Federal prosecutors want to use a far-right militia’s YouTube video to convict anti-Trump protesters and a journalist of riot.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. is attempting to convict nearly 200 people—including a journalist—of participating in an Inauguration Day protest in which some people broke windows and damaged vehicles. Defendants stand to serve as many as 75 years in prison if convicted. And some of those high-stakes cases might come down to trial by YouTube video, The Daily Beast has learned. In September, the U.S. attorney moved to introduce a series of videos ripped from right-wing and conspiracy-theorist YouTube channels, including a video produced by the far-right militia the Oath Keepers.
The video names listed in the filing match those of dubious YouTube videos boasting of “INSANE Protests Riots Compilation,” or far-right internet videos claiming to show “Mayham” [sic] in the streets.
And one of those videos—an audio file overlaid with a slideshow of protest pictures—was uploaded as part of an “operation” by a right-wing militia.
Court documents list the video as “The_DC_Police_Allowed_the_Inauguration_Chaos.mp4”. That file appears to have been ripped from a YouTube video of the same name by the Oath Keepers, a far-right, gun-toting group that has been accused of racism, anti-government extremism, and peddling conspiracy theories. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington declined to comment on the video’s origins.
The Oath Keepers, who did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment, garnered headlines when they urged members to “monitor” polling places during the 2016 presidential election, leading to accusations of voter intimidation. The group also made news for showing up heavily armed to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as for offering a “security detail” to protect anti-gay marriage county clerk Kim Davis from arrest, and for members’ conspiracy-theory-tinged writings on Muslims, Black Lives Matter, and the left in general.
“While it claims only to be defending the Constitution, the entire organization is based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans,” the Southern Poverty Law Center alleges of the group.
After President Donald Trump’s election, the previously anti-government group found a new place in its heart for the nation’s highest office, and swore to crack down against “violent protests against the president-elect.”
“We cannot simply sit around and watch while the enemies of liberty work to use violence to initiate a communist revolution in our country,” the Oath Keepers wrote in a November 2016 blog post announcing efforts to “infiltrate” protest movements. “We have allowed our personnel to burrow deep inside these protest organizations to collect information regarding tactics, motivations, schedules and logistics.”
In practice, the group’s “infiltration” effort meant attending a large meeting of activists. The video “The DC Police Allowed the Inauguration Chaos” purports to contain five minutes of audio from the meeting.
“On the 18th, our first action is planned,” a woman is heard telling a crowd in the video. “This is going to be a queer dance party at Mike Pence’s house.”
The audio is the standard stuff of organizing meetings. Moreover, the meeting and everything discussed therein are legal. But the video is superimposed with a slideshow of images of black-clad protesters and damaged vehicles.
The Oath Keepers boasted of giving the footage to D.C. police, and receiving “the thanks of at least one federal law-enforcement agency for our efforts.”
The Oath Keepers also claimed to have worked in coordination with Project Veritas, a sting operation by conservative provocateur James O’Keefe. Ahead of the inauguration, Project Veritas captured video of protesters discussing the effect stink bombs would have on The Deploraball, a party for the so-called alt-right. Veritas says it turned over the video to “the CIA, the Secret Service, and the DC Metro Police.” Three people featured in the video were arrested the day before the inauguration.
But the extent of Veritas’ and the Oath Keeper’s coordination with law enforcement is unclear. Sam Menefee-Libey, a member of the volunteer legal group D.C. Legal Posse said defendants’ lawyers have repeatedly requested information on police’s internal reports on inauguration arrests, but that the requests “haven’t been accepted.”
“Online, the Oath Keepers mentioned they’d been bringing MPD [Metropolitan Police Department] materials before the inauguration,” Menefee-Libey said. “We don’t know if the MPD had relationships with authoritarian nationalist militias.”
The prosecution has also moved to introduce as evidence other videos ripped from questionable YouTube sources. One such video, titled “TRUMP Inauguration | Protests gone WRONG | MOB Mentality COMPILATION 2017” was uploaded to YouTube by a channel that appears to specialize in “pranks gone wrong” compilation videos.
Another video, titled “Mayham! Protesters RUSH COPS😨In Washington DC,” was uploaded by a channel that frequently posts conspiracy theory videos like “HlLLARY KlLLING HER ENEMlES: EVIL CLlNTONS Will Do ANYTHING To BURY The Truth About CORRUPTlON.”
One of the prosecution’s videos originates from the alt-right media group Rebel Media, and appears to exonerate one of the case’s defendants. In the video, a Rebel Media livestreamer stands in crowd of reporters, separated from protesters. Next to her is Aaron Cantú, the reporter facing charges for his alleged participation in what prosecutors describe as a riot.
Many of the videos are at least partial duplicates, with YouTubers making compilation videos using the same footage of protesters breaking windows. The Oath Keepers’ video shows no criminality. And previous court filings have accused defendants of conspiracy to riot, based on overt acts as simple as wearing “black or dark colored clothing, gloves, scarves, sunglasses, ski masks, gas masks, goggles.”
The Daily Beast previously reported that investigators had cracked defendants’ phones, and that prosecutors had moved to use the internet histories, communications, and pictures from those phones as evidence. Prosecutors also attempted to compel the web host for a protest website to turn over data on every IP address that had ever visited the site, a request that was eventually withdrawn.
The combined effect is a broad dragnet for information on defendants, even if it means the U.S. attorney’s office using edited videos from far-right militias as evidence.
“We’ve seen a number of stories in the past few months about the government going after overly broad searches, from a search on an activist’s home in D.C, to the [web host] subpoena, to recent Facebook search warrants which ask for everything including things those users deleted,” Menefee-Libey said.
“They seem to be casting about for everything at this point, which to a layperson might seem like desperation.”