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This Eye-Opening New Documentary Spotlights the Overlooked Trial of Trump Protestors

j20 documentary
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As Donald J. Trump laid his hand on the Bible to be sworn in as President on January 20, 2017, the streets of Washington, D.C. were alight with revolutionary fire. Hundreds of protestors had flooded the capital that day as part of a coordinated action called by a coalition of local leftist and radical organizations, who all came together under the DisruptJ20 banner. It was no peaceful protest.

A black bloc -- an anti-fascist street tactic wherein participants wear masks to disguise their identities for the purposes of safety and crowd cover -- of several hundred people took to the streets around 10AM that morning and claimed the city as their own, against the rising tide of white nationalism and nascent fascism that Trump's inauguration symbolized. Some participants smashed windows, indulged in the judicious use of spray-paint, and set a limo on fire; the police reacted quickly and violently, lobbing flashbang grenades and filling the air with pepper spray. In the end, more than 200 people -- including journalists and passersby -- were penned into a "kettle," and prevented from leaving by riot police, who kept them there from mid-morning until nightfall, then arrested them en masse.

It quickly became apparent that this crackdown on public protest was meant to quash dissent, and to reinforce Trump's "law and order" dictum. But in the end, it only fueled the fire.

The resulting trial has become one of the most significant moments of Trump's still-evolving presidency, though it has received relatively little media attention in the face of the administration's daily penchant for stealing headlines with some new provocation. It's become such a flashpoint for those interested in free speech and the right to protest because of the sheer force with which the authorities prosecuted those arrested: The Department of Justice charged 217 individuals with eight separate felony charges each, threatening them with upwards of 80 years in prison.

Federal Prosecutor Jennifer Kerkhoff took a no-holds-barred approach to her prosecution, seizing individuals' private data, attempting to paint the entire block of defendants as a massive conspiracy to riot, and leaning on far-right extremist media outlets like James O'Keefe's Project Veritas to conjure up "evidence." The effect this mass arrest seemed designed to inflict on protest in general struck a chord with those concerned with First Amendment rights, and the J20 defendants (who many viewed as the Trump administrations first political prisoners) became something of a cause célèbre.

In light of the historic significance and real-time implications of the case, anarchist media collective subMedia recently released a new documentary, Conspiracy to Riot, which offers an examination of the J20 trial and what really went down in D.C. that day. As Leigh Mowburn of sub.Media explains, "Given the dark path that the Trump administration has taken us down over the past two years, we wanted to remind viewers of the street-level resistance that kicked off his presidency. And we wanted to celebrate, frankly, that people threw down at one of the most heavily secured events in history... and more or less managed to get away with it."

How did they manage to pull it off? In a word, solidarity, which in the activist community is more than a slogan: It's one of their most effective weapons. The National Lawyers Guild provided pro bono representation, and the Dead City Legal Posse -- a collective of activists and legal support workers in D.C -- banded together to marshal support for the defendants, and aid in securing legal resources through the final disposition of their cases, as well as working with other activist organizations to raise funds and drum up public support.

Ultimately, almost all of the charges were dropped (with a small number of people taking plea deals, and one person serving a four-month prison term), but the defendants still endured well over a year of uncertainty and fear over the charges slapped on them.

The documentary comes as part of subMedia's ongoing Trouble series, which is meant to be watched in groups in the hopes that the post-film discussion sparks collective organizing. Coming in at a digestible 37 minutes, the film features interviews with DisruptJ20 organizers and members of key groups, like DC's Black Lives Matter chapter, as well as with defendants themselves.

"Like most of our work, we wanted to create a document that movements can use to help organize in the future, but also to serve as marker of one of the most important political trials in recent memory," Mowburn explained. "In this case, the lessons learned are that solid security practices and a culture of solidarity can help keep our communities of resistance safe. We also learned that when 200+ activists facing decades in prison, instead of defending themselves individually, decide to put their 200+ lawyers at the service of all the accused, then you have a legal team that can outgun the US Department of Justice. Solidarity pays off."

As uplifting as the film's ending is, Mowburn is also quick to offer a reminder that, despite the fact that the good guys won this time, the worst is far from over. "The J20 case is a timely example [of] how far the state will go to crush revolutionary movements," they said. "This is not something that happened years ago, but a case that just wrapped up in July. Trump is still in power and Kerkhoff got a promotion. So this is not going away, and the lessons learned are still fresh."

Those lessons remain at the forefront of many antifascist activists' minds as we close out a year of rapidly escalating right-wing violence, from the MAGA Bomber to the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and the third consecutive year of increasing hate crimes across the nation. Mowburn predicts that street-level activism will become more volatile in the US, and that adapting to this reality is crucial to the survival of any real resistance movement. "This applies to the ever-changing legal reality at the state and federal level," they explain, "where we see lawmakers making moves to further criminalize activists, not to mention the many cops who have sympathies with, or are part of, far-right groups."

At the very least, J20 had a happy ending for the defendants -- and, as far as Mowburn is concerned, it lit a revolutionary spark that continues to burn across Trump's America.

"The state wanted to send a decisive message that it will not be fucked with, specially during an event as holy as the inauguration," Mowburn says. "They failed. The prosecutor and the Department of Justice hugely underestimated the work and the networks that anarchists have been nurturing for years. While it's no small thing to be spending the rest of your life in prison, the people who took to the streets on January 20 knew how high the stakes were, and felt it was worth gambling with their freedom. We owe a lot of the resistance we saw in the months that followed to the brave people who did what they did on J20."

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Kim Kelly is a writer and radical organizer based in New York City. She authors a regular labor column for Teen Vogue, has contributed to The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, NPR, and others, and is currently the heavy metal editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter @grimkim