Sato arrest_Credit_KQED.jpg

Journalists detained, one arrested covering protest against San Francisco curfew

June 2, 2020

Police arrested freelance journalist Sakura Sato as she covered a protest against a citywide curfew in San Francisco, California, on June 2, 2020, she told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

The curfew was imposed as the city struggled to manage protests in response to a video showing a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25. Floyd was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Protests against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have been held across the United States since the end of May.

After another day of protests against police violence, nearly 20 protesters led by the Democratic Socialists of America arrived at City Hall to protest the curfew, DSA member Hope Williams told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. After recruiting more participants at City Hall, the group marched to the Hall of Justice to perform a peaceful sit-in after the 8 p.m. curfew.

Sato covered the march on her social media accounts, she told the Tracker. The dual crises of the Floyd protests and the coronavirus pandemic had recently inspired her to pursue a career in journalism, she said. But she was not on assignment for an outlet that night.

San Francisco police followed the march and formed a cordon around the protesters after they arrived at the Hall of Justice, Sheraz Sadiq, a producer for local NPR and PBS affiliate KQED who was also covering the march, told the Tracker.

Sato and Sadiq were both stuck inside the cordon as they reported on the sit-in, now about 30 people strong. Around 9:30 p.m., police warned over a megaphone that the protesters were in violation of curfew and ordered them to disperse, Sadiq said. But protesters, ignoring the warnings, responded with chants like “I don’t see no riot here. Why are you in riot gear?”

In a video tweeted by Sadiq just before 10:30, police can be seen arresting the protesters one by one. Protesters cheer in support each time it is the next protester’s turn to stand, put their hands behind their back and walk away in the custody of the San Francisco Police Department.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, Sadiq’s KQED colleague who was reporting from outside the cordon, tweeted a photo of the arrests. Sato can be seen observing police take away a protester.

Shortly thereafter, Sato was also arrested. She told the Tracker that a group of officers approached her, said she was under arrest and asked if she would resist. She responded that she was a journalist. She was placed in zip ties anyway and taken to a transport vehicle.

“I said I am a member of the press, and they ignored that,” Sato said.

The city’s curfew order excluded “authorized representatives of any news service, newspaper, radio or television station or network, or other media organization.”

“The thing that really upset me was that she was obviously functioning as a reporter,” protest organizer Williams said. “There was no reason why she should’ve been arrested alongside us. It’s insane to me.”

Footage from the protest filmed by the KQED journalists and protesters show Sato always standing apart from the protesters, observing and documenting, never participating.

“The police in San Francisco in my experience are loath to make allowances for citizen journalists or for journalists in training,” Fitzgerald Rodriguez, who is also the vice president of the Northern California chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists, told the Tracker. “They tend to only respect a credentialed journalist or a journalist with a SFPD-issued press pass.”

Sato had not yet acquired press credentials. Michael Applegate, the executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, said Sato had just joined the Guild Freelancers. The union expedited sending her a press card after her arrest.

Police officers also briefly detained Sadiq after the protesters and Sato were in custody, Sadiq and Fitzgerald Rodriguez told the Tracker. Sadiq, who had a KQED press ID, was released after officers verified his credentials.

Sato told the Tracker she began to feel sick as soon as she sat down in the police transport vehicle. The zip ties constricted the blood flow to her wrists, and she began to feel weak.

Williams, who was also arrested and placed in the van, said that the protesters asked the officers to take Sato out first when they arrived at Pier 50 for processing.

Sato was given a citation on charges of violating curfew and resisting, delaying or obstructing a public officer or peace officer. An officer warned her that if she was arrested again for the same reason, she could be put in jail, she said. Her possessions, which had been confiscated upon her arrest, were returned to her, and she was released after several hours in custody.

Williams said the protesters were released on the same charges.

Rachel Marshall, a spokesperson for San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, said Sato’s case was discharged. She said Boudin “deeply values the First Amendment—including its protection of the press,” adding that Boudin supports the protests against police brutality and will not prosecute peaceful activity.

As of June 19, Sato said she had not heard official confirmation that her case was dropped.

A SFPD spokesperson said the department was reviewing body camera footage but did not respond to specific questions about Sato's arrest and Sadiq's detention by press time.

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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