U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

British reporter arrested, held for six hours amid Seattle protests

Incident Details

Date of Incident
July 1, 2020
Location
Seattle, Washington

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Status of Charges
Charges dropped
Arresting Authority
Seattle Police Department
Unnecessary use of force?
No

Assault

Was the journalist targeted?
Yes
July 1, 2020

Andrew Buncombe, the chief U.S. correspondent for British newspaper The Independent, was arrested while covering demonstrations in Seattle, Washington, on July 1, 2020.

In an account for The Independent, published July 9, Buncombe wrote that he was on assignment in Seattle to document the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest in Cal Anderson Park and the surrounding streets. For more than a month, the area had been a focal point for sustained protests following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

On the day of Buncombe’s arrest, Seattle police were attempting to clear the park, following an executive order from Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. Police Chief Carmen Best said in a press briefing later that day that the action was prompted by ongoing violence and public safety issues.

Buncombe wrote that less than five minutes after he arrived he was arrested at the northern edge of the park. An officer on the other side of a police tape line told Buncombe — who said he had not crossed the tape — to leave the area or face arrest. Buncombe said he showed the officer his State Department-issued press badge and told him he wanted to photograph what was happening inside the park.

“The officer again told me to retreat and said he was going to arrest me if I did not. I again told him I was a member of the media and intended to stay and do my work,” Buncombe wrote. “He then grabbed me and marched me towards several of his colleagues, who pinned my hands behind my back.”

Officers seized Buncombe’s phone and told him he was under arrest, but would not tell him on what charge, according to the journalist. He was then handcuffed, shackled and loaded in a van to transport him to the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct. Once there, Buncombe again informed officers that he was a journalist and asked to contact his lawyer, his editor and the British embassy.

Buncombe wrote that officers informed him he was being charged with failure to disperse, a charge that has a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail and a fine of $5,000. The Seattle municipal code explicitly states that “failure to disperse” does not apply to members of the press “unless he is physically obstructing lawful efforts by such officer to disperse the group.”

After an hour in a holding cell, Buncombe was loaded into a van alongside other detainees and transported to the King County Correctional Facility on Fifth Avenue, according to his account.

Once there, Buncombe said he was informed that an officer needed to re-enter his information before he would be permitted to use a phone.

“The officer could not hear me [spell my name], so I explained it may have been my accent (I am British),” Buncombe wrote. “For reasons that were unclear, the woman took offense. ‘Get back in the cell. You’ve lost your chance. You’re being condescending.’”

“I tried again to spell my name but they were having none of it. Out of nowhere, a male prison guard leapt at me from behind, yanked hard on the collar of my jacket, pulling it with sufficient force into my throat to make me gasp,” Buncombe wrote. “He then manhandled me into the cell.”

Buncombe wrote that while he had been detained twice before — once in Cuba in 2006 and then in Pakistan in 2011 — this was his first time being arrested. He was released at 6 p.m., approximately six hours after his arrest, once he signed a paper agreeing to appear in court.

“If I am charged, I will be pleading not guilty. Journalism is not a crime,” Buncombe wrote in his account for The Independent. “At the same time I will be trying to explain why, supported by the right afforded by the First Amendment of the Constitution, I stood my ground.”

The Independent reported on July 15 that the Seattle City Attorney’s Office declined to press charges against Buncombe. It also noted that British Ambassador to the U.S. Karen Pierce had filed an official complaint about Buncombe’s arrest, and that the White House had been informed.

Christian Broughton, the editor of The Independent, said in a statement to the outlet: “We are delighted and relieved that Andrew Buncombe no longer faces charges — of course, he should never have been arrested in the first place.”

A spokesperson for the Seattle Police Department told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that Buncombe had been arrested for refusing to leave the area, not because he was a journalist.

“Had he worked with the department to get in contact with a [public information officer] we could have gotten him into the park to do the investigative journalism that he wanted to do,” the spokesperson said. “Without that, he had to play by the same rules as everybody else at that time.”

The spokesperson also said that while steps have been taken to remind officers of the rights of journalists covering demonstrations, it is challenging for officers in the field to verify claims that someone is a member of the press.

The Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists who were assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or had their equipment damaged while covering protests across the country. Find these incidents here.

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