Editor's note: In January 2017, Aaron Cantú spent a night in jail with hundreds of others detained during protests on Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. His "criminal" actions consisted of walking, wearing black, and being a witness to history as a freelance journalist. A few months later, federal prosecutors charged him with eight felonies, including conspiracy to riot. After nearly eighteen months, the feds dropped the charges, and Cantú, now a staff writer for the Santa Fe Reporter, is finally able to publicly reflect on the ordeal.
For over a year, federal prosecutors and agents have perused my digital communications, tried to hack my cell phone, and possibly collected my social media records.
I'm not being paranoid. This really happened. The feds invaded my life in pursuit of their own conspiracy theory about a raucous protest in Washington, D.C., that resulted in eight felony charges against hundreds of people, myself included.
The overwhelming sense of being watched has abated some since the charges were dropped in early July, but I'm sure officials within the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia—the local arm of the Trump Justice Department—will read every word of this essay with an eye toward anything they can use to prosecute me or the 186 people still living under a five-year statute of limitations.
- Photo provided by author
- Aaron Cantú
A few weeks after my arrest on January 20, 2017—referred to as J20—I accepted some painful advice: Don't criticize the Trump administration publicly. I'd hoped that my charges would get dropped before my eventual indictment in May. The inability to speak freely on social media and in the publications I wrote for drained my confidence; I still reflexively self-censor, often deleting tweets for no real reason. Even writing this is hard. This pounding in my chest, this trembling hand and sour stomach and sweaty tunnel vision are what it feels like to have your freedom of speech curtailed by the state.
I went to D.C. to report on Trump's inauguration, following a year of a bubbling anti-fascism movement pushing back against his campaign. I currently enjoy the haven of a newspaper willing to hire lawyers to bite back, but last January I was a freelancer using vacation days from my full-time job to go witness history. This was a completely uncharted assignment: How violent could this get? Would American jackboots try to stomp me in the streets?
In the end, it didn't matter that I presented myself as a journalist on J20 or that I only carried a sandwich and a notebook: White supremacists wound up messing with me for over a year, working with authorities to prosecute and harass me.
After eighteen months, the actual memories of the half-hour march leading to my arrest have mixed with dreams and nightmares of the day, as well as descriptions in multiple indictments, trial transcripts, and media reports. My mind's eye remembers a dark funhouse of corporate buildings and unusually waifish, Jack Skellington-esque riot cops hemming me into a larger group. Everything looks gray and morose; it may have rained a bit. Police relentlessly deployed sting-ball grenades and pepper spray; the final tally was at least seventy grenades thrown at people blocks away from where Donald Trump was sworn in. Creaks and shatters created by objects smashing glass, including the insured windows of a Bank of America branch and a Starbucks, are more memorable than any destruction my eyes may have seen. Very, very loud police sirens, punctuated by grenade explosions and screaming, overwhelm everything else.
"The inappropriate and extensive use of less lethal munitions suggests the need for increased supervision of officers during mass demonstrations," said a report from the Police Foundation, which evaluated the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department's conduct at the inauguration protests.
Impossible to forget are the feelings throughout that march: the whole-body nerve rush when I first saw the huge mass of marching people extending at least a whole city block; the panic run as the sting-ball grenades burst near my feet; the euphoria of an ungovernable moment, however frightening and unpredictable, that disrupted the lawful monotony binding our unequal social system together; and the shock when I checked my phone from inside the mass arrest and saw that protests in D.C. had overtaken Trump's inaugural speech as the top headline on CNN.com.
If protesters weren't able to stop the actual inauguration, they still marred it in history.
When the first six of more than two hundred defendants went to trial last November, prosecutors used expressions of excitement, wonder, or awe during the march as evidence of a conspiracy to riot. "I'm fucking blissed out," photojournalist and acquitted defendant Alexei Wood announced in a livestream that day. The feds later tried to use it against him. In an identical indictment filed against all defendants, prosecutors also used shouted phrases like "Fuck it up," "Fuck capitalism," and "Whose streets? Our streets!" to transform an adrenal impulse into a criminal agreement among coconspirators.
The thought that I might be seriously screwed first occurred to me inside the police wagon transporting us to be processed. I sat cramped and bound along with nine other people in one of a half-mile's worth of law enforcement vehicles flashing various hues of light, as if carrying high-priority enemies of the state. I knew then we weren't going to get off with a simple citation. I didn't expect, however, that I would be charged with eight felonies for the act of attending and reporting on a confrontational protest, or that I would be facing a potential eighty years in prison.
Months later I not only considered my own future, but the far-reaching political implications of these cases: Why did the U.S. Attorney's Office find it appropriate to hang virtual life sentences over the heads of 214 people after an indiscriminate mass arrest? How could they have so shamelessly gleaned evidence from far-right groups like Project Veritas, a discredited organization known for making deceptive gotcha videos, as well as the paramilitary group the Oath Keepers, and still felt they had a legitimate case? And where was the motivation—the conspiracy—to pursue these charges coming from?