DES MOINES, Iowa — Testimony was ongoing Tuesday in the trial of Andrea Sahouri, the Des Moines Register reporter who was arrested while covering racial justice protests last summer.
Sahouri’s case has drawn widespread condemnation from journalism and free press organizations as she is one of just a handful of reporters still facing charges after being arrested during coverage of the protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
Jurors heard testimony Monday and Tuesday from police officers who responded May 31 to a protest where Sahouri was on assignment that had turned violent and devolved to looting and destruction of property.
Sahouri is facing two charges, failure to disperse and interference with official acts. Spenser Robnett, her then-boyfriend who accompanied Sahouri to the protest for safety reasons, is also on trial for similar charges.
Sahouri’s attorney, Nicholas Klinefeldt, has argued his client was simply doing her job when she was pepper sprayed and arrested and that dispersal orders were not clear, instead telling protesters to get off the street and protest peacefully.
Prosecutors from the Polk County Attorney’s Office argued instead that Sahouri and Robnett were ordered to disperse, failed to do so, and when Sahouri was arrested, attempted to pull away.
The Backstory: A reporter arrested while covering a protest faces trial Monday. Here’s why you should care.
In a video filmed from a police vehicle immediately after her arrest, Sahouri said she told officers she was a reporter and was leaving the area.
“I was saying, ‘I’m press, I’m press, I’m press,’” Sahouri said in the video.
Body camera footage seen Tuesday during trial captured the moments immediately after Sahouri’s arrest and showed Sahouri, visibly shaken from the pepper spray, repeatedly telling officers that she was on assignment as a reporter.
“This is my job. This is my job,” Sahouri said. “I’m just doing my job. … I was sent here. … I’m a journalist.”
Police officers are shown arresting Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri after a Black Lives Matter protest she was covering on May 31, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa, was dispersed by tear gas. Sahouri is set to stand trial on Monday, March 8, 2021, on misdemeanor charges, a case that prosecutors have pursued despite international condemnation from advocates for press freedom. (Photo: Katie Akin, AP)
Sahouri’s newspaper, the Des Moines Register, is owned by Gannett, the parent company as USA TODAY.
During the summer protests, more than 120 reporters were arrested or detained during the protests, but in most cases, prosecutors dropped the charges, including in Des Moines.
During the trial, Des Moines police officer Luke Wilson, who pepper-sprayed a group of people before arresting Sahouri, testified that she was visibly affected by the pepper spray and the only person who did not clear the immediate area where Wilson was after he used the spray.
As he grabbed Sahouri, Wilson said she moved her arm away from him but said it was possible she was moving because of the effects of the pepper spray. Robnett also grabbed Sahouri as Wilson had her in his clutch, too, the officer said.
“I don’t know why she tried to pull her arm away,” Wilson said.
The bodycam footage shown Tuesday, however, was not Wilson’s. The officer on Monday explained that he did not record his encounter with Sahouri because he mistakenly thought he had pressed the record button but realized some time after that he had not. The video was not preserved before it was overwritten.
Sgt. Natale Chiodo, whose body camera footage was shown, had responded along with Wilson to the area where Sahouri was arrested.
In the video during which Sahouri repeatedly told the officers that she was on assignment as a journalist, another reporter from the Des Moines Register at the time, Katie Akin, was seen in the group.
When asked by the defense why Akin wasn’t arrested, Chiodo said, “She just seemed very scared to me,” and added that “she wasn’t a threat. She wasn’t disobeying our orders.”
Prosecutors argued, however, that it is at the discretion of the officer whether to arrest a suspect and that Chiodo did not see what led up to Sahouri’s arrest.
Other images that the jury saw included screenshots from a local TV station’s live coverage of the protest streamed on Facebook.
Detective Ben Carter was also at Merle Hay Mall that day but did not observe the arrest. He later reviewed the news footage of the event and identified Sahouri and Robnett in screenshots of their coverage that were taken between the time officers told the group to clear the road and when Sahouri and Robnett were arrested.
Carter testified that the crowd continued to move throughout the area after the order was given and generally stayed together as one group. Some in the group were destroying property and throwing rocks and water bottles.
Earlier in the trial, Des Moines police Lt. Chad Steffen answered questions about his role responding to the protests and helping clear traffic about an hour and a half before the arrest. In his bodycam footage, Sahouri and Robnett are seen on the side of the road, and a squad car public address system can be heard in the background telling people to “disperse” and also “protest peacefully.”
Klinefeldt, through cross-examination, argued that the orders told the protesters to clear the street and remain peaceful but did not imply everyone should leave immediately.
Before the trial, numerous media and journalism groups called for the charges to be dropped, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and students and staff from the Columbia University School of Journalism, where Sahouri earned a master’s degree. The human rights organization Amnesty International has also taken up the cause.
Carol Hunter, the newspaper’s executive editor, told USA TODAY that the Register was helping Sahouri fight the charges because they “see it as a fundamental principle … that a reporter has a right to be at a protest scene to be able to observe what is going on and to report.”
“Andrea was there as a working journalist, and her job was to be the eyes and ears to the public at a historic moment, witnessing and observing what was unfolding,” Hunter said.
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