Disrupt J20: Solidarity Six Months Later

Six months ago today, a diverse collection of autonomous direct actions occurred in downtown Washington, DC, disrupting the Inauguration. Despite he fact that January 20th signified the arrival of the Trump presidency, the massive turnout across the city and country made it a beautiful day of collective struggle against hate, white supremacy, misogyny, and xenophobia. From across the country, leftists of all stripes came together to resist Donald Trump’s presidency in defense of women’s rights, indigenous sovereignty, black lives, peace, bodily autonomy, trans/queer lives, the climate, health care, reproductive rights, labor rights, and other causes. Thousands of people came to DC from near and far. There were dance parties and blockades and marches all day. We set the tone for resistance from day one.

While I was holding the line at 10th and E with a growing crew of radical feminists, I also got news that riot police had kettled the anti-capitalist antifascist march just a few blocks north of us. Several friends had been up there, and I had planned to join them if our blockade at the gate had been dispersed. Busy with our own aggressive cops and Trump supporters, I didn’t see video of cops indiscriminately pepper spraying crowds – including the elderly, disabled, and children – and using less lethal crowd control on penned protesters until I got home. It wasn’t until the next day that I heard that they had been denied food, water, or access to a bathroom for hours. It wasn’t until months later that news came out that several were stripped down and subjected to invasive searches, and have since sued MPD for using “rape as punishment.”

The two hundred individuals caught up in the kettle that day now face about 70 years in prison for protesting. There is little evidence of individual wrongdoing; and some lawyers have argued that the case has “fatal defects” since many are simply charged for associating with those who destroyed property. The case is a prime example of the type of unconstitutional mass arrests that MPD used to be known for, but have since abandoned thanks for community organizing, legal support, and expensive settlements – that is, until J20. In both their use of pepper spray, stingball grenades, allegedly tear gas and flashbangs too, and in their decision to mass arrest a city block of protesters – and anyone else who happened to be in the area – MPD violated its own policies and broke the last decade of crowd control precedent in the District. DC’s Office of Police Complaints issued a report  [pdf] in February citing concerns that MPD may have violated Standard Operating Procedure, and the City Council already appropriated funds to investigate MPD misconduct and abuses that will cost the city more than all damages from the protest itself, not to mention pending civil cases that could cost the city millions like past police misconduct settlements. Despite all of this, interim police chief Peter Newsham, who oversaw crowd control that day and has been implicated in the illegal kettling of proteters in 2002 at Pershing Park, was approved as police chief by DC City Council a few months later over the wishes of many in the DC community.

Beyond the police repression that day, the prosecutorial strategy has also been one that seeks to punish people for engaging in protest. Superseding indictments brought the total list of charges for most defendants to eight felonies including rioting, incitement, and conspiracy charges. These charges effectively argue that people can be held responsible for the actions of those around them, positing guilt by association just for being there. “Evidence” listed include the fact that people wore black clothing, covered their faces, chanted, and marched. Even journalists and legal observers have been charged (some, but not all, had their charges dropped). Such actions aren’t illegal, but the prosecution is trying to leverage them as evidence anyways, arguing that there exists a form of criminal protest rather than specific illegal acts. This is not new: Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock protesters have faced state repression, and the J20 case is just the most recent. There will be more: lawmakers in numerous states have proposed laws ratcheting up the punishment for nonviolent direct action, specifically targeting forms of protest that seek to disrupt the norm.

In the face of all of this, those involved in J20, and a growing network of support, are working to show the true meaning of solidarity. In conversations leading up to the day of action, organizers promised to provide legal support for those who got arrested. When the scale of arrests and felony charges became apparent, this legal support structure didn’t back down, it was amped up. Solidarity and mutual aid are at the core of what makes direct action possible, and in DC teams of people are attending status hearings at the courthouse, paying for transport and providing housing options for those who have to make multiple trips to DC. While the state tries to isolate individuals and intimidate them with decades in prison, people have got each other’s backs. You should have their backs too.

Ways that you can help:

  • Donate to the DC Legal Posse to help provide legal support and defray costs
  • Donate to local legal support funds
  • Keep the pressure on MPD by calling for investigations into police misconduct and abuse
  • If you’re in DC, provide housing for defendants or show up for court support
  • Support anti-fascist work in your community
  • Spread the word that protesting isn’t illegal, mass arrests are

Things that you should read, watch, or listen to:

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The Prosecutor vs. Dominic Ongwen

Today, the trial of Dominic Ongwen is continuing at the ICC. Opening statements were heard in early December, and the remainder of the trial, starting today, will be held throughout this spring. The case is an important one, both because it’s one of the earlier cases to be heard at the ICC, because it is the first (and potentially only) case to be heard regarding the LRA conflict, and because of the unique fact that Ongwen was kidnapped and forced to join the rebel group as a child about thirty years ago, making him a former child soldier being tried for crimes conducted while conscripted.

There will be a lot written about the trial as it happens and in its aftermath. I wrote about the Ongwen trial last year, focusing on the debate over whether he should stand trial or not, and I’m working on another piece now (update: here it is!). The blog Justice in Conflict also held an online symposium that includes some really good, short posts about different aspects of the case. And back in 2008 Justice and Reconciliation Project published a report about Ongwen and the complicated issue of victim-perpetrators that gets at some of the complexities involved [pdf]. It is the uniqueness of this case and the crucial debates around it that put it at the center of conversations about the ICC and the search for justice in the LRA conflict.

The case has been an interesting one so far. During the confirmation of charges hearings last January, the prosecution laid out its evidence for the case, comprised of numerous witnesses as well as the radio conversations of several LRA commanders, recorded by Ugandan security forces. The facts of the case will address four different attacks on IDP camps – at Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok camps – as well as “thematic” crimes concerning sexual and gender-based crimes as well as crimes against children. All told, Ongwen faces seventy charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, more than any other person. In the transcript of the opening day in December, the reading out of the charges took up seven pages.

The trial will produce a narrative about the conflict. How much this narrative follows the “official discourse” of the war that Sverker Finnström once laid remains to be seen. As Adam Branch notes, the presentations of the prosecution and defense during this preliminary stage of the trial at times followed this dominant narrative but at other times ruptured it. Over the course of this trial, an archive will be produced by the arguments, evidence, and testimonies. This archive has the potential to shape the broader way that the conflict is understood.

But the trial is just part of the way people will find justice in the aftermath of this conflict. Ongwen is but one man, and his trial will principally be about the four attacks he is accused of committing or ordering. This war has lasted thirty years and spanned four countries, including attacks by both the rebels and the state. There is a lot of accountability that has been deferred. But can a trial bring people justice?

“Law is not directed toward the establishment of justice. Nor is it directed toward the verification of truth,” Giorgio Agamben writes in Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. “Law is solely directed toward judgment, independent of truth and justice” (18). The law is about trials, so international criminal law leads us to the ICC, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to get closer to justice, especially if we are talking about something beyond criminal justice. Transitional justice requires changing the politics that led to the violence in the first place – but Uganda has seen little transition since 1986. Social and political justice requires reshaping society to address people’s grievances – but the more we focus on the trial of one man, the further we get from the reform necessary to prevent future outbreaks of violence. A just memory requires acknowledging the responsibilities of all parties involved, but much of the discourse around the LRA conflict still glosses over state violence and humanitarian complicity. Justice at the ICC may indeed be a good thing, but it’s certainly not the only thing.

If a trial is merely about judgment, and criminal justice becomes the only avenue through which the victims of the conflict can find justice, then we will be left at an impasse. Agamben, again, can be guide us here. In his discussion of the Nuremberg trials and the trials of Barbie, Eichmann, and others, he says that such judgments “are responsible for the conceptual confusion that, for decades, has made it impossible to think through Auschwitz. Despite the necessity of the trials and despite their evident insufficiency (they involved only a few hundred people), they helped to spread the idea that the problem of Auschwitz had been overcome” (19-20). The Ongwen trial will shed light on the specific attacks, victims, and witnesses, but much will not be acknowledged. What will become of those victims? Those perpetrators? Those memories?

As the trial begins, it will be important to pay attention to the narrative being created. It will also be important to not attach too much to this narrative, because it will inherently be insufficient. If the trial is a necessary part of fostering justice in Uganda and the international stage, it is also necessary to remember that it is not the only place where justice can be found.