Wood after his Inauguration Day arrest.
It's been nearly a year since 37-year-old Alexei Wood traveled from San Antonio to Washington, D.C. to witness events surrounding Donald Trump's presidential inauguration. But unlike the hundreds wearing pink knitted hats or dressed in head-to-toe black that weekend, Wood wasn't in D.C. on January 20 to protest. He'd gone as a freelance photographer to take photos of the numerous protests and capture some of the action on video.
On Wednesday, Wood heads to a D.C. court to face charges punishable by up to 70 years in prison for doing just that.
Wood began Inauguration Day by live-streaming the so-called "J20" protest
, made up of anti-Trump activists wanting to disrupt and distract attention from the Inauguration Day events by exercising their First Amendment rights. However, a faction of the protest dressed in all black (or "black bloc" for those familiar with protest jargon) began smashing windows and throwing things. The Metropolitan Police Department, D.C.'s police, scrambled to control the situation, with little success. Instead, they turned to a tactic called "kettling" — trapping an indiscriminate group of protesters in a police-made circle.
Wood, who was live-streaming the protest on Facebook, was arrested with 230 other people who happened to be roped into the kettle. His 42-minute video stream only ended after he was pepper sprayed by MPD — and has become a key piece of evidence in both sides of the court.
The federal government (who runs D.C.'s court system) charged nearly everyone in that roundup with conspiring and inciting a riot “to facilitate violence and destruction” and destroying property. All of them face the unusually high punishment of 70 years behind bars.
Since the arrest, Wood was offered a plea deal of 1 1/2 years of probation and a $1,000 fine — which he promptly declined. He and other J20 defendants have made their own solidarity deal to not accept a plea or testify against one another in the case.
Because a whopping 200 people still face criminal charges, defendants are being tried in groups. Wood is included in the first group of seven to step up to the plate.
The outcome of Wood's case could paint a clear picture of what press freedom looks like under the aggressively anti-media Trump Administration. First Amendment advocates fear the government is trying to make an example out of Wood (and fellow arrested journalist Aaron Cantú), like the reporters arrested while covering the Dakota Access Pipeline protest at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota.
In a letter
to the U.S. Attorney in the J20 trials, members of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said that the arrested journalists who were covering Inauguration Day weren't "inciting violence" — they were doing their job.
"They were covering protesters and were therefore in the vicinity when a few of those protestors apparently threw rocks or smashed store windows with hammers," the letter reads. "But being near a newsworthy event is no crime for anyone, reporters included. Journalists routinely run toward the center of any action, so they can better serve the public by reporting an event they personally witnessed, rather than something recounted by bystanders."
After months of pricey back-and-forth trips to D.C. for pre-trial hearings, Wood is temporarily moving to D.C. starting this week. In our July cover story
on Wood, he told us that he's suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression since his arrest on January 20.
“Some days I feel confident, but other days I realize that I’m facing three felony rioting charges and five felony property destruction charges," he said. "Since my arrest, I’ve gotten all of these white hairs and I’m losing weight."