Freelance photojournalist Craig Ruttle was documenting a far-right protest in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 12, 2018, when a police officer charged at him and body-slammed him.
Ruttle was covering the white supremacist rally Unite the Right II for Newsday. Ruttle tried to photograph a group of approximately 20 white nationalists, who emerged from the Foggy Bottom metro station and were soon surrounded by Metropolitan Police Department officers.
“The scene was chaotic,” Ruttle told Freedom of the Press Foundation, describing the way that police officers on bicycles and motorcycles formed a “protective envelope” around the group.
Ruttle said that while he followed the marchers, he saw a police officer in front of him tip his bicycle over. Instinctively, Ruttle reached out to help the officer.
“He was having trouble getting back on,” Ruttle said. “To be honest, I’m not sure what was going through my mind, but if someone falls over, I try to reach for them, whether they’re a cop or activist or anyone else.”
Ruttle put his hand on the officer’s back and asked the officer if he was okay. That’s when he spotted another officer running toward him.
“For a split second I saw him running at me at what appeared to be full speed, and then he crashed into me,” Ruttle said. “Getting hit by a bulletproof vest is a hard service. I’ve been hit and shoved before, but that was like a football block. I saw black for a split second.”
“He got me in the chin real hard,” he added.
Although the impact rattled him, Ruttle remained on his feet. He said that he gave the officer who hit him some “choice words” and then explained that he was trying to assist the officer who had fallen off his bike. Ruttle said that the officer who hit him just walked backwards, pointed at him, and told him not to “do that again.” Then the officer disappeared.
At the time he was hit, Ruttle said, he was carrying three cameras and wearing his press credentials.
Ruttle said that he was able to continue his work documenting the rest of the rally, but his jaw remained sore sore for a week after the incident.
Ruttle has not been able to get anyone from the MPD to explain why an officer charged at him and hit him in the chin.
“I tried to engage with [the officer] later in the march, and he refused to make eye contact,” Ruttle said. “The only thing I can say is that he either thought I was trying to push his fellow officer to the ground, or he didn’t like that I had a hand on him.”
Ruttle said that he called the MPD's public relations division in an attempt to understand what happened. Although the department took down his name and number, and promised to call him back, he said that he has not received any further communication from the MPD.
The MPD did not respond to a request for comment from Freedom of the Press Foundation.
Ruttle said the police officers at the Unite the Right II rally used aggressive tactics and seemed to have a “low tolerance threshold.”
“The cops put a group in the front, and they were being very aggressive,” he said. “You’d stop to take a picture, and backwalk, and it was never fast enough. I would try to take some pictures and they would push me, and as I’d walk further away to give them space, they'd shove me more. I got most of my shoves from the back. I was really impressed at how aggressive they were.”
Ruttle noted that freelance journalists in particular have to make difficult decisions about how far they are willing to for their reporting: “Is this day important enough for me as a freelance journalist to find myself in jail with no support? And have to deal with the legal system? Is it worth me risking getting hurt?”