U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Documentarian struck over the head with baton by man at LA demonstration

Incident Details

Date of Incident
July 3, 2021

Assault

Was the journalist targeted?
Yes
WINTERS ROCK ENTERTAINMENT/RAYNA ZEMEL

Winters Rock Entertainment documentarians, Miranda Winters, left, and Rocky Romano film at a protest in L.A. in November 2020. Romano was hit over the head with a baton while filming another protest on July 3, 2021.

— WINTERS ROCK ENTERTAINMENT/RAYNA ZEMEL
September 14, 2021 - Update

Man charged with assault after documentarian struck over the head with baton at LA demonstration

On Sept. 14, 2021, prosecutors charged a man with assault after documentary writer, director and producer Rocky Romano was hit over the head with a baton while he was documenting protests in Los Angeles, California, in July.

During protests outside Wi Spa in LA’s Koreatown, an individual ran to Romano, who was wearing a flak jacket labeled with “PRESS” and a helmet while filming, and struck him across the head with what appears to be a club. Romano subsequently identified the weapon as a “tire thumper” — a hickory wood baton weighted with three inches of iron rivet embedded inside.

Los Angeles County prosecutors charged suspect Aaron Simmons with one count of assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Romano told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that a “team of dedicated journalists, gonzo media and cyber sleuths” had helped the Los Angeles Police Department Major Crimes Division identify his assailant, and he was grateful that prosecutors had pursued the assault charge.

"The frequency and amount of premeditated violence towards the press that cover protests across the nation is unacceptable,” Romano said. “[I] hope that this arrest will help curb the violence in the streets of Los Angeles. As we navigate these uncertain times I think we all need to keep in mind that without a free press, there can be no democracy."

While prosecutors also filed an arrest warrant, the Times reported that as of Sept. 20 police had not yet located Simmons. If convicted, Simmons faces up to four years in prison.

The LAPD did not respond to an email requesting comment.

February 3, 2022 - Update

Man sentenced to probation after striking documentarian over the head with baton at LA demonstration

The man charged with assaulting documentarian Rocky Romano during protests outside a spa in Los Angeles, California in July 2021, was sentenced to probation on Feb. 3, 2022.

During protests outside Wi Spa in LA’s Koreatown, an individual ran to Romano, who was wearing a flak jacket labeled with “PRESS” and a helmet while filming, and struck him across the head. Romano subsequently identified the weapon as a “Tire Thumper” — a hickory wood baton weighted with three inches of iron rivet embedded inside.

Los Angeles County prosecutors charged suspect Aaron Simmons in September 2021 with one count of assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm. Simmons pleaded no contest to the charge, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Under a plea deal Simmons struck with prosecutors, Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell placed him on three years’ probation and ordered that he undergo anger management and stay away from Romano, according to the Times.

Simmons’ attorney told the Times he would seek to have the case expunged from Simmons’ record once he completes the terms of his probation.

The Times reported that Romano did not appear at the sentencing hearing, but in a victim impact statement he wrote that he was conflicted about the plea deal and that he worries he would have been killed or badly injured if he hadn’t been wearing a helmet during the attack.

“I am not sure what the correct punishment should have been, but I do believe that this could send the wrong message to Simmons and his group of far-right extremists as well as the activist and journalist communities,” Romano wrote. “It is hard to believe that he will be at the next event I cover, but one thing is for sure, I will be wearing my helmet.”

July 3, 2021

Documentary writer, director and producer Rocky Romano was struck over the head with a baton while he was documenting protests outside a spa in Los Angeles, California, on July 3, 2021.

Wi Spa, located in LA’s Koreatown, became a flashpoint for anti-transgender demonstrators as the result of a viral video which police are now treating as a hoax, Slate reported. Romano told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker via email that a loose coalition of LGBTQ, antifa and leftist demonstrators had assembled outside the spa shortly before 10 a.m. in support of transgender individuals’ rights.

Romano said he and his team at Winters Rock Entertainment are working on a feature-length documentary on the civil rights movement in LA since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Romano said he and his team discussed the potential dangers when they arrived in the area, as had become routine with their coverage of dozens of protests over the past year.

“We knew that there had been threats issued by far right extremists and, as always, we came prepared with our limited protective gear, which thankfully included my helmet,” Romano said. “What we did not know was the extent of the danger we would be facing.”

Shortly after the documentarians arrived, several more groups Romano described as QAnon believers, Trump supporters and religious zealots arrived at the spa. Animosity between the groups of protesters and counter-protesters escalated.

“As tensions rose, fights began to break out and I ended up being hit with a cloud of mace as I filmed,” Romano said. “As the acts of violence began to escalate even more, I began to try and de-escalate certain situations where violence could reach the point of major bodily harm or death.”

“Just as I stepped in to allow a far-right protester to get to his feet after falling to the ground after a confrontation, I was hit from behind by some sort of blunt instrument,” Romano said.

In footage captured by independent journalist Tina-Desiree Berg, an individual in a plaid shirt can be seen advancing down the street toward a crowd of scuffling protesters. Approximately 15 seconds into the clip, the individual appears to deliberately approach Romano, who is wearing a flak jacket labeled with “PRESS” and a helmet while filming, and strike him across the head with what appears to be a club.

The individual can then be seen running back down the street, and appears to taunt Romano and the crowd before turning down a side street and getting into a vehicle parked nearby.

Romano said that the individual dropped the club as he fled and that someone was able to recover it. Romano subsequently identified the weapon as a “Tire Thumper” — a hickory wood baton weighted with three inches of iron rivet embedded inside — which qualifies as a “generally prohibited weapon” under the state’s penal code.

Image courtesy Rocky Romano

After hitting journalist Rocky Romano in the head with this club, identified as a 'tire thumper,' the assailant dropped it while fleeing.

Following the assault, Romano told the Tracker he didn’t seek medical attention but followed best practices for someone suffering from a concussion. Later that night, Romano said, he could feel that his scalp had split slightly because of the force of the impact.

Romano said he has been in contact with the Los Angeles Police Department and is consulting with Winters Rock Entertainment’s legal counsel about the best way to move forward.

The LAPD didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

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