Aaron Cantú, a staff writer at the Santa Fe Reporter, has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that he participated in a riot while working as a journalist during protests in Washington, DC on Inauguration Day.
Cantú faces eight felony counts—including inciting a riot, rioting, conspiracy to riot and five counts of destruction of property. The grand jury handed up the indictment last week.
On January 20, a collection of DC police and federal law enforcement officers arrested more than 200 people in connection with a rally that began as a protest, but turned destructive as several people broke the windows of businesses, damaged vehicles and allegedly caused a police officer to break his wrist.
Cantú was not named specifically by prosecutors as the cause of any of the destruction, as some defendants were. Instead, the indictment named him as being present while the damage happened. The arrests have been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, other civil rights groups and newspapers as overly broad and lacking hard evidence.
Video from the conservative media group The Rebel shows glimpses of Cantú off to the side of the protests with other journalists, washing what appears to be pepper spray from his eyes. He’s standing next to a conservative journalist as she narrates the scene.
Julie Ann Grimm, editor and publisher of SFR, said the indictment will not affect Cantú’s status at the newspaper, where he’s worked since April.
“Aaron is an experienced journalist who disclosed this pending case during the hiring process. We stand behind him and look forward to his continued good work in his new home in Santa Fe.”
Neither Cantú nor his attorneys at the DC firm of Gibson and Dunn would comment on the indictment. Cantú will be arraigned in Washington, DC on Friday, June 9. He has previously said he will plead not guilty.
“Anyone out there who was not involved in rioting shouldn’t be prosecuted,” Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, tells SFR. “That’s the amazing thing about the DC protests, is that they know that a handful of people threw bricks through windows and one person threw something at an officer. And they arrested over 200 people. They know that everyone they arrested was not participating in a crime.”
Leslie noted that the US Attorney’s office has not said why it dropped charges against some journalists while pursuing charges against Cantú and a photographer who was livestreaming the event. Bill Miller, a spokesman for the US Attorney in Washington DC told SFR in an email, "We typically do not comment on pending cases and have no further comment on the felony rioting matters."
In addition to covering the protests as part of his role as senior editor for the online magazine The New Inquiry, Cantú initially offered to write a firsthand account of his experience for VICE before deciding against it in light of possible charges. Cantú has written for VICE, The Intercept, The Nation and other publications.
Cantú is the last person to face indictment out of more than 200 people being prosecuted by the US Attorney for the District of Columbia. He is one of two journalists whose charges have not been dropped by acting US Attorney Channing Phillips, an Obama appointee still awaiting US Senate confirmation.
Video from The Rebel (Cantú at lower right of screen at 8:19):