Two reporters for The Staunton News Leader, a USA TODAY network paper, were arrested while covering a social justice protest in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on May 19, 2021.
The protest was in response to an announcement earlier that day from the prosecutor’s office that the police shooting death of Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man, on April 21 was justified and that none of the Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies would face charges. The demonstration was the latest in a wave of protests against racial injustice and police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May 2020.
At approximately 9 p.m., law enforcement officers ordered the crowd to disperse under threat of arrest on charges of standing, sitting or lying on a street or roadway, the News Leader reported. Minutes later, as reporters Alison Cutler and Ayano Nagaishi were standing in a crosswalk about a foot away from the curb and filming an arrest across the street, law enforcement officers approached them, asking for the “ladies in the vests,” according to the outlet.
In footage captured on Nagaishi’s livestream, both journalists were placed in zip-tie cuffs and led away by officers. When asked on what charge they were being arrested, an officer can be heard responding, “For standing in the middle of the street, in the roadway.”
Cutler and Nagaishi were both wearing fluorescent yellow vests that said “NEWS MEDIA” and identified themselves as journalists when law enforcement in riot gear detained them, according to a video on their employer’s website and Casey Blake, the North Carolina Statewide Team Editor, who spoke to the Committee to Protect Journalists in a phone interview.
According to the News Leader, a citizen filmed the journalists’ arrests using Nagaishi’s phone, and Cutler was able to call the news outlet from a police van to confirm they’d been arrested.
Blake told CPJ, a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, that the reporters could not distinguish which law enforcement officials arrested them because the officials were in unmarked riot gear.
Cutler was booked, but was not formally charged; Nagaishi was neither booked nor charged, according to Blake. The reporters were released from police custody at approximately 10:30 p.m., the News Leader reported. The Tracker has documented Nagaishi’s arrest here.
When reached for comment via phone, an Elizabeth City Police Department officer directed CPJ to Deputy Chief of Police James Avens, who did not immediately respond to CPJ’s voicemail and email requesting comment.
The Daily Advance, based in Elizabeth City, reported that City Manager Montre Freeman said the two reporters were apart from the main group of protesters when they were arrested and that they had refused to comply with officers’ directives.
“Reporters have to decide if they’re going to be a protester or a reporter,” Freeman reportedly said. “They can be both, but they have to follow the directives of the officers out there.”
While a curfew went into effect at 8 p.m., members of the press were explicitly exempted. The livestream footage captured by the Nagaishi also contradicts Freeman’s assertions.
Cutler retweeted a post on Twitter following their release that both reporters were safe.
“Thank you to everyone who supported us in every way, especially our @USATODAY family,” Cutler wrote. “We were two of many people who were arrested by police this evening. Tonight was an important night to be present here as a journalist in #ElizabethCity.”