Ryan Kailath, a reporter for WWNO New Orleans Public Radio on assignment for NPR, was arrested during protests in Baton Rouge Saturday. The arrest took place as protesters clashed with riot police near the Baton Rouge Police Department. Kailath, who normally covers the environment, was booked and charged with “simple obstruction of a highway.” Two other journalists, WAFB-TV’s Chris Slaughter and Breitbart’s Lee Stranahan, were also arrested at protests in Baton Rouge, where more than 100 people were taken into custody.
Kailath says he arrived on the scene around 5pm and was covering members of the New Black Panthers and other protesters as they demonstrated over the death of Alton Sterling at the hands of police. Kailath was standing with several journalists and hundreds of others on a grassy area beside the road. Kailath recorded the action as some 30 protesters faced off in the street with about 50 riot police. The clash led to several arrests, including his own.
Kailath said he repeatedly identified himself as a journalist to police during the arrest and booking process, but his words fell on deaf ears. Kailath’s experience was in stark contrast with that of two journalists who police briefly handcuffed during protests in Rochester, New York over the weekend. Carlet Cleare and Justin Carter of WHAM-TV were briefly detained before being released with a public apology from the mayor and chief of police. The Society of Professional Journalists Louisiana on Tuesday called for charges against Kailath and other journalists arrested in Baton Rouge to be dropped.
Kailath spoke with CJR about his arrest and night in jail. Below are excerpts of our conversation, which have been edited for clarity.
Tell me about what happened.
Protesters were walking back and forth in front of the Baton Rouge Police Department. Cops warned them to leave. They didn’t leave. A contingent of riot police came out, and it turned into sort of a face-off in the street. I’ve got my recording gear, I’m filming with my iPhone, I’ve got my audio gear, and unbeknownst to us, a line of city cops kind of fanned out behind us on the grass.
The showdown came to a head, and the riot police charged into the group of Panthers, started wrestling them to the ground, started taking their shotguns away from them. At this point, instinctively, everybody on the lawn, myself included, just started to back away from this violent situation. I’m filming it, but I’m also backing away. At a certain point the action gets too intense. I turned around to walk down the grass to get away as quickly as possible and encountered this line of police behind me. As I tried to get through saying, “Excuse me, I’m a journalist,” they grabbed me and pushed me back towards the riot police. The riot police tackled me to the ground and the city cops arrested me. I was repeating that I was a journalist the entire time.
1. Thank you SO much everyone for your concern. Here’s the last 13 seconds before I was arrested on Saturday. pic.twitter.com/aFkr6ZwBaj
— Ryan Kailath (@ryankailath) July 11, 2016
You weren’t on the street at any stage?
No, at no point and as the longer version of the video–which I’ve posted on my website shows–at no point did I touch the street. At no point did my foot even touch the curb that borders the street.
What was the police response when you identified yourself as a journalist? Did you have press identification?
I did. There was no response. It seemed like once the cuffs were on, that didn’t matter. It seemed like the police’s job was to arrest me. For two hours, throughout the whole process of booking, I kept repeating to anyone who would listen, which was nobody, that I was a journalist. But it seemed very much like, “Hey, take it to the judge buddy. Hey, that’s not for me to decide. That doesn’t matter to me. That doesn’t make a difference.” At one point an officer got almost angry with me for saying I was a journalist, and he said, direct quote, “I’m tired of y’all saying you’re journalists.”
What happened when you got to the police station? What were you charged with?
I was never told what I was charged with. [Kailath only learned about the charge Sunday morning when the local paper was delivered to his cellblock.] I was never told that I was under arrest. I was never read my rights. It was just: sign your name here, squat and cough, change into these clothes, here’s a TB shot. It was what I assume are all the normal parts of being arrested and processed through the system. I can say that I was arrested a little after 6pm, and I wasn’t done with the process until close to 1:30 in the morning. The interim is just different cells, different stations, different people checking your name and taking your number and, you know, just all kinds of different things that happen in between.
It was reported that police identified you as black. That’s not true, right?
No. Both my parents are from the south of India, and I have got sort of light brown skin and nappy black hair. I’ve got a black barber, but I’m not black.
Did you ask them to correct that?
That is interesting. I didn’t ask them to correct it. I didn’t even notice until I was already in my cell and the bars were closed for the night. Then that’s only when I closely examined my name tag and realized they had my race as “B.” So no, I didn’t bother to ask anybody to correct it. We all had a good laugh about it. I was in the cell with only black people, and you know actually a bunch of them thought I was white. We had a good laugh.
Do you think race played a role in your arrest?
I can’t speculate. I’m not in the head of the officers who arrested me or anybody else in the process. I can say that I was probably six or eight feet from another journalist at the moment of my arrest. You can see him in the video, he’s a reporter for The Advocate Baton Rouge, he’s wearing a purple T-shirt. He was not arrested, and he happens to be white.
Have you covered stories in the past where you’ve been arrested or in danger of arrest, and was there anything different about this occasion?
I’ve covered many rallies and protests, some less violent than this, some more violent than this. In none of those situations, nor in this one did it ever even occur to me that I might possibly be arrested. I’ve always followed the rules, obeyed the law, and clearly identified myself as a journalist, and in every other situation in my career that’s been sufficient. In this instance it was not.
What has the response been to your arrest from your employer and on social media?
From my employer first, very supportive. WWNO New Orleans Public Radio has been great about this, about bail, about lawyers, if I need them. We’re hoping and perhaps foolishly assuming that the charges will be dropped, but they’ve been very supportive. And then on social media, mostly a great response as well. I’ve gotten a lot of support. I’m not really a “read the comments” type of guy, so I haven’t gone through and looked at every response. I know that there’s a couple in there that are, “Oh this guy. He was probably breaking the law. He probably did something wrong.” But mostly it’s been very supportive. Edward Snowden mentioned it on Twitter.
Do you have any suggestions for how police can keep everyone safe while still allowing journalists to do their jobs?
Oh gosh. I don’t. I mean I’m sure there’s somebody who gets paid very well to train police for these situations. Again, I’ve been in many situations like this, some that were hairier, and it’s always been enough to obey the law and clearly identify myself. In this situation, I did that. I obeyed the law, and I very clearly identified myself as a journalist. Getting outside of what I know, it is interesting that in protests these days you’ve got a lot more amateur media makers [and] documentarians. Somebody might say, “Hey I’m filming this. I’m shooting a documentary about Black Lives Matter.” I’m sure that does make it more difficult for the police to make a call about who they believe is an official authorized journalist. But you know, I had my press badge from Louisiana Association of Broadcasters. I had everything you might reasonably need.