Officer says he arrested a reporter after pepper spray

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) – A police officer testified Monday that he arrested a journalist at a rebellious Black Lives Matter protest last year in Iowa after she failed to leave when he repeatedly fired clouds of pepper spray to disperse to the crowd.

Des Moines Officer Luke Wilson said he did not know Andrea Sahouri was a reporter for the Des Moines Register when he responded to a chaotic scene in which protesters smashed store windows and threw rocks and water bottles at police. in front of the Merle Hay shopping center on May 31st.

Wilson said he sprayed the chemical irritant from a device known as a nebulizer to clear a commercial parking lot and that it worked to disperse the rest of the group, including Sahouri’s then-boyfriend, Spenser Robnett. But he said Sahouri stood still despite the spray, which can cause a burning sensation and temporary blindness.

“Once I decided that she wasn’t leaving, I had to take action,” Wilson testified, adding that he still didn’t know who she was.

Wilson, who was wearing a riot helmet and gas mask, said he reached out and grabbed Sahouri with his left hand while still holding the nebulizer in his right. He said he fired more pepper spray when Robnett returned and tried to remove Sahouri from custody, hitting them both again at point-blank range.

Wilson testified on the first day of trial for Sahouri and Robnett on misdemeanor charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts. Prosecutors went ahead with their case despite local, national and international pressure abandon the rare effort to punish a working reporter.

If convicted, they will be fined hundreds of dollars and will have a criminal record. A judge could also sentence them up to 30 days in jail for each count, although that would be unusual.

Journalism and human rights advocates in the US and abroad have lobbied Iowa authorities to drop the charges, arguing that Sahouri was simply doing his job documenting the newsworthy event. Iowa Democrats have criticized one of their own, Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, for taking the case.

The couple are on trial in a courtroom at Drake University in Des Moines as part of a unique program that allows first-year law students to observe actual trials. The university is broadcasting the proceedings, which are expected to last two days. A six-member jury met at noon and heard opening statements and testimony from the prosecution on Monday. The trial will resume on Tuesday.

The US Press Freedom Tracker has not recorded any other trials of active journalists in the country since 2018. Sahouri was among more than 125 reporters detained or arrested during the civil unrest that unfolded in the US. In 2020. Thirteen, including Sahouri, still face prosecution although most of those arrested were not charged or their charges were dropped, the group says.

Employees of the Gannett newspaper chain, which owns USA Today, the Register and hundreds of other newspapers, have flooded social media with support for Sahouri in recent days. The company is financing its defense. Columbia School of Journalism, where Sahouri graduated in 2019 before joining the Registry, expressed solidarity On Monday promoting the hashtags #StandWithAndrea and #JournalismIsNotACrime.

International Amnesty he also made his case known and demanded that the charges be dismissed.

Sahouri was assigned to cover the protest where activists demanded better treatment for people of color days after the death of George Floyd, a black man who was pronounced dead after a white officer put a knee on his neck. for about nine minutes.

Prosecutor Brecklyn Carey told jury that body camera footage will show police issuing a dispersal order to a crowd that included both defendants around 6:30 p.m. at an intersection outside the mall. Testimony will show that the couple were arrested 90 minutes later near the same intersection, and that Robnett attempted to lead Sahouri away from the arresting officer, he said.

Carey urged jurors in an opening statement to keep their “eyes on the ball” and answer only three questions: Was there a dispersal order, did the two of them disperse, and did they move away from the officer?

But defense attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt told the jury that the case was about a journalist who was wrongly arrested while doing her job, adding that Robnett accompanied her to the event for safety reasons.

He said the 6:30 p.m. dispersal order was intended solely to clear people who were blocking an intersection and that they both complied. Body camera audio played for jurors showed officers yelling to “go back” and protest peacefully, while an order to “disperse” could only be heard faintly.

“No one was telling anyone to leave the scene. Quite the contrary, ”Klinefeldt said.

When police fired tear gas before 8 pm, Sahouri and Robnett fled and turned the corner of a Verizon store. Wilson then grabbed her and pepper sprayed her in the face as she raised her hands and yelled that she was pressured, Klinefeldt said.

The officer told Sahouri that “that’s not what I asked him,” Klinefeldt said. Later, Wilson pepper sprayed Robnett after he yelled that he was a journalist. A second Register reporter who was nearby was ordered to leave but was not arrested, he said.

Sahouri was put into a police van and jailed for a couple of hours.

Wilson testified that he did not “have much conversation” with Sahouri when he arrested her. He said he believed he had activated his body camera, but later learned that he had not and never tried to use a camera feature to retrieve the video before it was erased.


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