WASHINGTON - Prosecutors in Washington on Friday dropped the most serious criminal charge filed against a California man whose burning of two American flags outside the White House on the Fourth of July sparked a melee between ideologically opposed groups.
Gregory Lee "Joey" Johnson, 62, of San Francisco, had faced a felony charge of assault on a police officer after two officers said they were doused with an accelerant from the burning flag that made them ill and sent them to a hospital for treatment. That charge was not pursued on Friday.
Johnson still faces other charges of inciting violence, disorderly conduct and violating the fire code, all misdemeanors.
"It was a righteous thing to do in the face of a fascist regime," Johnson said Friday outside D.C. Superior Court after being freed until his next hearing Aug. 1. He was still wearing his group's black T-shirt with the slogan "Revolution - nothing less."
Johnson said he set two flags on fire Thursday afternoon as the city was busy with residents and tourists who had come to President Donald Trump's controversial "Salute to America" Fourth of July celebration. After the first was extinguished by opponents, another flag fire occurred moments later in front of a uniformed officer for the U.S. Secret Service.
"The flag is a symbol of empire and oppression," Johnson said.
Johnson is a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, also espouses the slogan "imagine a world without America," and he has made burning flags an integral part of his protest. It was Johnson's burning of an American flag during a march against nuclear war in Dallas in 1984 that led to a landmark 1989 Supreme Court decision overturning his conviction for "desecration of a venerated object" and making flag burning a constitutionally protected right.
Johnson's attorney, Mark Goldstone, who represented two defendants arrested in the District on rioting charges during the presidential inauguration, said the uniformed officers of the U.S. Secret Service "could have done a better job separating" the two groups. He also said police should have arrested the men who put out the fire, rather than his client, saying it was they who "disrupted the constitutionally protected activity."
"Flag burning is supposed to be controversial," Goldstone said. "It is supposed to spark strong dialogue. But it is not supposed to spark political violence."
The U.S. Secret Service declined to comment on their actions beyond a brief statement issued Thursday describing the arrests of Johnson and one of his supporters, Joseph Edward Scogin, 41, of Oxnard, California, whom they alleged interfered in the handcuffing of Johnson. Prosecutors dropped all charges against Scogin on Friday.
Authorities said Johnson had a permit to burn a flag in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, and was provided a 30-gallon drum to do it safely. An arrest affidavit says Johnson "ignored the restrictions set in the permit and set the flag on fire in the center of Pennsylvania Avenue."
Greg Aselbekian, 25, who lives in the Washington area, said he and another man he knows had been tipped off to the burning a few minutes before. His friend, who was wearing a red "Make America Great Again" shirt, broke through a group encircling Johnson with interlocked arms, according to Aselbekian's account and videos of the incident posted on social media. He somehow got hold of the burning flag, juggled it with his hands and let it fall to the ground as the fire burned out.
The friend declined to give his name to The Washington Post.
Aselbekian also rushed into the scrum and said he believes "burning an American flag is disrespectful to everybody. . . . I think it's morally wrong. They have a right to set it on fire. I have a right to put it out."
Moments later, other videos show Johnson standing near Secret Service officers and setting a second flag on fire. One officer ducks out of the way as another sprays the flames with a fire extinguisher. Police arrested Johnson as his supporters scuffled with opponents before order was restored.
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The Washington Post's Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.
This article was written by Peter Hermann, Laurel Demkovich, reporters for The Washington Post.