SCALES OF INJUSTICE

Reporter Covering Inauguration Protests Now Faces 75 Years in Prison

The day of the inauguration, a millionaire was arrested for assaulting a maid and got a $50 fine. A reporter covering protests, however, faces more than seven decades behind bars.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

In the first hours of Donald Trump’s presidency, Washington, D.C., police booked John Boswell and Aaron Cantú into jail. Boswell was a millionaire Trump supporter arrested after he sexually assaulted a maid in the hotel room he’d booked for the inauguration. Cantú was a journalist arrested while covering protesters outside the inaugural ceremonies.

Boswell will serve no prison time for the sexual abuse, to which he pleaded guilty. Cantú faces up to 75 years in prison.

Washington’s jails were busy on Inauguration Day. Alongside everyday criminals like Boswell, some 230 people arrested during protests also spent the night of Jan. 20 behind bars. Some of these arrests were protesters who allegedly damaged vehicles and shattered business windows. Others arrested were legal observers, medics, journalists like Cantú, or peaceful protesters swept up in mass arrests, where police deployed pepper spray over a swath of crowd.

But when prosecutors began handling Inauguration Day arrests, those arrested during the protests felt the harshest extent of the law—while Boswell got off with a $50 fine and no prison time.

Boswell, a millionaire in the barrel manufacturing industry, earns $600,000 per month, according to court documents reviewed by The Washington Post, and has donated more than $120,000 to Republican political candidates. On Jan. 19, he checked into a room at D.C.’s luxurious Mayflower Hotel for Trump’s inauguration the following day. When a maid entered the room that afternoon to clean, Boswell took a page from the soon-to-be-president’s alleged behavior, inappropriately touching the woman without her consent.

While the housekeeper made Boswell’s bed, he approached her from behind and “rubbed the left side of her buttocks without her permission,” according to a police report obtained by The Daily Beast.

“This is very nice stuff,” Boswell said, according to another report obtained by the Post. “I like that!”

The woman reportedly froze and told him “sorry, sir” out of shock, before hurrying out of the room. She was shaking and refused to re-enter the room, a fellow housekeeper told police. The other housekeeper reportedly began cleaning the room until Boswell approached her, too. He “placed his hand on the top of her shoulder” until the housekeeper ordered him away, according to the police report.

The following evening around 6:20 p.m., police arrested Boswell and took him to jail. Protesters who would soon become Boswell’s cellmates were still active in the streets. When he was released the following morning, activists cheered him as he left the courthouse, mistaking him for one of the protesters who had yet to be released from jail. The crowd quickly realized its mistake. “Sex offender!” someone shouted at Boswell while onlookers hurled fruit at him.

But those detained at the previous night’s protests were arguably having a worse morning.

Police action against protesters began on the afternoon of the inauguration, after some skirmishes between law enforcement and demonstrators. Not everyone in the crowd was a demonstrator, much less a rioter. “Some were journalists, some medics, some legal observers,” Sam Menefee-Libey, a member of the D.C. Legal Posse, a group supporting the demonstrators, told The Daily Beast.

One person arrested during the protests, who requested anonymity due to pending charges, said police conducted arrests broadly, after a large group of people moving through the streets became stalled against a police line. Though the person was not a protester, they were swept up in the mass arrests after police kettled a large group of people into a corner.

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Once cornered, the 200-plus people were detained on the street without access to bathrooms or water for up to seven hours, the person said. When police finally made arrests, officers applied zip ties in a way that appeared vindictively tight, and kept arrestees in a police van for four hours, where it became difficult to breathe, the person said.

Police tactics were quickly called into question, and became the subject of a D.C. Police Complaints Board report the following month (PDF), which found that “some arrests may not have been carried out according to the Standard Operating Procedures, and that less than lethal weapons were used indiscriminately and without adequate warnings in certain instances.”

“The arrests were extremely indiscriminate. It was a mass arrest of anyone the police believed had participated in the day’s anti-fascist, anti-capitalist demonstration,” Matthew Whitley, an organizer with Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, which is supporting demonstrators told The Daily Beast. “There was very little in terms of targeted arrests.”

Among those arrests was Cantú, a current staff writer for the Santa Fe Reporter and an editor for the online magazine the New Inquiry, who was covering the protests as an independent journalist at the time of his arrest. A video from a conservative reporter during the protests showed Cantú in the middle of a group of reporters, a considerable distance from demonstrators. He appeared to be rubbing pepper spray from his eyes. Hours after the video was filmed, he would be one of seven journalists slapped with felony riot charges for covering the protests.

But while most journalists had their charges dropped, Cantú saw his charges increased last week. Where he previously faced only 10 years in prison, a grand jury indicted him last week on eight felony counts including riot, incitement to riot, conspiracy to riot, and five counts of destruction of property. He now faces 75 years in prison.

The dramatic escalation of Cantú’s charges mirrors those of approximately 200 other people arrested during the protests. These defendants, many of whom are named in a mass indictment, are accused of conspiracy to riot. As evidence against the accused, the indictment cites dubious “overt acts” including some protesters’ decision to bring “goggles to eliminate or mitigate the effectiveness of crowd control measures that might be used by law enforcement” and some protesters shouting “‘Fuck it up,’ ‘Fuck Capitalism,’ and ‘Whose streets? Our streets’ prior to, during, and after acts of violence and destruction.”

Menefee-Libey suggested that the sudden escalation of charges might be a ploy to make some defendants accept plea deals. “A pretty common tactic by prosecutors if they’re not seeing plea deals is something called ‘stacking the box,’ where they include every charge they can,” in order to increase pressure on the accused, Menefee-Libey said.

But Boswell, who was arrested at the same time as the protesters, saw a kinder side of the law.

After pleading guilty to misdemeanor sexual abuse on April 11, he was sentenced to 10 days in prison and six months’ probation. The prison time was later suspended. Though Boswell could have been required to pay a penalty of up to $250, a judge only ordered the millionaire to make a $50 contribution to a victims compensation fund.

Boswell’s attorney, who did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment, even lobbied to drop Boswell’s guilty plea in a move called a deferred sentencing agreement, or DSA, which would have allowed Boswell to withdraw his guilty plea if he showed good behavior. A prosecutor denied the move, citing Boswell’s alleged behavior toward the second housekeeper, for which he has not been charged.

Though he pleaded guilty, Boswell told the Post he had simply “patted her on the lower back… It was just a friendly gesture.”

Despite being sentenced to six months of probation, the judge ruled that Boswell could leave the country while on probation in order to visit the Bahamas last month. The millionaire’s sentence was amended to let him visit the beach, while Cantú faces 75 years in prison for doing his job.