U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Journalist Aaron Cantú arrested at Trump inauguration

Incident Details

Date of Incident
January 20, 2017
Case number
Case Status
Type of case

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Arresting Authority
Metropolitan Police Department
Unnecessary use of force?
Aaron Cantú

Journalist Aaron Cantú was required to wear this bracelet while detained, after he was arrested while covering protests against President Trump's inauguration in Washington, D.C.

— Aaron Cantú
April 25, 2023 - Update

DC government pays two journalists $175,000 to settle wrongful arrest claims

California-based writer Aaron Cantú and Colorado-based photojournalist Alexei Wood announced on April 25, 2023, that they were awarded $175,000 as part of a settlement agreement in their lawsuit against the District of Columbia and its police department.

Cantú and Wood were two of at least nine journalists arrested while documenting protests in Washington, D.C., around the inauguration of President Donald Trump on Jan. 20, 2017. All of the journalists were charged with felony rioting, and both Cantú and Wood were charged with additional felony counts. Wood was acquitted following a trial that December, and charges against Cantú were dropped in July 2018.

The pair jointly filed a lawsuit against the district and the Metropolitan Police Department in January 2020, seeking damages for arresting them for protected speech and without probable cause, using excessive force and intentionally inflicting emotional distress.

The district agreed to pay Cantú and Wood $175,000 to settle the suit, which the journalists plan to split minus attorneys fees. The settlement agreement included a declaration that the district and police department do not accept any liability for the journalists’ claims.

Two other independent journalists who challenged their inauguration protest arrests with lawsuits — Alex Stokes and Shay Horse — reached settlement agreements in 2021.

In the press release about the settlement, Wood said that he doesn’t believe the district police’s tactics will change following the settlement.

“Although this settlement award is substantial, I have no confidence that the police wouldn’t do it all over again,” Wood said. “With little-to-no oversight or accountability, it’s no surprise the DC police violated their own policy in arresting us.”

January 16, 2020 - Update

Two journalists sue D.C., police department for arrests while covering 2017 inauguration protests

Almost exactly three years after Alexei Wood and Aaron Cantú were arrested while covering protests around the inauguration of President Donald Trump, the freelance journalists are suing Washington, D.C., and its police department.

According to DCist, the suit, filed Jan. 16, 2020, seeks damages for arresting them for protected speech and without probable cause, using excessive force and intentionally inflicting emotional distress.

Wood, a photojournalist, told the outlet that the arrests were an injustice used to silence dissent, a point that he can’t let go. “We need to have journalists be able to tell the stories and get to the bottom of things. Otherwise, we live in an utterly ignorant world,” he said.

In a statement published by DCist, independent journalist Cantú wrote that he is still very angry about what happened to him and Wood, and that the lawsuit is a way of holding the D.C. police accountable.

More than 200 people were detained as part of the mass arrests in the nation’s capital, and other lawsuits are underway, including a class action suit and one from the American Civil Liberties Union representing a photojournalist and other defendants.

July 6, 2018 - Update

Prosecutors drop charges against all remaining defendants

On July 6, 2018, all charges against Cantú were dropped.

“I’m stunned,” Cantú told the Santa Fe Reporter, where he is on staff. “It’s still sinking in. The trauma has been really severe. It’s taken a lot to be able to just hold it together and come to work and do the work. And now that that thing is not there, I need to figure out how to live my life.”

January 18, 2018 - Update

Prosecutors drop charges against protesters, but not Cantú

Federal prosecutors announced on Jan. 18, 2018, that they would drop charges against 159 of the remaining 188 defendants.

However, the government refused to drop charges against 59 of the defendants — including Cantú.

In response, Cantú's attorneys filed a motion on Jan. 19 asking the court to dismiss the charges against him with prejudice:

Defendant Aaron M. Cantú is an established journalist who is facing eight criminal charges, including multiple felonies, as a result of his presence at a demonstration during the 2017 Presidential Inauguration. He respectfully moves the Court to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the charges against him impermissibly infringe his First Amendment rights. The indictment is not narrowly tailored to advance any substantial government interest, and the government failed to provide Mr. Cantú with adequate notice that his newsgathering activities could subject him to felony prosecution, as is required under the U.S. Constitution and Super. Ct. Crim. R. 7. For these reasons and those set forth in the accompanying statement of points and authorities, Mr. Cantú respectfully moves this Court to dismiss the indictment with prejudice. 

Motion to Dismiss Indictment

January 20, 2017

Aaron Cantú — an independent journalist who has written for The Baffler, the website Truthout, and Al-Jazeera — was arrested on Jan. 20, 2017, while covering protests on the day President Donald Trump's inauguration. 

Cantú was among more than 230 people arrested in Washington on Inauguration Day after some individuals set fire to a car and broke windows of downtown businesses.

Cantú was one of nine journalists arrested during the protests. Charges were later dropped against most of the journalists, but not Cantú. On April 27, a grand jury indicted him on eight separate felony counts — inciting a riot, rioting, conspiracy to riot, and five counts of destruction of property. If convicted on all counts, he could face to 75 years in prison.

He is scheduled to go to trial in October 2018.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].