In a chilling preview of what freedom of the press will look like in Trump’s America, two journalists arrested while covering Inauguration Day protests in Washington DC have been slapped with felony charges. They could face up to 10 years in prison and $25,000 in fines if convicted.
The Guardian reports that Vocativ’s Evan Engel and RT America’s Alex Rubinstein were among the 230 people arrested on Friday morning, when anti-capitalist protests erupted within blocks of the White House and continued throughout the day. Protesters smashed a Starbucks Coffee window, vandalized a parked limousine and later lit it on fire, and lit a bonfire in an overturned garbage can. Police corralled the protesters before arresting them. Prosecutors have justified the felony charges against those swept up in the arrests by the estimated cost of the damage.
Interim police chief Peter Newsham said on Sunday that he was proud of the police response, telling WTOP radio that police “used the least amount of force necessary to bring those folks safely and respectfully into custody.” Rubinstein tweeted an image of a stingball grenade thrown into the crowd — the use of which Newsham has not acknowledged.
Engel and Rubinstein weren’t the only journalists threatened by police while doing their jobs—Washington Post video journalist Dalton Bennett was thrown to the ground while covering the protests. In fact, Colorado defense attorney Benjamain Carraway, who served as Inaugural protest group DisruptJ20’s legal adviser and was swept up in the arrests, alleges in a class-action federal lawsuit that police used excessive force and “proceeded to indiscriminately and repeatedly deploy chemical irritants, attack the individuals with batons, and throw flash-bang grenades,” including against “protesters who had engaged in no criminal conduct, but also members of the media, attorneys, legal observers, and medics.”
According to Vocativ and RT America, Engel and Rubinstein followed protocol and told police officers that they were press. Engel’s camera was reportedly seized by police.
The police reports documenting their arrests don’t outline specific reasons for either Engel or Rubinstein’s arrest beyond noting that “numerous crimes were occurring in police presence,” in Engel’s case, and that “numerous individual [sic] were arrested,” in Rubinstein’s report.
“The arrest, detainment and rioting charge against journalist Evan Engel who was covering the protests for Vocativ are an affront to the First Amendment and journalistic freedom,” a Vocativ spokesperson said in a statement. “Vocativ will vigorously contest this unfounded and outrageous charge.”
US attorney’s office spokesperson William Miller did not comment on either Rubinstein or Engel’s cases. He issued a vague response to the Guardian, saying, “Generally speaking, we are continuing to evaluate evidence and continuing to investigate the events of Jan 20, 2017 and are always open to receiving additional information.”