Alexei Wood live-streamed his every move and utterance to Facebook. Now he's one of the last journalists to face charges.
by Steven Nelson
reprinted from U.S. News and World Report
May 1, 2017
“You are all going to jail,” a police officer shouted after being shown press credentials on the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington. A different officer poked a reporter with a baton when he asked to leave.
Officers had corralled about 240 people, many of them black-clad participants of an anti-capitalist march, after a chase through downtown streets as store windows were smashed.
As pepper spray burns sank in, some reporters were allowed to walk away without arrest. Others joined legal observers for a night behind bars and were charged with felony rioting, which carries a statutory maximum of 10 years in prison.
Professional photographer Alexei Wood, who live-streamed footage of the Jan. 20 march and its aftermath to Facebook, resigned himself to arrest.
In the months since, cases against seven other journalists, including those not affiliated with media companies, have been dropped. But at least two independent journalists still face charges.
One of them is Aaron Cantu, who has written for Vice, The Intercept, Al Jazeera America and other outlets. Cantu faces a single felony charge of rioting, which carries a statutory maximum of 10 years in prison.
Wood, the other, faces a statutory maximum of at least 70 years in prison after he and 211 others were indicted on additional rioting and destruction of property charges by a grand jury Thursday.
“I was there to document and that's exactly what I did,” Wood tells U.S. News. “I'm pissed that [the] prosecution is using my footage as discovery but hasn't given me journalistic credit.”
Wood's live-stream, still available on Facebook, offers one of the most comprehensive documentary accounts of the mayhem moments before Trump took office.
His 42-minute clip begins with the march’s origin at Logan Circle and ends with the cordon. Wood speaks informally, cursing occasionally.
“It’s real interesting now,” he says as police close in. Earlier, he clarifies for viewers that they’re hearing firecrackers – not gunshots. He comments in disbelief when an activist throws a projectile at the crotch of a uniformed officer. He speaks with a bloodied Trump supporter.
Wood begins filming in front of the march, and walks alongside the main group with fellow camera operators for much of it. “Join us!” two women shout to him as he stands on a traffic barrier, panning over the procession.
At points, Wood expresses satisfaction at being able to capture the events. “This is the f--king Seattle ‘99 that I missed. … I’m f--king blissed out,” he says as marchers retreat from police.
Wood does not participate in protest chants, but at a few points he says “woohoo” as acts of vandalism are committed. It’s unclear if Wood was expressing approval or nervous merriment at an action-packed shot. In possible support of the latter explanation, he also says “woohoo!” as police fire concussion grenades.
Wood’s video shows that he did not spray-paint private property or smash windows, and he did not seek to break through a police line, staying at a distance for the shot. Still, he and 211 others covered by last week’s superseding indictment are hit with five felony property destruction and three rioting charges each.
Each destruction of property charge carries a statutory maximum of 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Two of the rioting charges – inciting or urging to riot and engaging in rioting – carry a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Potential penalties for the third rioting charge, conspiracy to riot, are unclear, the office says.
Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for Washington, says the office has “no comment regarding individual defendants” facing the new charges. Cantu’s case “remains under review,” he says.
Cantu did not respond to an email seeking comment, nor did an attorney associated with his case.
Wood’s attorney Brett Cohen did not respond to an email seeking comment, and his law partner says the firm is not commenting on any of the inauguration arrest cases it is working.
It’s unclear why Wood has not been afforded the same deference as other independent journalists.
Shay Horse, a photographer who describes himself as an anarchist in his Twitter bio, and independent livestream videographer Matt Hopard were among the journalists to see their charges dismissed.
The case against Hopard was dismissed on Jan. 30 alongside the charges facing Alex Rubinstein of RT and documentary filmmaker John Keller.
“After a review of evidence presented to us by law enforcement, we have concluded that we will not proceed with the charges against the three defendants, who are journalists,” the U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement.
Evan Engel, a senior producer for Vocativ, had previously seen charges dismissed on Jan. 27, after his employer hired a well-known D.C. attorney.
On Feb. 21, charges were dropped against Horse and two other photographers, Alexander Contompasis and Cheney Orr.
The U.S. attorney’s office did not declare the photographers to be journalists or provide a reason, saying in a statement, “We typically do not comment on charging decisions and have no comment on these dismissals.”
Attorney Wylie Stecklow, who worked with local defense lawyers for Horse and Hopard, says that although they were not employed by a professional media organization, they sought to prove to prosecutors they were operating as journalists.
“The information presented was two-fold,” Stecklow says. “Initially, proof of prior work as journalist. It was documented that these individuals had attended other activities of interest, livestreamed and photographed such activities, and sold, or had these images posted on line for sale with a photo agency.”
Then, Stecklow says, “prosecutors performed their own due diligence to confirm that these journalists were in fact acting as journalists on January 20, documenting the activities and not organizing. Seemingly, this may have turned out different if the citizen journalist had somehow organized a carpool of activists and citizen journalists to travel together to D.C. “
Wood, like Hopard, has filmed other protests. He streamed footage from the 2016 Republican and Democratic national conventions and covered a "queer dance party" at Vice President Mike Pence's temporary D.C. home in January.
Inauguration rioting charges against at least 22 people, including the journalists, have been dropped. Others have been charged as police investigate further.
So far, three activists have pleaded guilty to charges related to the fracas.
Two people have pleaded guilty to misdemeanor rioting, at least one of them receiving one year on probation. A Florida man who was arrested after the mass-arrest cordon for throwing a rock or piece of concrete at police pleaded guilty last week to various charges in a plea deal, with sentencing guidelines of between two and six years in prison ahead of sentencing in July.
Jeffrey Light, an attorney who filed a civil lawsuit against the police department and U.S. Park Police over the mass arrest, alleging violations of constitutional rights, declined to speculate on prosecutors’ motives for adding new criminal charges.
Some activists have signed a statement refusing to plead guilty to any charge, which defendants view as a heavy-handed bid to frighten them into guilty pleas, without evidence of individual wrongdoing.
"The superseding indictment is an unprecedented effort to explicitly charge people with acts they did not commit, that were committed by others, based solely on proximity and assumed shared political views. That basis for prosecution stands in direct violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of expression, assembly and association," says Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice.
Verheyden-Hilliard, who spearheaded lawsuits that won large settlements after previous mass-arrests in the nation's capital, says "this is an overt effort to justify a mass illegal arrest devoid of particularized probable cause in the absence of evidence of actual criminal conduct."