Asbury Park Press journalist arrested covering protests, released the next day

June 1, 2020

Gustavo Martínez Contreras, a multimedia journalist with the New Jersey daily Asbury Park Press, was arrested while covering an anti-police violence protest in Asbury Park on the night of June 1, 2020. He was released after spending the night in custody.

The city of Asbury Park had imposed an 8 p.m. curfew ahead of planned protests, part of the national wave of unrest since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. The curfew, which explicitly excluded credentialed media, did not stop protesters from marching, according to the Asbury Park Press.

Throughout the night, Martínez Contreras posted videos of the protest in Asbury Park on Twitter. In his last video, Martínez Contreras captured his own arrest while livestreaming.

The video, posted around 10 p.m., shows a suddenly tense scene compared to his previous footage. Asbury Park police began to enforce the curfew by advancing in riot gear and making arrests. A police officer shoved Martínez Contreras, apologized with no explanation, and returned attention to protesters.

Minutes later on the feed, Martínez Contreras filmed police arresting two young protesters when two police officers approached him shouting “Go home” and “This shit is fucking over.” A third police officer off-screen said “Fuck him, he’s the problem” and tackled Martínez Contreras to the ground. “You're under arrest. Put your fucking hands behind your back," the officer said. The video then cut out.

In a personal account on the Press website, Martínez Contreras wrote that one police officer yelled “take down his fucking phone” and slapped it out of his hand. Police escorted him to a van transporting arrested protesters.

On the way to the van, an officer asked Martínez Contreras what was hanging around his neck, Martínez Contreras wrote. His press badge, he replied. It was one of several times Martínez Contreras identified himself as a journalist to the police before, during, and after his arrest.

The van took the prisoners to Belmar Police Department. Martínez Contreras told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that a plainclothes officer asked him if he knew about or had any interaction at the protest with the radical left-wing activist movement antifa, a group President Donald Trump vowed to declare a terrorist organization, even though he reportedly may lack the legal authority to do so. Martínez Contreras said he was familiar with the group because of his work as a journalist. He said the officer warned him to avoid antifa because it is a terrorist organization.

Martínez Contreras was released the following morning after five hours in custody, he wrote. Police returned his belongings, including his phone, backpack, safety goggles, and helmet.

Martínez Contreras had been booked on charges of failing to obey an order to disperse, according to a summons posted on the Monmouth County Prosecutor Office’s Facebook page. The charges were quickly dropped by morning. The police request to dismiss the charge, also posted on the prosecutor’s Facebook page, claimed that Martínez Contreras had failed to identify as a reporter, which Martínez Contreras disputes.

The Asbury Park Police and the Belmar Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

On Twitter, New Jersey State Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal pledged to “figure out why this happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again [because] in America, we don’t lock up reporters for doing their job.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred total incidents of journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or had their equipment damaged while covering protests across the country related to the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Find all of these cases here.

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

July 13, 2020 Update

Asbury Park Press reporter Gustavo Martínez Contreras filed a federal lawsuit on July 13, 2020, claiming police had violated his First Amendment rights.

Martínez Contreras was arrested while covering a protest against police violence on June 1, charged with failure to disperse and released the following morning. The lawsuit names the cities of Asbury Park and Belmar, Monmouth County, Asbury Park Police Capt. Amir Bercovicz and 14 unnamed officers as defendants.

"I'm filing this lawsuit because a press badge should not be a bullseye," Martinez Contreras said in a statement to the Press.

The lawsuit states, “The actions taken by law enforcement that night were unconstitutional, and the individuals and departments involved should be held responsible for those trespasses.”

The suit was filed less than a week after a New Jersey county prosecutor’s office cleared the officers involved in the arrest of wrongdoing.

The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office said in a press release on July 8 that an internal affairs investigation into the journalist’s arrest concluded that the officers “had no knowledge they were apprehending a reporter” and “reasonably believed he was one of the protesters who failed to disperse.”

“We fully support and embrace the First Amendment protections that journalists’ have to report the news. Our investigative findings are in no way inconsistent with those important constitutional safeguards,” County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni said in a statement.

The prosecutor’s office cited Martínez Contreras’ clothing and lack of “large cameras consistent with what news outlets use” or clearly identifiable press credentials, stating that this made his status as a journalist “extremely difficult to discern.”

The Press countered this assertion, writing that “Martínez Contreras was wearing a lanyard around his neck containing his press badge while reporting that night, as photos released by the prosecutor's office show.”

Executive Editor Paul D’Ambrosio called the internal investigation “a whitewash” and “a perfect example of why the police shouldn’t investigate their own officers.”

State Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced that his office would establish a working group to ensure reporters’ safety at future protests, the Press reported.

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