Drop the Charges On Flag-burner Gregory "Joey" Johnson and the RNC 16
Updated August 15, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
On Wednesday, July 20, outside the Republican National Convention, Gregory “Joey” Johnson, backed up by members of the Revolution Club, set aflame the American flag. Johnson and 16 others were arrested (15 from the Revolution Club) and now face serious charges.
The Burning of the American Flag by Joey Johnson and the Revolution Club at the RNC in Cleveland
A great deal is at stake in the fight to force the state to drop ALL CHARGES IMMEDIATELY.
Burning the flag at the RNC was extremely timely and necessary. The speeches and chants at this convention were nothing if not Hitlerian. Yet Trump was being treated by the media and the Democrats themselves as a legitimate candidate—which shows the ILLEGITIMACY of the system itself. There was a great need for a political force to say how extreme this was and sound the alarm—and the Revolution Club stepped up to fill this need.
The assault on and arrest of Gregory “Joey” Johnson and the Revolution Club members is evidence of the repression that is bound to intensify if it is not resisted. The right to burn a flag in protest is a right ironically won by Johnson himself—in a Supreme Court case ruling on a conviction stemming from a protest at the 1984 Republican National Convention. If at THIS Republican convention you can’t burn a flag, in a setting where supporters lock arms to prevent any possible accident, then this right is meaningless. And if in suppressing this right, as the police did, brutality is used and people are denied rights and put in preventive detention, this is all the more outrageous. These injustices and this repression have to be brought to light, fought, and defeated.
Gregory “Joey” Johnson and the Revolution Club were in Cleveland fighting for a whole different future. They widely distributed the Message from the Central Committee of the RCP, USA, “Time To Get Organized for an ACTUAL Revolution,” clearly posing the need for revolution; the problems humanity faces and the solution to those problems; the leadership for that revolution in Bob Avakian; and what people need to do now to make that happen. They modeled a conscious and disciplined force, a force made courageous by their understanding of what was needed and the morality that grounds the Club (also put forth in the RCP Central Committee Message). And they put forward the stand: America Was NEVER Great, We Need to Overthrow This System! Everywhere they went—including as the flag went up in flames—they fought for the stand put forth by BA: “American Lives Are Not More Important Than Other People’s Lives.”
The following is a FACT SHEET being widely distributed to build support for Gregory “Joey” Johnson and the RNC 16:
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Joey Johnson with the support of the Revolution Club burned the American flag outside the Republican National Convention to protest the toxic chauvinism and reactionary ideas of all stripes surrounding Trump’s nomination. Photo: revcom.us
On Wednesday, July 20, outside the Republican National Convention, Gregory “Joey” Johnson, backed up by members of the Revolution Club, set aflame the American flag. Johnson and 16 others were arrested (15 from the Revolution Club) and now face serious charges. A journalist from Australia was arrested, reportedly for asking why the police protected Christian fascists from the Westboro Baptist Church, but attacked the revolutionaries.
On August 4, two of the 16 (the RNC16) were indicted by a grand jury—and even more charges were added to the already flagrant repression against this action and the individuals involved. The charges against one defendant now include two counts of felony “assaulting an officer.” Both defendants indicted by the grand jury had two misdemeanor charges added, including “resisting arrest.” This represents a serious escalation and shows the prosecutors’ intent to punish people for their powerful, peaceful political statement that day.
Given the egregious suppression of political rights involved, Johnson has vowed to not only continue to burn the flag as a point of political principle, but he and the Revolution Club plan to fight this case in court and to seek legal redress against the city of Cleveland, the Cleveland police and other associated government agencies that may well have been part of this suppression.
Johnson made clear in advance why he planned to burn the flag—to make a statement about the ugly American chauvinism being whipped up inside the RNC, where the theme that day was “make America #1 again.” Over a bullhorn, literally surrounded by hundreds of police and pro-Trump reactionaries, Joey boldly said, “America No. 1? America first? It always has been first: at genocide... at slavery... at exploitation... of destruction of the environment... of torture... of coup d’états... of invasions. We’re standing here with the people of the world today.” Then he lit the flag on fire.
- Revolution Club members physically formed a large circle by linking arms while facing outward to create a safe space for Johnson to burn the flag. The whole point was to enable Johnson to make the potent political statement conveyed by burning the American flag. Club members asked the media and onlookers to “please move back” as they effectively established a solid safety perimeter. Pictures and video taken at the beginning of Johnson speaking and burning the flag show this very clearly.
- Before burning the flag, Johnson, over a sound system, led chants and gave a short speech challenging the theme of the RNC that day to make America No. 1. Johnson had to cut his speech short because the police were pressing in. As one Revolution Club member put it, “rushing and pushing through the safety circle.” The police actions both compressed the circle and then broke up the circle. Police sprayed fire retardant, including into the face of an octogenarian. Police immediately assaulted Johnson after he lit the American flag on fire, grabbing his shirt and putting him in a chokehold to drag him to the ground.
- Contrary to Cleveland Police Chief Williams’ claim, Johnson did not set himself or anyone around him on fire. The mayor and the police chief persisted in this lie, spreading it in the media while Johnson was being physically detained and unable to set the record straight. If anything, the police’s physical assault on the protesters was what created a dangerous situation for Johnson and others.
- The prosecution claims Johnson assaulted two reporters who were allegedly burned by the flag embers. Police reports confirm these two were in fact not “reporters” but Trump supporters who intended to prevent the flag burning because it was “un-American.” In a video posted July 20, 2016 by Infowars, a website run by Alex Jones, the “reporters” brag about assaulting Johnson in a violent effort to stop him from burning the flag: “We ripped the guy’s [Gregory Johnson] shirt off and just punched him and kicked him...” These charges stem from allegations by people who by their own admission set out to prevent what is supposed to be legally protected speech, which is an illegal act on their part. On top of which they brag about committing assault and battery on Johnson, another illegal act. Yet it is Johnson who is charged with assaulting these two! (www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-08-10/rnc-flag-burning-case-gets-messy-as-victims-identified)
- No permit was needed for this event. Protests and press conferences had been held in the area of 4th and Prospect in downtown Cleveland, including by the Revolution Club in the two days prior. None of these protests had permits. Johnson determined that this was the best location to make his statement, in juxtaposition to the toxic American chauvinism spewing out of the RNC. No other location in Cleveland would have had as much meaning as this one. The planned flag burning was well publicized for days in advance.
- There was no order to disperse that was audible to the crowd either before or after the flag burning. The National Lawyers Guild, Amnesty International observers, and legal observers who were present issued statements. Contrary to initial news reports, none of the RNC16 were charged with failure to disperse. This was probably due to the fact that there was no order to disperse that measured up to protocols that the Cleveland Police Department had agreed to in handling political protests. (www.thenation.com/article/why-are-detained-rnc-protestors-still-in-jail)
- A single police officer can be heard on video saying “you are on fire” as the police assaulted people. This was a pretext for stopping Johnson’s protected speech. The authorities knew that burning the flag is protected speech. Chief Williams acknowledges this in his statements. A faux safety concern (to wit: Johnson endangering himself) was the only way to circumvent the Supreme Court decision. By analogy, many people have seen videos of police yelling “stop resisting” to justify their actions when the arrestee is clearly not resisting.
- After Johnson was arrested, with many police piled on him, why did the police proceed to arrest many others over a whole period of time in the wake of the flag burning? All but two of those arrested wore the black T-shirts that are the uniform of the Revolution Club. The T-shirts read: “BA Speaks: REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS!” In addition to Johnson and the 15 people associated with the Revolution Club, there was an Australian reporter who was arrested literally right after asking police why they were going after the revolutionary communists but protecting the hateful speech of the Westboro Baptist Church attacking gay people and condemning them to hell.
Joey Johnson (wearing torn shirt), Revolution Club members, and other flag-burning defendants, just released from jail, rallied in front of the Justice Center, with supporters and Revcoms, who had marched from Public Square chanting "burn that flag!" Photo: Special to revcom.us
- Johnson and the other protesters charged with misdemeanors were held for more than 24 hours in what amounted to preventive detention to keep people off the streets during the RNC. The National Lawyers Guild and NAACP lawyers on the scene spoke out forcefully against this. The ACLU of Ohio issued strongly worded statements about it. The city had bragged that court dockets had been cleared so that it could process hundreds of arrestees if necessary, and yet it could not handle these 17 arrestees in a timely way. All were subsequently released on personal bond (no bail).
- Three people who had been part of the flag burning had to be seen at a hospital in the wake of the incident for injuries sustained when the police attacked the protesters. One protester was not given anything to eat for over 24 hours. A concerted effort had to be made over many hours by attorneys and health professionals to get a protester vital medicine that was not being provided.
- In pre-trial court appearances for misdemeanors, some defendants are being forced to appear in spite of their attorney’s efforts to appear on their behalf. This is purely punitive, forcing people to fly in from far away for a routine status hearing.
In summary, the confrontation began with and unfolded out of an unlawful, unconstitutional attack on and arrest of people by the police, which involved physical violence on the part of the police; and since it was unlawful and unconstitutional, it constituted an assault BY POLICE ON THE PROTESTERS. What was involved in these arrests/assaults on people carrying out what has been clearly established as constitutionally protected political activity—with the very same person involved as in the defining legal case—constitutes false arrest, assault pursuant to that false arrest, and violation of clearly established civil liberties and rights.
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