At least 20 journalists were arrested, detained or assaulted in Los Angeles, California, while documenting demonstrations near Echo Park Lake on March 25, 2021, as reported to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, on social media and in other news outlets.
As crowds demonstrated against the city’s plan to clear a large homeless encampment, Los Angeles Police Department officers declared the gathering at the park’s northern entrance unlawful shortly after 8 p.m., The Washington Post reported.
Before anyone could exit, according to The Post, a supervising officer announced that everyone was under arrest and officers surrounded the group using a police tactic called “kettling.”
Photojournalist Nick Stern said he was covering the protest that night as part of a documentary film project and was among the journalists detained in the kettle. Stern, whose work has been published by the Daily Mail, the BBC, and other publications, said he was held for approximately two hours before being released without charge.
Stern said police announced a dispersal order at around 8 p.m., but he said that even though he was near the skirmish line, he didn’t hear it and instead learned about the announcement on Twitter. Then, he said, an officer walked through the protest area announcing that all journalists and legal observers must leave the area. He said that set off alarm bells, because he was concerned about what would happen to protesters after observers left.
“Myself, and every other journalist that I was aware of that was there, and the legal representatives, stayed put with the crowd, I think, which was the right thing to do,” Stern said.
Stern said police moved the crowd back about five feet. The protesters then decided to continue to back up further, he said, possibly in an effort to avoid further confrontation with police. As they were retreating, he said, another line of officers came out from an alleyway, forming the kettle to block the group from the other side and preventing them from leaving.
At that point, Stern said, he asked an officer if he could get through the police line. He said he couldn’t recall whether he identified himself as a journalist, but said that he was wearing a press identification card on a lanyard around his neck, which he frequently holds up at protests when interacting with police.
Stern told the Tracker that the officer refused to let him go and said Stern was about to be arrested. He said that he was detained with the group for about two hours.
Police were moving into the crowd to detain individuals, including members of the press, one at a time, Stern said. At one point, he said, four officers came forward and arrested the journalist next to him, who was wearing a National Press Photographers Association card on a lanyard around his neck.
Stern said police never took him into individual custody. While he was held with the larger group, he said that he noticed a senior officer look towards him and say to another officer, “He’s a legit journalist.”
At around 10 p.m., Stern said an officer pointed at him and told him to follow. The officer walked him through the police line and directed him to walk down the street without stopping. Stern said he followed instructions and returned to his car.
Stern said he does not know why he was not taken into custody, when a number of other journalists were, even though they displayed press credentials. He said that he had two press identification cards on a lanyard around his neck, one issued by the National Press Photographers Association and the other by the British Press Photographers’ Association. He said he often displays the British card at protests because it looks different. He said he also had a helmet marked with the word “PRESS” attached to his backpack.
Around the time it was making arrests, LAPD issued a statement on Twitter that reads, in part, “As a reminder, members of the media are also to obey the dispersal orders. Members of the media are to use the designated media viewing area.”
At around 1 a.m. on March 26, the LAPD posted another statement specifically addressing the detainments of members of the press.
“An unlawful assembly was declared by the Incident Commander after the unlawful activity of individuals threatened the safety of the officers and all those present,” the statement reads. According to the statement, police declared the gathering unlawful in part because protesters were shining strobe lights at police, which can “cause significant injury to the eyes.”
The statement says members of the press were directed to identify themselves and relocate to a media area about 350 feet away from the crowd.
The LAPD statement notes that as individual arrests were made of those inside the kettle, police officers “learned that several credentialed and non-credentialed members of the media were part of the group. Members from the Department’s Media Relations Division were summoned to assist in identifying these individuals and they were released at scene without being arrested.”
The Los Angeles Police Department, which only accepts requests for comment via email, did not respond to a request for further comment.
The Tracker documents all arrests separately. Find all documented press freedom violations from the Echo Park Lake protests here.