During a protest against Trump’s inauguration, mass arrests included Michelle Macchio, a 26-year-old from Naples, FL. Her case is finally getting to court, and it could have massive repercussions for free speech.
According to Macchio, she was at the protest as a medic, and evidence suggests she was working in that capacity—she wore a red-taped cross on her jacket and had a first aid kit in her possession when she was arrested. She and five others are facing felony charges that could spell a decades-long federal prison sentence for that protest.
At present, 181 people face similar charges in the next year from the same mass arrest. Their fate will be influenced by Macchio’s precedent-setting trial.
The protest was organized by DisruptJ20, which includes anti-capitalists, anarchists, and anti-fascists. The protest involved the destruction of private property, with the goal of disrupting the inauguration. One reason it’s taking so long for proceedings to progress is that both the prosecution and defense have thus far failed to find a common way to use and define the term “Antifa.” Judge Lynn Leibovitz of the Superior Court reminded jurors that he e term does not indicate a desire to commit violent acts. Aside from Antifa; black clothing and masks—known as “black bloc”—have been used to describe protestors who intended violence.
Macchio had a black mask, covered in vinegar. Vinegar supposedly negates or lessens the damage from pepper spray.
If wearing all black can land you in prison for rioting when all you wanted to do was exercise your right to free speech, shouldn’t the same hang in the balance for anyone wearing khakis and a polo (and toting a tiki torch)? Guess the goth crowd is in trouble.
While there were property damage and injuries, prosecutors don’t intend to provide evidence that the six defendants in this trial—Macchio, Christina Simmons, Jennifer Armento, Oliver Harris, Brittne Lawson, and Alexei Wood—participated in destructive or violent behavior.
The prosecution wants to lump all of the protestors together and hold them individually responsible for the intentions of the entire group, regardless of individual actions.
If found guilty, these individuals—who likely did not commit any acts of destruction or violence (Simmons was reportedly handing out snacks to officers on duty)—would pay a hefty price to exercise their right to free speech. They could lose their other freedoms as well.
The other important question of this trial is: Did the police on duty act in a way aligned with expectations of police during a First Amendment demonstration? This will be one of the questions that the defense attorneys will hone in on in this case. Commander Keith Deville testified that they didn’t issue dispersal orders, but that he thought officers showed “enormous restraint.” However, the defense has shown videos of officers using pepper spray in a casual manner, even at protestors whose backs were turned. On the videos, officers are also shown handling protestors roughly, even if said protestors weren’t committing violent or destructive acts. D.C. City Council is launching a $150,000 investigation into how the police handled demonstrations on Jan. 20, 2017. The ACLU has also launched a separate lawsuit.