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The feds tried to lock me up for life for reporting on the Trump inauguration protests

Enemy of the people

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Editor's note: In January 2017, Aaron Cantú spent a night in jail with hundreds of others detained during protests on Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. His "criminal" actions consisted of walking, wearing black, and being a witness to history as a freelance journalist. A few months later, federal prosecutors charged him with eight felonies, including conspiracy to riot. After nearly 18 months, the feds dropped the charges, and Cantú, now a staff writer for the Santa Fe Reporter, is finally able to publicly reflect on the ordeal.

For over a year, federal prosecutors and agents have perused my digital communications, tried to hack my cell phone and possibly collected my social media records. The chill of seeing the state in possession of your private political discussions is difficult to convey.

I'm not being paranoid; this really happened. The feds invaded my life in pursuit of their own conspiracy theory about a raucous protest in Washington, D.C., that resulted in eight felony charges against hundreds, myself included.

The overwhelming sense of being watched has abated some since the charges were dropped, but I'm sure people within the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia – the local arm of the Trump Administration's Justice Department – will read every word of this essay, with an eye for anything they can use to refile criminal charges against me or the 186 people still living under a five-year statute of limitations.

A few weeks after my arrest in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2017 (J20), I accepted some painful advice: Don't criticize the Trump administration publicly. At that point, I was hoping for my charges to get dropped before my eventual indictment in May. The inability to speak freely on social media and in the publications I wrote for drained my confidence; I still reflexively self-censor, often deleting tweets for no real reason. Even though my charges have gone away, writing this is hard. This pounding in my chest, this trembling hand and sour stomach and sweaty tunnel vision, are what it feels like to have your freedom of speech curtailed by the state.

I went to D.C. with several other journalists to report on Trump's ascent, following a year of bubbling anti-fascism against his campaign. I currently enjoy the haven of a newspaper willing to hire lawyers who bite back, but last January I was a freelancer using vacation days from my full-time job to go witness history. This was a completely uncharted assignment: How violent could this get? Would American jackboots try to stomp me in the streets?