DOJ Wants Protesters & Reporter Convicted For 'Hiding Behind The First Amendment'
from the protect-and-defend-the-constitution dept
Employees of the federal government swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. Assistant US Attorney Rizwan Qureshi must have done that as well. And, among the parts of the Constitution he’s supposed to defend is the First Amendment. But, as a lawyer for the DOJ he has a job to do — and apparently sometimes that job includes making batshit insane arguments to try to throw protesters and a reporter in jail against their basic First Amendment rights to assemble and to report. This is the case against six people who were singled out and prosecuted, among hundreds of people arrested during protests around Donald Trump’s inauguration. We wrote about it last month, mainly focusing on one defendant Alexi Wood, a journalist who was filming/live-streaming the protests, but still got arrested and prosecuted.
Pretty much everyone should agree that protesting is legal and protected under the First Amendment. Obviously, vandalism and property destruction are not. But, the incredible thing about this case and the arguments that Qureshi made is that he didn’t even bother to claim that the six defendants participated in violence or property destruction. He just argued a form of aiding and abetting the violence and damage, just by being present, and complained that they were “hiding” behind the First Amendment. Here’s a snippet from the Washington Examiner’s report on the closing arguments:
A federal prosecutor said Thursday that jurors must convict six people arrested during President Trump?s inauguration because they ?agreed to destroy your city and now they are hiding behind the First Amendment.?
During closing arguments Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rizwan Qureshi offered no evidence that the six committed acts of violence or vandalism, or attended planning meetings for an anti-capitalism march that ended in the arrest of about 240 people in downtown Washington.
Instead, Qureshi likened the defendants to robbery get-away drivers, guilty because they helped anonymize others in a crowd.
?That?s exactly what this sea of black was, it was the getaway car,? he said.
Think about that for a second. He’s claiming they are GUILTY BECAUSE THEY HELPED ANONYMIZE OTHERS IN A CROWD.. This is pure insanity on multiple levels. First, anonymity is, by itself, protected by the First Amendment. Second, your own First Amendment rights don’t get thrown out just because prosecutors can’t find the actual perpetrators of violence in a crowd and decide to nab you instead. That’s not how it works.
The specific argument against some of the defendants was equally crazy. Two of the defendants say that they were acting as medics for the protesters. Indeed one of them, Brittne Lawson, rather than fading into the anonymous crowd in black, was wearing a white helmet with a red cross. But check out how Qureshi spun someone being there to help people who might get injured:
?Ms. Lawson was prepared for war and she was going to make it succeed,? Qureshi said, saying she planned ?to mend them and get them up on their way.?
?What do you need a medic with gauze for? I thought this was a protest,? he said. ?There?s nothing wrong with being a medic, but she was aware there was a riot going on.?
WHAT?!? Being aware that a protest might turn violent, and being interested in helping anyone who might get injured in no way makes you guilty of any of the violence. And claiming that she “was prepared for war and she was going to make it succeed”? What the hell? Does Qureshi think that Doctors Without Borders is equally responsible for war crimes for mending those injured during wars?
As for Wood, the journalist who was livestreaming, Quereshi went after him for saying “whoohoo” during the livestream:
Prosecutors condensed Wood?s footage to show his utterances of ?woohoo? during acts of vandalism and when police fired flash-bang grenades at protesters. ?That?s not journalism,? Qureshi said. ?He?s egging them on. … I know a lot of journalists who would take issue with his coverage.?
It’s true that many journalists would take issue with that kind of coverage, but one of the great things about the whole First Amendment is that doesn’t fucking matter. Just because other journalists approve or disapprove of someone’s style or coverage or opinions doesn’t shed them of their First Amendment rights. Thankfully, Wood’s lawyer pointed out that the government doesn’t get to decide what’s good journalism vs. bad journalism. That’s the very crux of the First Amendment.
And, again, it gets worse. Qureshi claims that because he, himself, was ignorant of a common term of how police round up protesters, while Wood was aware of it, it somehow proves he’s not a journalist. I only wish I was kidding.
Qureshi questioned why he would know certain terms, such as ?kettling,? which refers to a police tactic of surrounding activists. The term kettling often is used by protest-rights advocates who view it as an illegal strategy.
?How?s he a journalist and he?s talking about a ?kettle?? I didn?t know what a kettle was before this case, did you?? Qureshi said.
Qureshi apparently said the same thing about the fact that Wood knew the term “black bloc.” This is a really cynical ploy, basically trying to tell the jury that because a journalist is actually knowledgeable about protests and police, it somehow no longer makes him a journalist. Shouldn’t this actually be more evidence that he’s a journalist? That he actually researched information on the protests and protesters and knew common slang and situations?
There were many more crazy things said — you can read many more quotes at the Unicorn Riot Twitter feed — but this seems like a really, really weak case, with a really, really crazy prosecution position by the DOJ.
But, take a step back and think about what Qureshi’s arguments would mean if accepted. It would mean that merely being outside near a protest would put you at risk of serious criminal liability — just because you might incidentally help make others anonymous or hidden. That is not and cannot be the law. And you know who knows that? Assistant US Attorney Rizwan Qureshi. In an interview he gave two years ago, he talked about the importance of being “engaged in your community, no matter where it is” in order to do things like “eradicate hate” and “fight hate.” And yet, here he is, just a couple years later, trying to throw people in jail for publicly engaging with their community to try to fight hate.