U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Photojournalist Michael Nigro arrested while covering protest in Missouri

Incident Details

Date of Incident
June 11, 2018

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Arresting Authority
Jefferson City Police Department
Unnecessary use of force?
Status of Seized Equipment
Returned in full
Search Warrant Obtained
Fight for 15

Police officers in Jefferson City, Missouri, arrest photojournalist Michael Nigro, on June 11, 2018.

— Fight for 15
March 8, 2019 - Update

Charges dismissed for photojournalist arrested while covering demonstration in Missouri

Michael Nigro, the photojournalist arrested in June 2018 while covering the Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Jefferson City, Missouri, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that charges against him were dismissed in late November.

“I was told that my charge of ‘fail to obey’ could have resulted in 90 days in jail, a $1000 fine (or both),” Nigro said. “The prosecutor first offered a plea deal of $500 fine and 8 hours of community service. I rejected that and asked for either a dismissal or a trial. For months, my court date kept getting postponed and I was rather uncertain how it would all play out.”

Nigro credits his pro-bono lawyer, Ben Faber, and his livestream of the protest for the dismissal.

June 11, 2018

Michael Nigro, a freelance photojournalist on assignment for Truthdig, was arrested while covering a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Jefferson City, Missouri, on June 11, 2018.

Nigro has been covering the Poor People’s Campaign — a 40-day series of protests and civil disobedience actions in different cities across the country — since it began on May 14. On June 11, he was in Jefferson City, documenting a civil disobedience action in which a number of protesters planned to sit down in the middle of the street and be arrested.

Nigro is a multimedia journalist who takes still photographs and livestreams events. He’s mounted his iPhone on top of his DSLR camera, a Canon 5D Mark III, so that he can take high-quality still photos while at the same time streaming to the public exactly what he sees in real-time. On June 11, he was wearing press credentials — both a New York City government press card and a Truthdig press pass — that clearly identified him as a journalist.

Nigro believes that his arrest was unjustified and that the Jefferson City police knew that he was a journalist.

“When people are performing acts of civil disobedience, I have every right as a journalist to document it, as long as I am not in the police officers’ way, which I was not,” he said.

Nigro’s June 11 livestream shows demonstrators marching toward the Missouri state capitol building and then the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. After arriving at the Chamber of Commerce building, a few dozen protesters — all wearing gold armbands, a sign that they plan to perform an act of civil disobedience and face arrest — walk onto East Capitol Avenue, link arms, and sit down. 

As police officers arrive to arrest the demonstrators, Nigro walks around them to photograph the arrests. One officer spots Nigro and orders him to get onto the sidewalk.

“You got it, you got it,” Nigro says, backing up toward the sidewalk.

After backing up to the sidewalk curb, Nigro approaches a second officer to ask about the arrests.

“Back onto the sidewalk!” the second officer barks through a bullhorn. “That’s your last warning. Everybody’s got to be up on the curb.”

The first officer then runs toward Nigro.

“Turn around,” the officer says. “You’re under arrest, my man.”

“Call my editors!” Nigro says as he’s arrested. “Call my editors, please.”

“I’m not resisting,” he says to the officer arresting him. “I’m just trying to do my job.”

The officer escorts Nigro to a nearby police van, where other officers handcuff him and take down his name and birthdate. The arresting officer hands Nigro’s equipment — camera, phone, and backpack — over to other officers and tells them, “it’s evidence.” The livestream continues for a few minutes after Nigro is arrested, as police search his backpack.

Nigro said that he was kept in the police van for about an hour and then taken to the police precinct. Nigro said that he was concerned for his safety while riding in the van, since officers never strapped him into his seat.

“At one point, they started to move the van and I was not tied in,” he said. “The guy leaned back and said, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘Yeah but I’m not strapped in.’ He said, ‘We’re not going anywhere, just moving backward.’ About an hour later, they took me to the precinct but never strapped me in.”

When he got to the precinct, he said, he was processed and put in a holding cell for about half an hour, before being released on a $545 bail. 

All of Nigro’s equipment — including his iPhone, Canon 5D Mark III camera, two camera lenses (a 24–70mm standard lens and a Sony A7ii 70–200mm zoom lens), and notebook — was returned to him when he was released. He said that it was clear that the police had searched his equipment, though nothing appeared to be damaged and none of the photos on his phone or camera had been deleted.

Nigro was charged with “failure to obey” and given a ticket to appear in a Jefferson City court at 8:13 a.m. on July 11, 2018.

The Kansas City Star reported that Nigro was one of 76 people arrested in connection with the June 11 protests, and that everyone arrested was issued a citation that carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. 

This is not the only time that Nigro was arrested while covering a protest. In 2016, he said, he was arrested by an NYPD officer while documenting an anti-Trump march in New York City.

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