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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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Smoke from a burning limousine as seen hours after mass arrests on Jan. 20. - PHOTO BY AARON CANTÚ
  • Photo by Aaron Cantú
  • Smoke from a burning limousine as seen hours after mass arrests on Jan. 20.

The thought that I might be seriously screwed first occurred to me inside the police wagon transporting us to be processed. I sat cramped and bound along with nine other people in one of a half-mile's worth of law enforcement vehicles flashing various hues of light, as if carrying high-priority enemies of the state. I knew then we weren't going to get off with a simple citation, and that I was probably going to have to tell my mom. I didn't expect, however, that I would be charged with eight felonies for the act of attending and reporting on a confrontational protest, or that I would be facing a combined 80 years in prison for these charges.

Months later I not only considered my own future, but the far-reaching political implications of these cases: Why did the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia find it appropriate to hang virtual life sentences over the heads of 214 people after an indiscriminate mass arrest? How could they have so shamelessly gleaned evidence from far-right groups like Project Veritas, a discredited organization known for making deceptive gotcha videos, as well as the paramilitary group the Oath Keepers, and still felt they had a legitimate case? Where was the motivation – the conspiracy – to pursue these cases coming from?

Mass arrests at protests have happened plenty of times in cities across the country, including D.C. in 2002 when hundreds at a World Bank protest were arrested – and later lavished with civil settlement money. What appeared new in the J20 case was the attempt to color protesters' actions as part of a pre-planned conspiracy between strangers to cause mayhem.

By wrapping up distinct actions like allegedly breaking windows, chanting and lighting fireworks at a protest into a single conspiracy, they became one threatening, anti-social act against society, apparently menacing enough to warrant decades in prison. The motive to bust a conspiracy also explains the Justice Department's initial demand last summer to review 1.3 million IP addresses of people who visited DisruptJ20.org, a website used to organize loosely affiliated masses of protests that took place at the inauguration. Despite an outcry from the media and civil rights groups, the court eventually granted much of the prosecutors' request, yet they could find no actual conspiracy.

This data-vacuuming extended to the cellphones that all arrestees were carrying that day. The Metropolitan Police Department used technology from an Israeli security firm called Cellebrite to extract information from all confiscated phones that weren't sufficiently encrypted. After one anonymous defendant's phone was raided, the defendant received an 8,000-page dossier containing years of personal data, including "intimate emails to and from my friends and lovers through more than a decade, [late] night political debates over chat apps that helped shape my values and convictions," and more. The horror of a hostile state downloading a record of your developing identity reaching back to your early teen years is a possibility unique to millennials and later generations that grew up on the internet.

To my knowledge, the feds were never able to crack into my phone, thanks to strong encryption – though they made clear that they were specifically interested in me, declaring in one motion from last October that they were undertaking "additional efforts" to get my data. But I was sufficiently terrified by other fishing expeditions, including subpoenas issued to Apple, Facebook and possibly Twitter for communications between and among co-defendants. I never received a notice from any of these companies that my accounts had been subpoenaed – though apparently, they do not have to notify you or can be gagged from doing so – but others did, and I still treat my online presence as if it's bugged.

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