Texas jour­nal­ist goes on trial in D.C. protest case

San An­to­nio man who streamed Jan. 20 un­rest ac­cused of in­cit­ing riot.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Maria Re­cio Amer­i­can-States­man spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent

In­au­gu­ra­tion WASH­ING­TON — Day was not only the start of Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency, it was the start of a spirited re­sis­tance against his pres­i­dency.

And this week some of that re­sis­tance goes on trial.

The first trial of the ap­prox­i­mately 200 pro­test­ers ar­rested Jan. 20 in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., starts Wed­nes­day. There are so many de­fen­dants that they are be­ing tried in groups. First up in a group

of seven be­ing tried for riot- ing, in­cit­ing and con­spir­acy to riot and dam­ag­ing prop- erty is San An­to­nio-based pho­to­jour­nal­ist Alexei Wood.

His de­fense turns on First Amend­ment free­doms. But the 42-minute Face­book Live video he took is be­ing used as ev­i­dence by both sides. Wood, who also does com

mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phy, is one of two jour­nal­ists who were cov­er­ing the protests and are fac­ing a multi-count in­dict­ment. (Other jour­nal­ists were let go at the scene or were ar­rested but not charged.)

Both are Tex­ans. Wood, 37, is from Cor­pus Christi and lived in Austin, off and on, for nine years, as he told the Amer­i­can-States­man, “when it was af­ford­able and weird.” An in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, he was live-stream­ing the protest on Face­book, cap­tur­ing many of the tense mo­ments, in­clud­ing his own, fall­ing to his knees at the end of the video af­ter he was pep­per-sprayed.

In the in­dict­ment, Wood and more than 200 oth­ers are charged with be­ing part of a riot, as well as con­spir- ing and in­cit­ing a riot and de­stroy­ing prop­erty. The felony counts mean he is fac­ing more than 60 years in prison if con­victed. Su­pe­rior Court Judge Lynn Lei­bovitz, who is pre­sid­ing over the case, re­cently re­duced two of the felony counts against all of the de­fen­dants to mis­de­meanors. Un­til then, Wood and the oth­ers were look­ing at as many as 75 years in prison.

Aaron Cantú, 29, a McAllen na­tive, was cov­er­ing the protests for The New In­quiry, an on­line out­let, and is now a staff writer with the Santa Fe Re­porter in New Mex­ico. He was charged sep­a­rately from the oth­ers in an eight-count in­dict­ment in May and also faces more than 60 years in prison.

“I live-streamed an anti-fas­cist/anti-cap­i­tal­ism protest on Trump’s in­augu- ra­tion day in D.C.,” Wood told the Amer­i­can-States­man in an email. “I con­tin­ued film­ing while in de­ten­tion of a po­lice ket­tle af­ter po­lice sur­rounded an en­tire block of peo­ple. I even livestreamed my ac­tual ar­rest. I was never told why we were be­ing ar­rested, to­tal stonewall. I asked what the heck was go­ing on but no of­fi­cer would speak a word. I was not there as a pro­tester or in any way a par­tic­i­pant. I was there doc­u­ment­ing this tu­mul­tuous elec­tion and specif­i­cally the protests.”

‘Deeply trou­bling’

Both Wood a nd Cantú pleaded not guilty. Wood has a court-ap­pointed at­tor­ney and Cantú has a lawyer work­ing pro bono. Wood has re­jected a plea deal and is

part of a group of de­fen­dants, the J20 Re­sis­tance, who have agreed not to ac­cept a plea and pledged not to tes­tify against one an­other. Wood said he was of­fered one year of prison de­ferred to 1½ years of pro­ba­tion, a $1,000 fine and 60 hours of com­mu­nity ser­vice. “I flat-out re­fused be­fore even hear­ing the ‘deal,’” he said.

Cantú said that he and Wood did not know each other be­fore their ar­rests. “His pros- ecu­tion, like mine, is an as­sault on press free­dom and po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion and should be deeply con­cern­ing for any­body who con­sid­ers them­selves an Amer­i­can,” Cantú said. “I’m heart­ened that both Wood and I have re­ceived tons of sup­port from free press or­ga­ni­za­tions and oth­ers who un­der- stand how piv­otal this case is.” Cantú’s trial is sched­uled for next Oc­to­ber.

In a let­ter to the U.S. at­tor­ney, a group of press or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing the Free­dom of the Press Foun­da­tion, asked that the charges be dropped against Wood and Cantú.

“This crim­i­nal­iza­tion of ev­ery­one at­tend­ing the same assem­bly is deeply trou­bling, but in the case of Cantú and Wood it raises spe­cial con­cerns for press free­dom,” the let­ter said. “In or­der to cover these news­wor­thy events, jour­nal­ists have to be present.” With pros­e­cu­tors charg­ing jour­nal­ists by their pres­ence, “the very act of jour­nal­ism is crim­i­nal­ized.”

Prob­lem­atic for Wood is that his livestream video, which pros­e­cu­tors call the “Wood Video,” is cen­tral to the gov­ern­ment’s case. “The gov­ern­ment in­tends to use the Wood Video ... in ev­ery trial,” said pros­e­cu­tors in a pre­trial mo­tion. “The Wood Video is ad­mis­si­ble against ev­ery de­fen­dant as it cap­tures, in real time, the words and ac­tions of par­tic­i­pants in the ‘black bloc’ dur­ing the riot and cap­tures the de­struc­tion and vi­o­lence dur­ing the riot.”

More than 200 pro­test­ers were ar­rested Jan. 20, af­ter the group be­gan march­ing in down­town Wash­ing­ton, leav­ing Lo­gan Cir­cle in the morn­ing, chant­ing and, in some cases, dam­ag­ing cars and break­ing win­dows as they headed to­ward Penn- syl­va­nia Av­enue, which was the in­au­gu­ral pa­rade route.

They didn’t get far. Pro­test­ers were stopped and sur­rounded by po­lice.

Pros­e­cu­tors called the move­ment of the or­ga­nized group a “black bloc” be­cause the par­tic­i­pants wore black, usu­ally with hooded jack- ets, and cov­ered their faces ex­cept for their eyes to make iden­ti­fi­ca­tion dif­fi­cult.

Hat­ing the press

Why are jour­nal­ists and, in a very real way, the First Amend­ment on trial?

“I think it’s very dif­fi­cult to know what’s in the head of pros­e­cu­tors,” said Gabe Rottman, Wash­ing­ton di­rec- tor of PEN Amer­ica, a literary and free ex­pres­sion group, which is sup­port­ive of Wood and Cantú. “It re­ally does look like the gov­ern­ment is try­ing to make an ex­am­ple of jour­nal­ists. It’s ex­tremely con­cern­ing, es­pe­cially given the sever­ity of the charges.”

Robert Jensen, a Univer­sity of Texas jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor, said, “Trump rode into of­fice in part by tap­ping into the ha­tred a por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion has for jour­nal­ists. Part of the cam­paign was de­mo­niz­ing jour­nal­ists.” Of the in­augu

ra­tion protest, said Jensen, “one as­sumes that this is part of a gen­eral project to de­mo­nize the press and also to scare the press.”

The case re­lies heav­ily on elec­tronic data. Pros­e­cu­tors plan to use the de­fen­dants’ cell­phones and other elec­tronic de­vice in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing texts, calls and chats. Po­lice seized ev­ery sus­pect’s de­vices — Wood’s equip­ment was taken and he’s had to rely on bor­rowed cam­eras — al­though some phones, like Cantú’s, were en­crypted, and pros­e­cu­tors have not been able to open them. The judge has been rul­ing on what in­for­ma­tion may be used.

Bill Miller, spokesman for the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice for

the Dis­trict of Columbia, said he could not com­ment on a pend­ing case. The new U.S. at­tor­ney, Jessie K. Liu, was re­cently con­firmed by the Se­nate, and the case is be­ing tried by As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­ney Jen­nifer Kerkhoff.

Jury se­lec­tion be­gins Wed­nes­day, and the trial is ex­pected to last sev­eral weeks.

There are also civil cases on In­au­gu­ra­tion Day ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing one brought by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union on be­half of in­di­vid­u­als, in­clud­ing a pho­to­jour

nal­ist, for po­lice mis­con­duct. Wood, for his part, is up­beat about the trial and has con­tin­ued his pho­to­graphic ca­reer, which had an

in­aus­pi­cious start in Austin. “I went to two years at Austin Com­mu­nity Col­lege where I took my only pho­tog­ra­phy class,” he said. “I got a D.”


Alexei Wood, a San An­to­nio pho­to­jour­nal­ist, was charged with be­ing part of a riot dur­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion events in Jan­uary.


A pro­tester holds up a sign read­ing “No” as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s limou­sine makes its way down the pa­rade route Jan. 20 in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.,

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