San Jose Spotlight reporter detained despite press exemptions for citywide curfew

May 31, 2020

Law enforcement ordered Luke Johnson, a San Jose Spotlight reporter, to get on the ground with his face down while he was covering the third consecutive night of protests against police violence in San Jose, California, on May 31, 2020.

Earlier in the day, City Manager David Sykes had announced the implementation of a citywide curfew from 8:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. Notably, media outlets were deemed “essential businesses” and exempt from the measure.

When curfew arrived that evening, demonstrators remained on the streets. Johnson confirmed with the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in an interview that he’d been following a group marching in neighborhoods near San Jose State University. At around 9:30 p.m., he said, police began to surround them, scattering the protesters.

“I followed them into a driveway that led to a backyard parking lot for a couple housing units,” he wrote in a piece for the Spotlight. “However, once they started hopping fences into other backyards, that’s where I decided to draw the line and stop following them."

Johnson said he was waiting in the area with Maggie Angst, a journalist from the Mercury News who’d also been covering the protests that evening, when, with batons waving, officers rushed into the backyard area and ordered both journalists to get on the ground with their faces down. The Tracker documented Angst’s detainment here.

Johnson told the Tracker that officers then scoured the area and asked the journalists several times what they were doing there. He said he repeatedly verbally identified himself as a journalist and had a camera hanging around his neck. Johnson said the officers did not provide any further instruction and were unclear about whether or not the journalists could get up and leave.

“Some of the officers were telling me to go home and some were saying to stay there. After a while, it went quiet,” Johnson said. “I looked back and they weren’t even there anymore.”

Johnson recalls that he and Angst were on the ground for several minutes. After noticing that the officers had left, he gathered his camera and belongings and prepared to go home. One officer, Johnson remembered, returned to retrieve his sunglasses but did not make any verbal contact.

Afterward, Johnson said, residents in the area offered support to the journalists, sharing water and food.

The following day, according to his piece in the Spotlight, Johnson and his editor, Ramona Giwargis, spoke on the phone with San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia.

“He wanted to share his team’s side of the story,” Johnson told the Tracker. “There was a lot of confusion going on. Some of the officers were put out there before the curfew was put into effect. He was thoroughly apologetic.”

Garcia explained that many officers were experiencing a citywide curfew for the first time and that it is not protocol for officers to leave individuals on the ground without further instruction, according to Johnson’s account in the Spotlight.

On September 3, the San Jose Police Department released a 243-page “preliminary After-Action Report” analyzing law enforcement’s response to the “civil unrest” that followed George Floyd’s death from May 29 through June 7. In it, the SJPD detailed numerous incidents with members of the press and concluded that the department needs additional formalized training, clear instruction of protocols for interacting with media and a comprehensive review of procedures regarding use of force and crowd control.

One recommendation raised in the report suggests providing “identifiable reflective vests” to reporters, so they are “more easily distinguishable in a crowd.” However, Sergeant Christian Camarillo told the Tracker that he personally believes that police-issued vests could risk journalists being targeted.

“One of the things I wanted to improve on after reading that after-action report was sitting down and having a dialogue with some of our local media reporters on how to keep them safe,” Camarillo said. “We want to have input from the people out there doing the work.”

Protests against police violence and in support of the Black Lives Movement have been held across the country after a viral video showed 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.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists being assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or having 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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