ACLU files for ‘false imprisonment’ against Washington, D.C., police after photojournalist arrested, equipment seized

August 31, 2020

Oyoma Asinor, an independent photographer, was covering a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 31, 2020, when he was arrested by D.C. police and his camera and other equipment seized.

According to an ACLU of DC lawsuit filed on Asinor’s behalf in August 2021, Asinor arrived around midnight at Black Lives Matter Plaza to cover a BLM protest and found Metropolitan Police officers with shields and helmets standing in front of St. John’s Church, where barricades had been set up.

Protesters stood directly in front of the barricades, chanting, as Asinor moved around the intersection of 16th and H Streets taking photographs.

A group of MPD officers formed a line in the intersection of 16th and H Street, across H Street, blocking people from moving east. These officers wore helmets, and several were equipped with gun-shaped weapons attached to small tanks, according to the lawsuit.

Asinor continued photographing the officers, standing with another photojournalist at the northwest corner of the intersection of 16th and H Streets.

As Asinor continued photographing, he saw a small item — believed to be a water bottle — thrown from behind him toward the officers at the barricades, the document stated.

Moments after the water bottle was thrown, an officer behind the 16th Street barricade walked up to the barricade and rolled a smoke munition onto 16th Street. The munition produced a large cloud of smoke on 16th Street, the ACLU said.

Around the same time, a police officer deployed at least one stun grenade near where Asinor was standing. The stun grenade produced smoke and a loud noise that Asinor found “terrifying and disorienting.”

Asinor walked north on 16th Street, where he found several small concrete blocks across the street and police officers lined up “and pointing, but not firing, cannon-shaped weapons at Mr. Asinor and the others near him,” according to the document.

Asinor and a few other journalists and demonstrators stopped around ten feet away from the blocks.

Demonstrators standing about five to seven feet behind Asinor threw two water bottles at the officers, which either missed them or landed near them harmlessly.

Officers responded by shooting rubber bullets at the demonstrators. After that, Asinor did not see the demonstrators throw anything else or attack or threaten the officers in any way, according to the ACLU document.

Then officers ran between the blocks, charging at Asinor and others who had stopped. Asinor had been facing the officers and taking photos, but he turned around to run north on 16th Street as soon as he saw them charge.

“A police officer sprayed liquid chemical irritants at Mr. Asinor and others running away. The spray hit Mr. Asinor, causing him to feel a burning sensation on his skin as he was running. He additionally felt a burning sensation in his nose, his eyes watered, and he had trouble breathing. Mr. Asinor had goggles with him, but he was not wearing them so that he could better use his camera,” according to the legal document.

As Asinor was running up 16th Street, Asinor and others became boxed in between officers moving north and south.

Asinor attempted to leave the area, but “one of the bike officers struck him in the chest with her arm and stopped him, before forcing him to the ground and handcuffing him.”

According to the document, Asinor told the officer that he was a member of the press multiple times, repeatedly telling her that he was carrying a camera for journalistic purposes; however, she did not allow him to leave.

Another officer later told Asinor that he was being arrested for “felony rioting.”

The ACLU document said “nothing Mr. Asinor did on August 30 or 31, 2020 provided probable cause to believe that he violated D.C. Code § 22-1322 or any other law.”

After the arrest, an officer removed Asinor’s camera, cellphone and goggles. He was then taken to the second police district, where he remained in police custody overnight. He continued to feel the effects of the chemical irritants with which he had been sprayed.

According to an MSN report, the ACLU said: “MPD did not return these items for almost a full year, even though he requested them multiple times, and MPD had no lawful basis to keep them.”

Asinor was released after about 17 hours in custody, at which point he was informed that he would not face any charges, according to the document.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the D.C. government and the MPD officers claiming false imprisonment, assault and battery and unlawful use of chemical irritants, based on this incident and another with independent photojournalist Brian Dozier.

MPD told the Tracker they did not comment on ongoing cases.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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