By Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director
While most of us are preparing for Thanksgiving festivities, a freelance journalist is sitting in a Washington, D.C., courtroom this week wondering if he’s about to be sent to prison for more than 70 years – just for doing his job.
Alexei Wood of San Antonio was among at least nine reporters and photojournalists rounded up by D.C. Metropolitan Police during Inauguration Day rioting in the nation’s capital. Charges were never filed, or were filed and then dismissed, against all but Wood and another freelancer, Aaron Cantú, who faces trial next year. The journalists were among more than 200 people arrested in Washington that day.
Wood and Cantú were originally charged with a single felony. RTDNA and other press freedom groups advocated strongly that the charges be dropped. Instead, the Trump administration’s Justice Department septupled down, if you will, taking the reporters’ cases before a grand jury and getting indictments that added seven additional felony counts against each.
Wood was arrested while livestreaming the rioting on Facebook. (Caution: Contains coarse language.) His 42-minute video shows him chronicling the events around him, including rioters breaking windows, a counter protestor assaulting a protestor, and an injured counter protestor who had apparently been assaulted by a protestor. It also shows police “kettling” the rioters Wood was livestreaming.
“Kettling” is a controversial police tactic in which officers surround a group of protestors, ordering them to leave the area when they have no place to go, then arresting them for not disbursing. It was often used more recently in St. Louis during civil unrest that led to the arrests of at least ten journalists, until a federal judge issued an injunction ordering police there to change their tactics.
What Wood’s video does not show is him participating in the property destruction or assaults. In fact, at one point he is shown being forcibly shoved by a police officer into the crowd of rioters shortly before they were all arrested
Still, the government is using Wood’s video against him at trial, claiming that some of the comments he makes on the video prove that he at least supported the rioters’ actions, if not actually participated in them. That’s an interesting approach, given that Wood is charged with committing the act of rioting and the video shows no evidence of that.
A few times as he’s livestreaming the riot, you hear him exclaim “Woo!” as windows are being broken. At one point he enthusiastically says, “It’s go time!” as the rioters begin to encounter police. He also drops many F-bombs.
In my view, that does not, and should not, matter. While Wood’s remarks are not statements conventional journalists would make, Wood is not a conventional journalist. Still, he is a citizen of the United States of America who has First Amendment rights, specifically as it relates to freedom of speech and the press.
Wood categorically denies all charges against him, recently telling The Austin American-Statesman, “I was not there as a protester or in any way a participant. I was there documenting this tumultuous election and specifically the protests.” Wood’s attorney is also using his video at trial.
We live in an era in which the President of the United States reportedly asked his then-FBI Director James Comey to jail journalists, and in which the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has repeatedly refused to offer assurances that journalists won’t be targeted.
HUFFPOST reporters Ryan J. Reilly and Christopher Mathias wrote about Wood’s trial this week “using language the American media typically reserves for news stories written about more repressive countries. Felony charges against American journalists are jarring,” they wrote. “Our approach to this story is meant to be as well.”
Wood’s trial is expected to last several weeks. Its outcome will be either a victory for press freedom or a horrible deterioration of citizens’ fundamental rights under the U.S. Constitution.