as conspiracy,” the group said.
The superceding indictment issued against the protesters in April represented “an historic crossroads moment,” Jason Flores-Williams, a civil rights attorney, told ThinkProgress earlier this year. “If you’ve looked at what they’ve done, from the police all the way up to the prosecutor, this is a systematic attack on the First Amendment rights of these people at a time when the First Amendment couldn’t be more important.”
Vitale agrees with Flores-Williams. “It seems pretty clear that there are many more people being prosecuted than there were acts of property destruction. That says to me, by definition, they are prosecuting people for being associated with the demonstration rather than their active participation in acts of property destruction,” Vitale said. “That’s an extremely unusual and problematic development.”
Unfortunately, the repressive nature of the government’s prosecution of the inauguration day protesters has received relatively little attention in the mainstream press. “There is a little bit of desensitization that is happening. People want to construct a narrative of good protester against bad protester. There’s this desire to willfully not see this as a repression of dissent and protest,” Lawson said.