Independent journalist arrested, held for eight hours by Richmond police
Independent reporter Madeleine “Molly” Conger was arrested when she arrived at Monroe Park to cover a protest against police brutality in Richmond, Virginia, on July 26, 2020.
Conger — whose work has appeared in local Charlottesville outlet C-Ville Weekly and The Guardian — told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that when she arrived shortly after 10 p.m. no more than 15 people were present.
“There was no active protest at that point,” Conger said. Instead, those assembled were discussing where to go or what to do that evening, she said. “Then, all of a sudden, 30 cops appeared out of the night, didn’t say anything, didn’t make any announcements, and just descended upon us.”
Conger said she was tackled to the ground by two police officers and placed under arrest. She added that though she was not wearing any “PRESS” identifiers or a press pass, officers referred to her by name and were aware that she was a journalist.
In a press conference the following morning, Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith said that the department had acted to break up the small gathering because police did not want violence akin to that seen during a protest the night before, when several hundred protestors had gathered in the same area.
"We have to take action when we know that violence is coming," said Smith. "What we did last night, we took a proactive stance, and when the group gathered in Monroe Park and congregated there after 10 p.m., RPD moved in and began to affect arrest."
"In intense situations like this, we also have to look at the bigger picture. We have to look at individuals who claim to be members of the press and we have to look at them very carefully," Smith added.
Conger told the Tracker that the police chief’s press conference the next morning specifically focused on how they were targeting people they felt were not “real” members of the press. “It felt very personal,” Conger said.
Conger said she and more than a dozen others were arrested for allegedly trespassing in the park after nightfall. Conger denied that the group was violating a dusk curfew for the park, noting that they were standing on the steps of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart across the street from the park when they were arrested. She also noted that officers tightened her zip-tie cuffs to the point that she lost all feeling in her left hand.
The group was held for an hour in a police transport van at the protest site, according to Conger, and then held another hour in the parking garage of the city jail before being booked at approximately 12:30 a.m.
Conger said that after she was processed officers took her before a magistrate for an initial hearing on whether police had probable cause to bring charges.
The magistrate determined that there was sufficient evidence, Conger said, and informed her that she would be released on her own recognisance.
As officers led her away, Conger said she thought the door she was walking through was to the outside.
“Imagine my surprise when it closed behind me and it was a cell. Nobody explained to me why this was happening or how long it would be happening for,” she said.
Conger said she was held for eight hours without explanation, either during her detention or after her release. When she was released at approximately 9 a.m., Conger said she was able to retrieve her belongings from the police department’s property department.
When asked about the detentions of several journalists over the weekend, Chief Smith said during the press conference that he will work on the department’s partnership with the media, but that members of the press must abide by the same laws as everyone else.
The Tracker is documenting all arrests here.
Conger said when she appeared for her initial trial date in September, the prosecutor and her attorney reached an agreement that if she performed 24 hours of community service within the following eight weeks, the charges would be dropped.
“Initially they wanted me to sign an admission of guilt in exchange for this agreement, and I said I’d rather take it to trial than admit I did anything wrong. Because I didn’t,” Conger said. “I moderately pushed back on signing it and they didn’t press the issue.”
Conger said she appeared in court on Dec. 3, having completed the community service, and the charges were dropped.
The Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists 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.