The Final Settlements in the J20 Case Seek to Sanction State Repression

The Final Settlements in the J20 Case Seek to Sanction State Repression

The Final Settlements in the J20 Case Seek to Sanction State Repression

Freelance journalists Aaron Cantú and Alexei Wood had sued DC’s police department after they’d been arrested while covering an anti-Trump protest.

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The checks are in the mail.

The last two defendants in the J20 case—the shorthand name for the disgraceful mass arrest and legal prosecutions that targeted 20 working journalists who covered a left-wing demonstration on Donald Trump’s inauguration day—have reached a settlement in their lawsuits against the District of Columbia and the city’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). The two journalists—freelance writer Aaron Cantú and livestreamer-photojournalist Alexei Wood—alleged that they were chased through the streets, pepper-sprayed, and exposed to sting balls, smoke flares, long-range acoustic devices, and concussion and flash-band grenades; they were placed in zip ties so tight that they lost feeling in their fingers, and were deprived of food, water, and a toilet in a arrest process deliberately prolonged to extend their discomfort and pain. Wood’s cameras were damaged, then confiscated. Both men suffered PTSD and other adverse psychological effects arising from their arrest and detention, and each settled their claims for $73,000 apiece.

Cantú and Wood had faced felony charges after they were swept up in a crowd-kettling police action targeting the protest. Their prosecutions hinged on legal theories of guilt by association and collective liability stretched so thin that back-to-back juries spurned them.

The settlements represent a tiny percentage of the MPD’s designated budget for legal settlements and judgments, but are, in the judgment of both plaintiffs, significant enough to serve as a statement—and a prospective deterrent to future reckless prosecutions.

Both Cantú and Wood were among 230 people captured in the “trap and detain” mass arrest tactic long relinquished by the MPD but revived for the occasion of Trump’s inauguration. And they were among 192 people charged with felony riot and destruction of property—as well as the only journalists whose charges weren’t dismissed shortly after arrest.

The charges stemmed from the actions of just a handful of protesters, who set a limousine on fire and broke several windows at a Starbucks and Bank of America in downtown D.C. The estimated property damage totaled $100,000.

The state’s response was draconian. Prosecutors logged conspiracy charges against a mostly youthful group of protesters that could yield sentences of 60 years or more. In response, 120 of the accused conspirators and rioters signed on to Points of Unity pledging a stance of noncooperation with the state.

Wood was acquitted in the first trial in December 2017, and charges against Cantú were dropped in July 2018 . But in the wake of his acquittal, Cantú wanted something closer to actual justice.

“The charges brought against us were very severe, and even now it’s difficult to look at because of just how untrue and how unattached from reality they were regarding my actions that day,” Cantú says.

Suing the MPD and the District of Columbia was less about winning a cash settlement than rescuing his name and reputation from a false and toxic narrative promulgated by the state. “Things are written about me, about my actions that day, public records that indicate what I was charged with—all of that was very damaging,” he says. Bringing his accusers to the bar of justice was a way to “take that power back,” he adds.

The settlement has also brought an important measure of personal closure. Cantú is recently married and has taken a new job with Capital & Main’s The Slick, a California-based investigative publication covering the state’s oil and gas industry. “I’m ready to move forward,” he says.

For his part, Wood has bought a small picture frame for his processed check in order to hang it on the wall of his his Colorado home. It’s a fitting memento of a confrontation with untrammeled state power that “capped off in a triumphant way,” he says.

Wood does note, however, that the whole surreal experience of being jailed for practicing journalism has put him off some key pieties of legal rhetoric, such as the sacrosanct character of individual rights. “Rights are shit,” he says. “It was solidarity from activists, concerned people, and the press community that saved us from getting ground up in the extractive, abusive machine of capitalism.”

Wood believes that his prosecution was a rigged exercise in political messaging, sending the clear signal from day one of the Trump administration that principled dissent would be quashed.

For both him and Cantú, the suit would be a powerful way to push back against that dangerous precedent. Had the suit moved to trial, the plaintiffs and their attorneys hoped that the discovery process would produce damning evidence against the MPD and their original prosecutors—a far smaller-scale version of the strategy that produced the settlement in the Dominion Voting Machines defamation suit against Fox News. Ultimately, however, the J20 settlement promised the best way to defeat the narrative that prosecutors employed to criminalize journalism and dissent.

“Courts,” Wood says, “are power and control.” He learned that lesson firsthand when Lynn Leibovitz, the judge who presided over the first J20 trial, rejected his legal team’s motion for acquittal at the outset of the proceedings.

For Wood, the bitter upshot of that initial encounter with the justice system was learning that the Constitution’s alleged protections are “a scam from top to bottom”—a message also driven home by a settlement that indemnifies MPD from any acknowledgment of wrongdoing. “They’re not legally liable for anything, even though they paid two people and a law firm $175,000,” Wood says.

Cantú says he’s also unhappy about the lack of accountability—but says that he wasn’t prepared to keep fighting for it in a legal system titled so heavily away from that ideal in matters of policing. “Six years out, I didn’t necessarily have the emotional stamina to continue fighting,” he says. “This was a very isolating ordeal to go through.”

It was also a prelude of sorts to the rampant rough treatment of working journalists during the 2020 protests over the police killing of George Floyd. “We were the canaries in the coal mine,” Cantú notes. “I think that was recognized after 2020 when there was footage and lawsuits all over the country of police abuse of journalists, as well as protesters.”

Another grim lesson of the J20 prosecutions, he adds, was that freelancers like himself and Wood were largely left to fend for themselves at the behest of a journalism establishment that’s otherwise quick to intone the core protections of the First Amendment when its operations are under threat.

“I think I was hurt by the relative lack of attention to the case,” Cantú says. “As the years have gone by, I’ve just kind of accepted that that’s the way these institutions operate, and there’s a sort of limit to the kind of vocal support and public support you can receive.”

But the number of freelancers continues to rise in a fragmenting and contracting media industry—meaning that in future conflicts over First Amendment freedoms, more writers and photojournalists are likely to find themselves in the same position that hampered Cantú and Wood over the past six years.

“I don’t have a lot of trust that institutional journalism understands how quickly things have shifted on the ground, the volume of journalists who lack institutional backing,” Cantú says. “I’ve moved on from feeling emotionally unsatisfied with those responses, but I think it’s a reality that’s only going to become more salient.”

To that end, Wood is donating a portion of his settlement funds to support independent media outlets such as CrimethInc, It’s Going Down, Unicorn Riot, Sub.Media, Kolektiva, and Channel Zero Network.

It’s a simple calculation of collective self-defense, Wood argues. “That’s definitely going to strengthen resistance to the exact system that hated me,” he says. And journalists who get caught up in the maw of state reaction should be prepared for just one outcome, he cautions: “The repressive apparatus will come full tilt.”

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