Aaron Cantú and the First Amendment

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Anson Stevens-Bollen

21 June 2017 | Baynard Woods | Sante Fe Reporter

Dozens of defendants, each sitting with their own lawyer, fill a Washington, DC, courtroom, looking like college students wearing their nicest clothes for a job interview. It is far more serious than that.

They are all facing charges of felony rioting, conspiracy to riot and destruction of property on the morning of Donald Trump’s inauguration, when they were scooped up en masse by police with a controversial crowd-control technique which corrals protesters in a “kettle.”

This is only one of the four groups among the 215 defendants who have been indicted on nearly identical charges. Many had to travel back to the District to be arraigned on June 2.

One man who traveled from Santa Fe is sitting with his lawyer off to the side. He wears a black suit and has a black goatee and identifies himself as Tejano. He looks around the room like he is taking notes. Everyone else has already been arraigned before Judge Lynn Leibovitz.

But this man, Aaron Cantú, wasn’t indicted until May 30, just a week before the hearing. He is a journalist who has written about policing, propaganda, drugs and politics for The Intercept, Al Jazeera, The Baffler and many other publications. Reporting from the RNC on the possibility of a Trump presidency, Cantú wrote, “dream darker.”

Now, like the others being charged, he’s facing up to 75 years in jail.

As various protests spread through the city on the morning of the inauguration, one group used “black bloc” techniques—wearing all black and acting in concert to attack symbols of multinational capitalism in a semi-anonymous fashion—in an attempt to disrupt the spectacle of the event, breaking windows of businesses like Starbucks and Bank of America.

“Individuals participating in the Black Bloc broke the windows of a limousine parked on the north side of K Street NW, and assaulted the limousine driver as he stood near the vehicle,” the indictment reads, “as Aaron Cantú and others moved west on K Street NW.”

These black blocs have received widespread media attention in America since 1999, beginning with the Battle of Seattle at the World Trade Organization summit. A black bloc action is newsworthy. And yet, according to the indictment, Cantú is being charged for moving in proximity to the group he was covering.

The indictment alleges that Cantú wore black and discarded a backpack as further evidence of his part in the conspiracy. Because members of a conspiracy to riot wore black, anyone wearing black, it seems, is a member of the conspiracy.

It is a crazy, complicated, sprawling case involving evidence from somewhere around 200 cell phones and various cameras. The discovery process will take months.

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