Oliver Weilen knew Jan. 20, 2017 was going to be a bad day. Donald Trump was being sworn-in as president of the United States.
“It just seemed so dystopian; it was hard to get my head around,” he recalled. “And for me, the best way to deal with the emotions from that is do something I consider helpful. To be physically present to express my opposition seemed like the thing to do.”
Weilen made a last-minute decision and joined some friends who were driving from Iowa to Washington D.C. to take part in the protests happening on Inauguration Day.
What he didn’t know when he arrived in D.C. was how dystopian his life was about to become. The police would make 234 arrests that day, conducting mass round-ups of protesters. Weilen was the only person from Iowa arrested.
For the next 18 months, he would watch in disbelief as federal prosecutors made a series of escalating claims about him, and filed charges that could have sent him to prison for decades. Weilen was eventually accused of being a leader of violent protesters who had done more than $100,000 of damage, breaking windows at various businesses and setting fire to a limousine.
“I didn’t even know I’d be able to get the time off from work to go, until just before we left,” Weilen said, shaking his head at the idea he was a protest leader. Weilen said he had nothing to do with any J20 vandalism, but is quick to add that he’s not critical of anyone who did.
“I refuse to demonize any of the protestors as being the wrong kind of protestors or bad protestors. I won’t throw anyone under the bus,” Weilen said. “Broken windows hardly seem that important compared to what people were protesting.”
It’s an attitude that wouldn’t make him popular in Washington D.C., where most residents are sick of protests that devolve into violence or property damage. But it’s also an attitude that won’t surprise Weilen’s cohorts in Cedar Falls or Iowa City, the two cities he calls home.
Most people probably know Weilen as a straight-edge, socially-conscious musician, a member of bands such as Beyond Peace. But like most musicians, he has a day job.
“Since I was 18, I’ve worked as a caregiver for people with intellectual disabilities,” Weilen said. “I see political activism as a way to advocate for them, whether it be working on a campaign or attending a protest.”
He’s been political since middle school.
“I’ve always seen politics as a way helping a lot of people on a big-scale,” Weilen said. “I play in a band called Beyond Peace, and our entire message as a band is political.”
Weilen and his friends arrived in D.C. with no set plans, but the city was plastered with flyers advertising various protests.
“We attended lots of different types of demonstrations that were going on,” he said. “There seemed to be another one going on every hour. We heard about an antifascist, anti-capitalist march. That’s right up my alley.”
The protest march was already underway when Weilen joined it.
“Things seemed to start happening almost right away,” Weilen recalled. “The police. Pepper-spray. Concussion grenades.”
Actually, the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) was using something more advanced than a standard concussion grenade. MPD officers were throwing Stinger grenades, “a maximum effect device that delivers four stimuli for psychological and physiological effects: rubber pellets, light, sound and [a chemical agent],” according to the manufacturer.
“MPD is generally pretty good at policing peaceful protests,” Scott Michelman, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of the District of Columbia told Little Village. “The problem comes when there’s a little a little bit of lawbreaking in an otherwise peaceful protest. When a few people start breaking laws or engaging in vandalism, then the police reaction is a massive overreaction.”
“They come in with maximum force and, really, a bunch of unconstitutional tactics. We’ve sued them over this before.”
The ACLU wasn’t involved in Weilen’s case, but it’s currently representing six people suing the District of Columbia over the way the police and prosecutors responded to the J20 protests.
“Once the order came down from the highest echelons of police command to treat everyone on the street, everyone nearby, as engaged in a riot, rather than what most of them were actually doing — which was peacefully protesting and expressing their views — the gloves came off,” Michelman said.
“I had so much pepper spray all over my clothes and face,” Weilen said. “Lots of people were running, going every which way.”
“I felt like I should stick around in case people needed help.”
“It seemed like the whole thing only lasted 15 or 20 minutes,” Weilen continued. “There were clashes with the police going on the entire time.” Six police officers were injured, according to MPD.
As the chaos settled down, the police cordoned off the protesters.
“People thought, ‘They’re not going to arrest all of us,’” Weilen said. “‘They are not going to arrest this many people.’”
They did, and Weilen was among the first to be arrested.
“There was a guy I was trying to help, he had contacts in. If you get pepper spray in your eyes when you’re wearing contacts, it can cause permanent damage,” he explained. “I was trying to help him flush out his eyes, but it wasn’t working. So, I took him up to the police, because I thought maybe they could get him a doctor.”
The injured man was taken to an ambulance. Weilen was handcuffed, put in a police van and taken to jail.
Weilen remembers the holding cells being like “dog kennels.” He remembers guards and federal marshals being extremely aggressive. He remembers a sense of solidarity among those arrested. But many of the details are fuzzy, a side effect of medications for PTSD, depression and anxiety disorder, all of which have plagued Weilen since J20.
Weilen was in custody for almost two days before being arraigned and released.
“I didn’t know how I was going to contact my friends. They didn’t let us call anyone when we were locked up, and they seized my phone as evidence,” he said. Fortunately, his friends had found out what happened and one of them was waiting outside the courthouse.
“We drove through the night to get back to Iowa,” he said.
“I’ve never really been in legal trouble before. It was all new to me,” Weilen said. “I tried to stay positive. In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘I don’t deserve this.’”
But the constant threat of a long prison sentence hanging over his head “destroyed my mental health,” Weilen said. “When people mentioned it, I would go into crisis mode. I was hospitalized, because my loved ones were worried about me self-harming.”
“At one point, I felt, ‘What’s worse, going to jail and losing everything or just dying?’”
He also faced the problem of trying to navigate the court system at a distance. Weilen had to find a D.C.-area attorney. He had to travel back to D.C. for status hearings.
“I would have to take time off from work for the hearings,” he said. “I was always worried about leaving my clients, because keeping a set routine is so important for them. And I was worried about losing my job.”
In the weeks following the arrests, prosecutors were able to convince 21 people to accept plea deals. But that was the only success they had. In December 2017, a jury acquitted all the defendants in the first trial. In January, prosecutors announced they were dropping charges against everyone, except for the 39 people most responsible for the violence and property damage.
Weilen was one of the 39.
It was months before Weilen got to see the government’s evidence against him during a status hearing.
“It was a really grainy video clip. And even if it wasn’t so grainy, the guy in the video had his face covered,” Weilen said. “I started laughing. My lawyer told me to shut up.”
Prosecutors kept pushing back the start date of Weilen trial.
“I tried to live like it wasn’t happening. My friends knew not to mention it around me,” he recalled. “But it was always there. The pressure.”
On July 7, 2018, federal prosecutors finally gave up. They asked a federal judge to dismiss all charges against the remaining 39 defendants.
“I was loading up a car for a [Beyond Peace] gig, when a friend told me the charges just got dropped,” Weilen said. “He said he’d seen it online.”
“I didn’t believe it at first. I called my lawyer. He said no one contacted him, he hadn’t heard anything. Then a few minutes later, he was, ‘Wow! Just got the email.’”
The stress of the 18 months is still obvious when Weilen talks about J20. He’s still reluctant to discuss it, and avoids using the names or giving details about the friends he drove to D.C. with and other protesters. There’s still a very small chance prosecutors could refile charges against Weilen or any of those whose charges were dropped in July. But Weilen is determined to get on with his life.
“I still rely on medications, but I hope eventually to get off of them,” he said.
Asked if this experience will make him avoid politics or protests in the future, Weilen said, “No. Of course not.”
“In fact, this whole thing has gotten me thinking about new issues, like prisoner rights.”