Maggie Angst, a city reporter for the Mercury News, was ordered to get on the ground by law enforcement despite repeatedly holding out her press badge while covering protests against police violence in downtown San Jose, California, on May 31, 2020.
Earlier in the day, City Manager David Sykes had announced the implementation of a citywide curfew from 8:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. Notably, media outlets were deemed “essential businesses” and exempt from the measure.
The night’s protests started at City Hall, Angst told the Tracker in a phone interview. When curfew went into effect, she said, demonstrators continued to march around the downtown area, eventually making their way into the neighborhoods near San José State University. Police officers soon announced over loudspeakers that the protesters were violating curfew.
“I turned down a street and there was a line of cops on motorcycles and in cars on both sides,” Angst said. “We got kettled. The protesters started running into yards and houses.”
Angst said she followed several individuals into a backyard, but stopped when some started to jump over the fence. She said she debated walking back out to the main street, but officers had begun to fire rubber bullets and tear gas. So she decided to wait in the backyard instead, which is where she met another reporter, Luke Johnson from the San José Spotlight. Anticipating that the police would soon be entering the backyard, Angst held out her press badge.
“They just started to charge at us and were screaming to get on the ground with our faces down,” Angst said. “I tried to explain that I was with the media and show my badge, but they screamed more and were waving batons, so I got down.”
Angst said the officers surveyed the backyard and asked what she and Johnson were doing there. Again, Angst announced she was a reporter with the Mercury News. She said one officer finally looked at her ID, but no further instruction or permission to leave was given. The Tracker has documented Johnson’s detainment here.
After several minutes, Angst told the Tracker, the officers left the backyard. She was unsure if she could leave the area and did not know if officers were still firing rubber bullets or tear gas on the main street, which she later learned is where they’d detained protesters.
“I was pretty freaked out,” Angst said. “Eventually, another reporter that was there with me talked to the cops. She said to walk out slowly with my hands up, so I did that.”
Angst tweeted about the incident that evening, writing, “Unfortunately, I was too shaken to try and record a video or take down badge numbers. Noted for the future. One officer came back with a flashlight in the backyard at one point — while I was still sitting on the ground — to pick up his dropped sunglasses.”
The mayor and several city council members reached out the following day, according to Angst. She also said she spoke to San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia, who shared that some officers may have been put out on patrol but inadequately informed about media exemptions from the citywide curfew.
On September 3, the San Jose Police Department released a 243-page “preliminary After-Action Report” analyzing law enforcement’s response to the “civil unrest” that followed George Floyd’s death from May 29 through June 7. In it, the SJPD detailed numerous incidents with members of the press and concluded that the department needs additional formalized training, clear instruction of protocols for interacting with media and a comprehensive review of procedures regarding use of force and crowd control.
One recommendation raised in the report suggests providing “identifiable reflective vests” to reporters, so they are “more easily distinguishable in a crowd.” However, Sergeant Christian Camarillo told the Tracker that he personally believes that police-issued vests could risk journalists being targeted.
“One of the things I wanted to improve on after reading that after-action report was sitting down and having a dialogue with some of our local media reporters on how to keep them safe,” Camarillo said. “We want to have input from the people out there doing the work.”
Protests against police violence and in support of the Black Lives Movement have been held across the country after a viral video showed 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.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists being assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or having their equipment damaged while covering protests across the country. Find these incidents here.