Freelance journalist Aaron Cantú was detained alongside his reporting partner while attempting to document protests against police violence in Los Angeles, California, on May 31, 2020.
Protests that began in Minneapolis on May 26 have spread across the country, sparked by a video showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, during an arrest the day before. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
Cantú — who has written for The Nation, the Santa Fe Report, The Intercept and others — told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he and Teen Vogue columnist Kandist Mallett were walking in downtown LA at around 6:30 p.m., looking for protesters when they turned onto Figueroa Street from Olympic Boulevard.
“We saw a group of young protesters running down the street towards us and that’s when we kind of walked over toward them because that seemed to be where some action was happening,” Cantú said. A group of Los Angeles police officers were behind the protesters, which he said wasn’t unusual.
“But then we noticed that police behind us on the other side of the street had started to close in,” he added.
The officers encircled Cantú, Mallett and 30 to 40 protesters in a tactic called “kettling,” and ordered all of them to sit down.
“Kandist was very vocal about her press pass, about both of us being members of the press,” Cantú said. He added that while he had his camera on his shoulder, he wasn’t wearing a press pass.
In a tweet about the incident, Cantú wrote, “I’ve found that having [a press pass] makes functionally little difference in how cops target journalists, though now it appears it might actually make it worse.”
The Los Angeles Police Department didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment.
In a video of the incident Mallett shared with the Tracker, at least 50 police officers can be seen in lines approaching from up the street. Cantú can be heard calling out, “We’re press! We just came around the corner; we got sandwiched in between.”
An officer responds, ordering them to sit down. Cantú complies, and says, “OK. We’re trying to leave though. We haven’t done anything illegal.”
Cantú said that when police began making arrests he was the first zip-tied because he and Mallett were the closest to the line of officers.
“Two or three of them grabbed me, lifted me up — I was sitting on the curb — and basically pushed me against a chain link fence and tied my zip ties,” he said. Cantú added that Mallett was able to dissuade the officers from zip-tying her while she continued to tell them that they were journalists and pulled up their bylines and information on her phone.
After taking down both Cantú and Mallett’s information, an officer cut off Cantú’s zip ties and a supervisor told the pair that they could stay or leave.
“And we decided to leave,” Cantú said. “It was probably within an hour of the curfew starting, and one of the officers who arrested me said that we had to be inside. I didn’t know if that was true or not, as we’re members of the media, but obviously they didn’t really seem to care.”
A curfew was in place that night beginning at 8 p.m., and while the order didn’t explicitly exempt journalists, city and county officials had confirmed with outlets that they’d be able to cover the protests.
He added that they were detained for about 20 minutes, and were gone from the apartment they share for approximately an hour.
Cantú was arrested while covering protests at the inauguration of President Trump in Washington, D.C., in January 2017, and was indicted on eight separate felony counts. The charges, which could have brought up to 75 years in prison if Cantú had been convicted, were dropped in July 2018. Cantú and freelance journalist Alexei Wood, who was also arrested during the inauguration protests, have filed a lawsuit against seeking damages against Washington, D.C. and its police department.
“My aversion to risk is greater now than it was then, and I still ended up in a similar kettling situation, which I found very strange,” he said.
The day after his detention, Cantú tweeted: “My J20 [Jan. 20] prosecution ‘[told] reporters to stay home & avoid the risk of prosecution rather than to go to newsworthy events.’ That’s what I did last night. After being outside less than an hour, I was arrested. I went home after release. It felt cowardly.”
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 related to the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Find all of these cases here.