Journalist arrested following Birmingham protest

June 4, 2020

Michael Harriot, a senior writer for the Root, was arrested while covering protests in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 4, 2020, according to published reports of the event.

The protests were held in response to a video showing a Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, for more than eight minutes during an arrest on May 25. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a local hospital. The incident sparked anti-police brutality and Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country.

According to AL.com, approximately 100 people had assembled in Linn Park on the afternoon of June 4. At around 7 p.m., curfew in Birmingham at the time, police reportedly directed the crowd to disperse and told members of the media to have their press credentials clearly displayed. Many protestors had left the park by that point, according to AL.com, but the few who were willing to get arrested stayed, and they were.

According to the news site, officers then made their way to an area where members of the media had gathered, including Harriot, who was filming with his cellphone. Harriot did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

In a video shot by AL.com of Harriot's arrest, reporter Carol Robinson can be heard narrating the scene, saying, “They’re asking if he’s media. He says he is. But he says he does not have a credential.”

In an article for the Root, Harriot noted that multiple journalists had not been wearing credentials, citing a security advisory that warned that press badges had made some journalists targets.

“The cops asked if there was anyone they could call to verify that I was press,” Harriot wrote. “I pointed to the police officers and called them by their names but my arresting officers did not bother to verify the information.”

Harriot also said that he advised the officers to call the mayor’s office, as he had conducted an interview with Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin less than 24 hours earlier. The officers also would not allow Harriot access to his phone so he could show them his digital credential.

According to AL.com, the officers then zip-tied his hands and directed him into a police van.

Later that day, Harriot tweeted succinctly about his arrest and that he was still being held in the Birmingham City Jail. In a tweet posted a little over an hour later, he said that he had been released.

In his account of the arrest and his time in custody, Harriot wrote that in the three years he has covered protests, activism and police brutality in Birmingham — in addition to other Black Lives Matters protests across the country — he had never before been arrested.

“Even after local reporters were attacked while covering the recent protests, I was not worried,” he wrote. He also noted that by the time he was arrested, the protest had entirely dispersed.

But despite standing entirely apart from the park and surrounded by other members of the press, Harriot was arrested.

“I informed them that I was with the media and I knew they were about to be in some deep shit when they rounded up those of us who didn’t have visible credentials,” he wrote. “Locking me up was one thing, but arresting journalists for doing their job was another thing.”

“They did not arrest ‘journalists.’ They arrested the only black journalist.”

While at a staging area a few blocks away, Harriot said, an officer leveraged his knee against Harriot’s thigh in order to secure the zip cuffs as tight as possible. Harriot wrote that despite his efforts to keep blood flowing, he eventually lost all feeling in his hands.

After arriving at the city jail, Harriot said, multiple officers attempted and failed to remove the cuffs, as his hands had swollen. Ultimately, he recounted, officers had to dig into Harriot’s skin in order to cut the zip ties.

Harriot said officers then directed him to put on a jail uniform, took his mug shot and fingerprinted him. He said he was then informed that someone was waiting to speak with him.

“‘Finally,’ I thought. ‘It’s probably the mayor or one of his highest level administration officials who is here to make sure I’m ok,’” Harriot wrote. “Nah. It was the FBI.”

The agents, Harriot said, read him his Miranda rights and said they “just wanted to talk.” Harriot says he declined.

Shortly thereafter, he was able to retrieve his cellphone and was released to a lobby where activists waited to bail out and welcome those who had been arrested.

On June 5, Mayor Woodfin commented on the Birmingham Police Department’s treatment of journalists. Two other reporters — Howard Koplowitz and Jonece Starr Dunigan — had been detained on June 3.

“Our curfew was not intended to stifle the voices of our people or our press,” Woodfin wrote on Twitter. “We need them more now than ever.”

BPD Public Information Officer Sergeant Rod Mauldin advised the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker to direct all questions about Harriot’s arrest to the mayor’s office, which did not respond to emails requesting comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom 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.

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

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