Reporter for AL.com arrested while covering Birmingham protests

June 3, 2020

Jonece Starr Dunigan, a journalist with AL.com, was arrested while filming officers outside Birmingham City Hall, in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 3, 2020. After being taken to the city jail for processing, Dunigan was released without charges.

Dunigan was reporting that day with colleague Howard Koplowitz, who was also arrested. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented his case here. Both journalists declined to comment.

The protest was held in response to a video showing a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, for more than eight minutes during an arrest on May 25. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a local hospital. The incident sparked anti-police brutality and Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country.

Koplowitz told AL.com that he was recording video of Birmingham Police Department officers walking out of City Hall at around 7:30 p.m., half an hour after the city’s 7 p.m. curfew, when two officers approached him. An officer told Koplowitz he was under arrest, ignoring Koplowitz’s press pass and his verbal protestations that he was a journalist. The officers then arrested Dunigan, who was standing near Koplowitz.

AL.com reported that Koplowitz was also carrying letters showing proof of employment for both himself and Dunigan, as required by the city in order for journalists to be exempt from the curfew order. However, the BPD officers who arrested him didn’t allow him to show them the letters.

Koplowitz told AL.com that he and Dunigan were zip-tied and put into a van, which transported them to the city jail. At the jail, he said they were chained to a bench for 10 minutes before BPD public information officer Sergeant Rod Mauldin intervened and had them released. Neither Koplowitz nor Dunigan are facing criminal charges.

Mauldin advised the Tracker to direct all questions to the mayor’s office, which did not respond to emails requesting comment.

“I never want to call my mom ever again to tell her I was arrested,” Dunigan tweeted after she was released. “It was a hard conversation to have. I’m still processing it all.”

AL.com editors condemned the journalists’ arrests.

“Unacceptable,” tweeted Kelly Ann Scott, AL.com editor and vice president of content. “I’m so sorry that @HowardKoplowitz and @StarrDunigan had to endure this while just doing their jobs as journalists.”

“Watching video of a zip-tied reporter cry for someone to call me was agonizing,” tweeted Jeremy Gray, AL.com managing producer of breaking news. “I hired @StarrDunigan and have worked with @HowardKoplowitz ever since he joined our team. They were standing on a sidewalk when they were loaded into a van.”

On June 5, after another reporter was arrested by BPD officers, Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin apologized for the BPD’s treatment of journalists.

“Our curfew was not intended to stifle the voices of our people or our press,” he wrote on Twitter. “We need them more now than ever.”

On June 6, Alabama Media Group, the publisher of AL.com and the Birmingham News, asked for an apology and investigation into the arrests, AL.com reported.

“Clearly, the police overstepped their legal authority in arresting, assaulting and otherwise mistreating members of the press with no inclination to use any but the most extreme measures,” said James Pewitt, attorney for Alabama Media Group, in a letter sent to Woodfin and others. Pewitt added that the explanations provided by the police “are, in our view, wholly inadequate, plainly false and pretextual.”

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