WASHINGTON, D.C. — Officer Michael Howden was supposed to help federal prosecutors establish that the group of protesters they want jailed for decades were assaulting cops wantonly the day President Donald Trump took his oath.
But on cross-examination, Howden quickly grew heated as defense attorneys showed him clips of himself saying things he claimed not to remember saying on Inauguration Day. In one of them, Howden said that herding anti-Trump marchers was nothing new for him.
“I’m fairly accustomed to that sort of rioting,” Howden is heard saying to another officer in a clip from Howden’s own body-worn camera footage from January 20. “Herding people through Barry Farm when they’re rioting, when they’re out of control,” he continued in the clip.
Barry Farm, anonymous to most anyone outside the Washington, D.C., area and even to many who live here, is a public housing development in the Anacostia area of the District. It lies in the Metropolitan Police Department’s 7th District, where Howden is typically assigned — and where MPD’s use of “jump-out” tactics and aggressive stop-and-frisk searches of civilians has drawn public scorn and official sanction in recent years. City elders are trying to tear the development down and redevelop it as gentrification hops across the Anacostia River, though residents have sued to halt the plan.
“The number one complaint I Get from [Barry Farm] residents is the police are not very focused on crime,” Stop Police Terror Project DC organizer Eugene Puryear told ThinkProgress.
Puryear acknowledged the neighborhood has a reputation for crime and violence, but said residents don’t see cops really tackling those problems.
“There’s a lot of petty harassment from police for open containers, things like that. Police seem uninterested or afraid of actually doing their jobs in that area,” he said.
The development sits just uphill from a municipal park where local rec sports leagues rent fields for their members, mostly young professionals who moved here but didn’t grow up in the “Chocolate City.”
For tens of thousands of black Washingtonians, Barry Farm and the surrounding blocks are home. For Howden’s police force, it is often treated like a warzone to be occupied.
“The district where he’s from is one of the districts where there is most complaints about police behavior on a number of different levels,” said Puryear. “It’s a very ‘special forces in Afghanistan’ type attitude toward policing.”
The MPD runs a unit there dubbed “Powershift.” Its logo features a grim reaper. In place of the standard letter “o” in the name, the logo uses the Celtic Cross, a piece of iconography frequently used by white supremacists.
The Powershift unit became a lightning rod for criticisms of police racism here just this past summer, after local activists uncovered social media posts from members that were indicative of a predatory, paramilitary attitude among officers — and also, depending who is evaluating the images, a bias against non-white people.
The logo has already caused one judge to dismiss a felony gun case after an officer involved was photographed wearing a shirt with the Powershift logo. The unit, logo, and social media postings are now the subject of an internal department investigation.
After playing the clip from his body camera, the defense lawyer asked Howden to characterize Barry Farm for the court.
“It is a notorious project where people often fight the police,” Howden said.
That’s “totally spurious,” Puryear said. The way people he works with in Anacostia see it, the truth is much the reverse.
“People in areas like Barry Farm live with the feeling of being constantly targeted, constantly worrying if you’re a law-abiding citizen you are still targeted, still being shaken down, constantly at risk of being killed. People are forced to plan their life around it,” Puryear said.
The government may not have anticipated making police racism an issue when they called Howden to testify in the closing stages of their complex, fragile case against the mostly white anti-Trump protesters who were arrested en masse in January. As the officer’s voice tightened further under extended questioning about his claims that protesters had assaulted officers, lead attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff shook her head repeatedly at the prosecutor’s table.
The six people Kerkhoff is currently trying to convict on serious charges that could see them jailed for decades insist, for various reasons, that they have been unjustly lumped in with the handful of black-clad marchers who did smash windows or tangle with cops that day. Three were present as street medics. A fourth was livestreaming as a freelance journalist.
This first clutch of defendants will rise or fall independent of the nearly 200 others who have yet to begin jury trials stemming from the mass round-up. The government is making a guilt-by-association case against the whole assembly, and Kerkhoff has openly acknowledged in court that jurors will not see evidence of any of these six smashing a window, throwing a rock, or hitting an officer.
It remains to be seen if defense attorneys will seek to remind jurors of Howden’s comments, or to further invoke the specter of his colleagues’ brashly authoritarian approach to serving and protecting the 7th District. But the government has now given them an opening to argue that the police saw a few smashed windows and responded with tactics it typically reserves for the jump-out boys in one of the city’s high-crime areas.
“Something for others to consider is, what does it really mean that there’s an area with tens of thousands of people who have to assume they could have an encounter with police at any time that could lead to them being beaten, jailed, or even killed?” said Puryear.
“It affects some people more consistently than it does others, but it’s really all part of a mentality [of] full-spectrum dominance over society, to determine on their own what’s acceptable in society rather than based on any constitutional or democratic concern.”
The prosecution hopes to finish its case Wednesday, before the court takes a two-day break. Then, with the holidays looming, six separate defense teams will get their turn.