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]

July 8, 2020 Update

The civil citation issued to WHYY reporter Avi Wolfman-Arent was waived along with hundreds of others issued to individuals during protests in Philadelphia from May 30 to June 30, according to the Philly Voice and confirmed to the Committee to Protect Journalists by Wolfman-Arent.

Wolfman-Arent was arrested while covering a small Black Lives Matter protest on May 31 and issued a failure to disperse citation alongside more than a dozen demonstrators. According to the Voice, the fine for failure to disperse is set at $50.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced on July 8 that all notices would be waived and those who had paid the fines would be able to receive a refund.

"My decision to waive these violations is not a statement on the validity of the individual citations," Kenney said in a statement. "Rather, it is a recognition of the core concerns that caused thousands to demonstrate on the streets of Philadelphia. In waiving these notices, I recognize that those issues are vitally important, that the pain of those marching is very real, and that their message — Black Lives Matter — needs to be heard every day until systemic racism is fully eradicated from this city and nation."

Criminal charges, such as looting and burglary, will still be prosecuted according to the statement.

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