The Media Today

They were arrested while covering protests last year. They’re still in legal limbo.

March 2, 2021

On June 1, as protests intensified across the US following the police killing of George Floyd, Richard Cummings, a freelance photojournalist in Worcester, Massachusetts, saw dozens of police officers assembling in riot gear, even though the day’s main demonstration had wound down. He started to film them and take pictures. “Worcester’s never had anything with riot gear before,” Cummings told me recently. “It looks like the end of the world. It was crazy.” A few officers, Cummings said, were cracking jokes, including about shooting members of the public with their pepper guns; eventually, they noticed Cummings, who turned away. “I didn’t want to pry into anything, or get anyone angry,” he said. A different officer had given Cummings permission to stand nearby after he identified himself as a journalist, but after that officer moved on, the cops that Cummings had been filming tackled him. According to Cummings, who described his experience to me, one pinned him to a brick wall, twisted his arms and screamed about breaking them, called him a homophobic slur, cuffed him so tightly his arms bled, and dragged him over to a van carrying other detainees. Cummings’s mask came off; the officer refused to help him put it back on. Police also confiscated Cummings’s phone; when he eventually got it back, he noticed that videos had been deleted. “It really did freak me out,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea that there was even a chance I’d be arrested for anything.”

Cummings was subsequently charged with disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and failure to disperse. Two-and-a-half months after his arrest, he pleaded not guilty to all three charges. Five-and-a-half months after his arrest, a judge dismissed the first two charges against him. He still faces the third. Next week, a court will hear his attorneys’ motion to dismiss the case, on the grounds of police misconduct and lost exculpatory evidence. Another court date is set for late April. Cummings’s lawyer, who is representing him pro bono, told me that he is confident in his case, especially in light of the video evidence that Cummings still has in his possession. If the charge is not dismissed, it’s not clear—due to pandemic-induced delays—when Cummings might get a trial. “It seems like they’re just waiting everybody out,” Cummings told me. “It’s been going on forever, for almost a year.” (A spokesperson for the Worcester Police Department referred me to the district attorney’s office, which declined to comment on an open case.)

ICYMI: When a word starts to smell

Cummings’s is not a unique case. According to data maintained by the US Press Freedom Tracker, more than a hundred and twenty-five journalists were arrested or detained in the US last year—a twelve-thousand percent increase over 2019—and at least forty-three of them were also assaulted. Cummings was one of at least seventy-one journalists to be arrested in the week spanning May 29 and June 4. Most of those affected faced no ongoing legal consequences—but, as of the end of last year, the Tracker listed eighteen journalists, including Cummings, whose cases were still pending. In recent days, I’ve reached out to all eighteen to find out where they stand now. Four of them—Chae Kihn, who was arrested in New York; Robert Spangle and Pablo Unzueta, who were both arrested in Los Angeles; and Brendan Gutenschwager, who was arrested in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin—told me that their charges have now been dropped. Four didn’t respond to multiple inquiries. Ten confirmed that their cases are still pending. Some declined to comment further; others described a long-term limbo, exacerbated by a pandemic that has gummed up the legal system, and, in a couple of cases, by the confiscation of equipment and ongoing harassment by law enforcement and members of the public. Some will soon face days in court. Others must continue to wait.

Of the journalists still facing charges, a few have institutional affiliations. In the most high-profile of these cases (even if its profile is still not high enough), Andrea Sahouri, a reporter with the Des Moines Register who was pepper-sprayed then cuffed with zip ties while covering a protest on May 31, will go on trial next week, charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. She declined to be interviewed this close to trial; last week, the Register wrote, in an editorial, that the charges are “a clear infringement on the freedom of the press.” April Ehrlich—who works for Jefferson Public Radio, in Oregon, and who wrote recently for CJRwas arrested in September, while she was covering police evictions at an encampment for the unhoused in Medford. She was charged with trespassing, resisting arrest, and interfering with a peace officer; the latter charge was dropped, but the first two weren’t and she faces a pre-trial hearing in two weeks. In October, police in North Carolina arrested Tomas Murawksi, a reporter with the Alamance News, who had been covering a poll march that ended with officers pepper-spraying participants, including children; he was charged with resisting, delaying, or obstructing a public officer, and also has a court date later this month. Veronica Coit is a freelance journalist in North Carolina, but had been working regularly for the Asheville Blade when they were arrested at a protest against police brutality, in August. They were charged with failure to disperse and impeding the steady flow of traffic. Their court date is set for early May.

The majority of those who still face charges are freelancers who either work for a multiplicity of clients or were just out documenting events for themselves when they got into trouble. In some cases, that status has caused them additional problems, including a relative lack of attention to their cases. Today, Lynn Murphy—an independent reporter who was arrested while covering a racial-justice protest in Richmond, in September—faces a hearing related to her misdemeanor charge of obstructing free passage. Murphy told me that her charge would likely have been dropped already, but that her lawyers wanted extra time to challenge a police search of her phone. She says that the lingering charge cost her a paid reporting job at a local outlet, and, initially, barred her from leaving the state, meaning she couldn’t travel to events she had planned to cover in Washington. A charge filed against Ronald Weaver II, an independent filmmaker who was arrested at an anti-ICE protest in New York in September, is still pending, as is a charge against Blair Nelson, who was arrested at a protest in Wauwatosa in October. Vishal Singh and Sean Beckner-Carmitchel—two videographers who were arrested at protests in Los Angeles around the election, in November, for unlawful assembly and failure to disperse—told me that they still don’t know if they’ll face formal charges; both must appear in court next week. Beckner-Carmitchel, who was arrested twice on successive days, has been identified in press reporting as an activist, as well as a videographer, but he told me he has transitioned firmly into journalism. Besides, he said, “the police don’t get to decide who is and is not press.”

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The Press Freedom Tracker operates on a relatively broad understanding of who is and isn’t press; what matters, it says, “is whether the person was performing an act of journalism” when they were targeted. When Cummings was arrested, in Worcester, he was out in a neighborhood that he’s been capturing for a longer-term book project. His arrest, he told me, has affected him ever since, triggering anxiety and panic attacks. “It’s just like this weird, uneasy, uncertain dark cloud that has been following me around for a whole year,” he said. “I know I’m not gonna do any hard time or anything like that. That’s not really what I’m scared of. I’m more scared of, I guess, the fact that it can happen at all.” His work has helped him get through it. Taking photographs, he told me, “has just been like a coping mechanism, to the point where, like, it’s all I do.”

Below, more on journalists and the police:

  • Minnesota: Last week, a judge in Minnesota ruled that Linda Tirado—a freelance journalist who was blinded in one eye after police struck her with a rubber bullet during the protests that followed Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last year—may proceed with a lawsuit against the city and the former head of its police union. The judge said that the allegations of Tirado and others “plausibly suggest an unconstitutional custom carried out by MPD officers of targeting journalists for unlawful reprisals.” Elsewhere, Deena Winter reports, for the Minnesota Reformer, that officials in Minneapolis are working to prepare residents for further trauma ahead of the trial of the white cop who killed Floyd, which is slated for next week. Per Winter, the effort includes “a ‘community information network,’ including partnerships with media that reach under-represented communities that don’t rely on mainstream media for news”; the city will also ask social-media influencers for help dispelling disinformation.
  • California: Last month, Sarah Belle Lin, an independent journalist in the Bay Area, filed suit against a local police department; she alleges that officers shot her with a rubber bullet and physically shoved her while she was covering a protest in Oakland, on May 30. Bay City News has more. Also in California, state senators have introduced a bill that would prohibit law enforcement from obstructing “duly authorized representatives” of news organizations who seek access to sealed areas at protests. A hearing is set for next week.
  • Oklahoma: Last week, lawmakers in Oklahoma voted to advance a bill that would criminalize the sharing of information about police officers—including photos and videos of them—with the intent to “threaten, intimidate, harass or stalk,” in a manner that “causes, attempts to cause or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress or financial loss to the law enforcement officer, or to the family, household member or intimate partner of the law enforcement officer.” Deon Osborne has more details for the Black Wall Street Times.


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Press freedom comes second to self-interest—again—as Biden lets MBS off the hook

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.