US gov­ern­ment uses Project Ver­i­tas video in trial of anti-Trump pro­test­ers

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Sam Levin in San Francisco

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors tar­get­ing an­tiTrump pro­test­ers are re­ly­ing on video ev­i­dence from Project Ver­i­tas, a far-right group un­der fire this week for al­legedly try­ing to dupe the Wash­ing­ton Post with a false story of sex­ual mis­con­duct.

The US at­tor­ney’s of­fice sub­mit­ted the footage in court on Tues­day as part of an on­go­ing trial against ac­tivists who protested Don­ald Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion and now face con­spir­acy and ri­ot­ing charges that could lead to decades in pri­son.

Pros­e­cu­tors played the video – which re­port­edly showed undercover footage from a meet­ing of ac­tivists – one day af­ter the Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported that Project Ver­i­tas had sent a woman undercover pre­tend­ing to be a vic­tim of Roy Moore, the US Se­nate can­di­date ac­cused of sex­ual mis­con­duct.

The de­ci­sion to use video from a dis­cred­ited ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive group known for eth­i­cally ques­tion­able tac­tics has drawn crit­i­cisms from civil lib­er­ties groups, who have ar­gued that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment un­der Trump is ag­gres­sively pros­e­cut­ing ac­tivists who op­pose the pres­i­dent.

“It’s ab­so­lutely shock­ing that the pros­e­cu­tors went on record to­day say­ing they are re­ly­ing on a Project Ver­i­tas video,” said Jude Or­tiz, a mem­ber of the or­ga­niz­ing crew of De­fend J20 Re­sis­tance, a group sup­port­ing the nearly 200 peo­ple fac­ing charges re­lated to the Wash­ing­ton DC protests of Trump on 20 Jan­uary.

“It’s a dubious piece of ev­i­dence at best, and it’s ap­palling that it’s com­ing from the far right,” said Or­tiz, who at­tended the hear­ing.

Hun­dreds were ar­rested dur­ing in­au­gu­ra­tion day demon­stra­tions – in­clud­ing jour­nal­ists, le­gal ob­servers and medics – draw­ing crit­i­cisms that law en­force­ment was is­su­ing overly broad charges against peo­ple caught up in the chaos, with­out spe­cific ev­i­dence ty­ing them to al­leged crimes. Though some charges were later dropped, many are still on trial for con­spir­acy, ri­ot­ing and prop­erty de­struc­tion al­le­ga­tions, and some could face 60-year pri­son sen­tences.

The video comes from Project Ver­i­tas’ in­fil­tra­tion of a meet­ing where ac­tivists dis­cussed plans to dis­rupt in­au­gu­ra­tion ac­tiv­i­ties.

The use of Project Ver­i­tas footage is the lat­est ex­am­ple of pros­e­cu­tors re­ly­ing on ev­i­dence linked to con­tro­ver­sial far-right sources. The US at­tor­ney’s of­fice has also sub­mit­ted video from the Oath Keep­ers, a rightwing mili­tia group that has been present at “alt-right” ral­lies.

Project Ver­i­tas founder James O’Keefe has also faced scru­tiny for past undercover ef­forts and was con­victed in 2010 for his role in a scheme to make il­le­gal record­ings at the of­fice of a Demo­cratic sen­a­tor. The group’s ap­par­ent ef­fort to em­bar­rass the Wash­ing­ton Post, how­ever, back­fired this week af­ter the news­pa­per ex­posed the al­leged sting op­er­a­tion.

“The gov­ern­ment is un­trou­bled by their col­lab­o­ra­tion with au­thor­i­tar­ian rightwingers,” said Sam Mene­fee-Libey, a mem­ber of the Dead City Le­gal Posse, an ac­tivist group sup­port­ing the pro­test­ers on trial.

Mene­fee-Libey, who was in court on Tues­day, said he be­lieved the judge should not have al­lowed the video to be pre­sented in the first place, given Project Ver­i­tas’ his­tory.

“Fun­da­men­tally, this shows that the state doesn’t have very much to go on,” said James An­der­son, a mem­ber of It’s Go­ing Down, an an­tifas­cist col­lec­tive that has pro­moted protests against Trump and the “al­tright”. Pros­e­cu­tors have also used com­ments an ac­tivist made on an It’s Go­ing Down pod­cast as ev­i­dence in the on­go­ing trial.

“The fact that they have to fall back on us­ing th­ese far-right trolls, which are widely dis­cred­ited, not only speaks to the il­le­git­i­macy of their case, but also a fun­da­men­tal re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and the alt-right,” An­der­son said.

Erin Lemkey, a Wash­ing­ton DC pro­tester who is fac­ing charges for J20 ac­tiv­i­ties, said the Project Ver­i­tas video re­vealed weak­nesses in the pros­e­cu­tion’s case.

“They’re us­ing what­ever stuff they can drag up,” said Lemkey, who has not yet gone to trial. “It’s dou­bly strange that they would be tak­ing such a dis­cred­ited source.”

A spokesman for Project Ver­i­tas de­fended the use of the video as “en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate”. A spokesman for the US at­tor­ney’s of­fice for DC de­clined to com­ment.

The J20 demon­stra­tors are not the only pro­gres­sive ac­tivists who have faced harsh pros­e­cu­tions for protest ac­tiv­i­ties this year. In May, a left­wing ac­tivist was con­victed af­ter she was ar­rested for laugh­ing dur­ing a con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing for at­tor­ney gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions. Anti-fas­cist demon­stra­tors in Cal­i­for­nia have also faced se­ri­ous felony charges.

The link to Project Ver­i­tas also raises broader con­cerns about the US gov­ern­ment’s will­ing­ness to in­ves­ti­gate and pros­e­cute vi­o­lence com­mit­ted by white su­prem­a­cists and neo-Nazis, ac­tivists said. Trump faced heated back­lash af­ter he failed to con­demn neo-Nazis in Vir­ginia in the wake of deadly vi­o­lence in­volv­ing white su­prem­a­cists ear­lier this year.

“Why are there no con­spir­acy charges for the far right?” said An­der­son. “That’s a huge ques­tion.”

Po­lice and demon­stra­tors clash in down­town Wash­ing­ton af­ter a limo was set on fire fol­low­ing Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion in Jan­uary. Pho­to­graph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

James O’Keefe, founder of Project Ver­i­tas, in Wash­ing­ton. Pho­to­graph: Pablo Martinez Mon­si­vais/AP

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