- Over 230 Arrested During Presidential Inauguration
- 7 Journalists & Live-Streamers Charged With Felony Riot
- Lawsuit Filed Against Police For Indiscriminate Arrests
On January 20th, thousands of protesters and peaceful activists took to the streets in defiance of the newly elected president. Among them was a large group of self-proclaimed anarchists who carried anarchy flags and tools to help them smash windows and set fires. Prior to the arrests, the anarchists began destroying corporate business windows (like Starbucks, Bank Of America and McDonalds), vandalized cars and limos (a limo owned by an independent company in Virginia was destroyed entirely), bus stops, magazine racks and garbage cans.
The anarchy group was identifiable as they marched together, had banners, held flags, wore all black and had bandannas covering their faces. Police responded to the actions in a delayed manner and indiscriminately went after everyone nearby in one sweep after the activity occurred. Hundreds of individuals were held for processing all night long and were forced to spend over a day in jail. Among the 230 or so arrested were lawyers, medics and journalists nearby who were simply documenting and live-streaming the actions but weren't participating in criminal activity.
The media figures include Jack Keller who was live-streaming for a Facebook page called Story of America, Alex Rubinstein from RT America, Evan Engel of Vocativ, Aaron Cantu a freelance reporter, Shay Horse (a Native American anarchy photojournalist), Matt Hopard and Alexei Wood (both independent journalists) who were live-streaming until they were arrested themselves.
Alexander Rubinstein, the RT journalist, showed his media credentials to police and then was arrested after they hit with with a flash grenade. "I was hit in the face with a flash grenade, it blinded me for a moment and my ears were ringing for a while... By the time I was done being treated and I could see again, we were encircled by police and I was told that everybody present would be arrested. It doesn't matter that I'm press," Rubinstein told his employer at RT.
"It doesn't matter that I'm press.." - Alexander Rubinstein
Keller, a producer and media contributor, was live-streaming the actions during the inauguration. Police had him detained for 36 hours despite notifying them that he was just a journalist who was documenting the incident. “The way we were treated was an absolute travesty,” he told The Guardian. Annabel Park, his editor and colleague, was also at the scene and described it as a "maddening and frustrating situation". "These are people who were there observing and documenting," she explains.
"The arrest, detainment and rioting charge against journalist Evan Engel who was covering the protests for Vocativ are an affront to the First Amendment and journalistic freedom," said Ellen Davis a Vocativ spokeswoman. "Vocativ will vigorously contest this unfounded and outrageous charge."
Do We Have First Amendment Rights Anymore?
It seems most journalists can get away with covering a story as long as the crowd is big enough and people are able to find an easy escape route but it shouldn't take luck to be able to document action that is happening around your own country. Representatives from the media agencies expressed their concern with this clear breach of our constitutional rights. “These illegal acts are clearly designed to chill the speech of protesters engaging in First Amendment activity,” said Maggie Ellinger-Locke (a member of the DC National Lawyers’ Guild).
Police Targeting Media Is Nothing New
This is not the first time a person holding a camera has been charged with outrageous felonies. Just recently in 2016 actress Shailene Woodley was targeted and surrounded by police after live-streaming a demonstration that others were participating in, Amy Goodman had a warrant out for her arrest after her coverage on Democracy Now went viral and an award-winning producer Deia Schlosberg was arrested for documenting activists turning off emergency shut off valves.
Deia's case in particular is unique in that she is being charged with 3 felonies which have her potentially facing up to 45 years in prison. Deia's charges include: conspiracy to commit theft of property, conspiracy to steal from services and conspiracy to tamper with public services (not to mention police confiscated her media equipment). Many activists and those working in independent media fear this may be an increasingly ongoing trend that will effect anyone holding a camera or documenting what they're seeing in their own backyard. “It’s fucking scary, it knocks the wind of your sails, it throws you for a loop. They threw the book at Deia for being a journalist.” said Josh Fox, an environmental activist and documentary film maker.
If Convicted These Journalists Can Face Up To 10 Years In Prison
The felony riot charges against the media contributors is serious and has a fine of $25,000 and to 10 years in prison. According to CPJ journalists weren't the only innocent bystanders scooped up carelessly by police, either. Among the 230 were lawyers, medics and people on the street who not involved in criminal activity. All were processed as if they had committed crimes and will need to attend court hearings which are scheduled for February and March. A lawsuit has since been filed by Jeffrey Light against the police for indiscriminately arresting people at the scene.
Carlos Lauría, senior Americas program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says "these charges are clearly inappropriate, and we are concerned that they could send a chilling message to journalists covering future protests" adding "we call on authorities in Washington to drop these charges immediately."