Radio journalist arrested, cited for failure to disperse during Philadelphia protest

May 31, 2020

Avi Wolfman-Arent, a reporter for WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR affiliate, was arrested and charged with failure to disperse while covering a protest in the city on May 31, 2020.

The protest was held 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.

Wolfman-Arent told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he was documenting a relatively small protest of 50 to 75 people as they walked from Philadelphia Police Department headquarters in the neighborhood of Old City at around 4:30 p.m.

After a few skirmishes with protesters, police reportedly gave a dispersal warning: Wolfman-Arent said in a video posted to Twitter that he did not hear it, and that his back was turned as he tried to send a tweet.

“They started advancing really quickly,” he said in the video, “and I was tackled from behind by an officer on the steps of the Curtis Publishing Building in Philadelphia near Sixth and Walnut [streets].”

Wolfman-Arent told the Tracker that though he identified himself as a member of the press, he was arrested alongside at least a dozen protesters.

“It felt unprovoked,” he said. “It wasn’t crowd control. It wasn’t some kind of potentially chaotic situation. The demonstration had just started and there were almost no people there.”

WHYY reported that police confiscated the recorder and boom microphone Wolfman-Arent was carrying and transported him to the Philadelphia Police 22nd-23rd Precinct. His equipment was returned upon his release at around 5:50 p.m., and he was cited for failure to disperse.

All told, Wolfman-Arent said, he was in police custody for approximately an hour.

Sandra Clark, WHYY’s vice president of news and civic dialogue, said that Wolfman-Arent’s arrest, after he clearly identified himself as a journalist, was “completely unacceptable.”

“We have a duty to serve the public and that means seeking truth and accountability, and representing diverse perspectives and experiences,” she said. “We aren’t going anywhere.”

A police spokesperson told WHYY that the department was aware of the allegation and had opened an Internal Affairs investigation.

Neither Mayor James Kenney nor the Philadelphia Police Department responded to the Tracker’s requests for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred total 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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