Social media journalist arrested, injured while covering Wisconsin protest

October 8, 2020

Independent social media journalist Brendan Gutenschwager was one of four journalists arrested or detained while covering a protest in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin on Oct. 8, 2020.

The protest followed a Milwaukee County prosecutor’s Oct. 7 announcement that his office would not bring charges against a Wauwatosa police officer who shot and killed Black teenager Alvin Cole on Feb. 2. Cole, 17, had refused to put down a gun and ran away from police following a disturbance at a Wauwatosa mall. The Wauwatosa protest came amid demonstrations against police brutality and racism that had swept for months across the country, including in Wisconsin.

Gutenschwager, who is based in Michigan, said he works as an independent videographer, filming protests and other events to post on social media platforms, then distributing his footage to mainstream media outlets such as CNN, Newsweek, The New York Times and Fox News, all of which have used his footage.

Gutenschwager told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that on the day after the prosecutor’s decision was announced, he followed protesters as they marched several miles from the Milwaukee County Public Safety Building to the suburb of Wauwatosa.

While there had been some confrontations and destruction of property the previous night, Gutenschwager said, the march on the second day was peaceful. However, when marchers encountered National Guard officers deployed in Wauwatosa, he said, demonstrators became anxious about a confrontation; some decided to get in cars to continue to protest by driving through the area. The demonstrations continued after a 7 p.m. curfew in Wauwatosa took effect.

Gutenschwager said he got in a car with other journalists, including Shelby Talcott and Richie McGinniss of the news website the Daily Caller, to follow the protest caravan. The journalists stopped in the parking lot of the St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church, on North Wauwatosa Avenue, to cover a confrontation between police and protesters, he said. Gutenschwager said he stayed in the vehicle, but McGinniss, one of the Daily Caller journalists, got out.

When McGinniss returned to the car, police tackled him to the ground, Gutenschwager said. Officers then surrounded the vehicle and ordered Gutenschwager and others to get out, he said. Gutenschwager said he was trying to exit, but it was difficult to move quickly because he was in the back seat of a two-door car. A video of the encounter posted on Twitter by WISN 12 reporter Caroline Reinwald shows a police officer yanking Gutenschwager from the car and slamming him to the ground, where he struck his head on the pavement. An officer then flipped him over and pinned him face down on the ground as Gutenschwager shouted that he was a member of the press, the journalist said.

McGinniss and Talcott both described in interviews and on social media that police beat them with night sticks during the encounter. They were both detained, but released without being arrested after they were identified as credentialed press. Blair Nelson, a freelance journalist who has worked for Scriberr News and Campus Reform, was also arrested.

The Tracker is documenting all arrests here.

Gutenschwager said that he does have press credentials, but they were in his vehicle, which was parked a short distance away. He said he continued to identify himself as press at multiple other times throughout the night.

Gutenschwager said his arms were restrained in zip ties before he was loaded into a police vehicle. He and others who had been arrested were transported to a parking lot, transferred to another van belonging to police in neighboring Waukesha County and then taken to the Waukesha County Jail, he said.

Gutenschwager said that he was processed and held in the jail. When he was released at around 3 a.m., he said police provided no way to get back to where he and others had been arrested. He was able to borrow a cell phone to get a ride from one of the journalists he was with at the time he was arrested, he said.

Gutenschwager was cited for violating an emergency curfew order, with a fine of $1,321, according to a document he provided. He was initially given a court date in November, which has been postponed to Dec. 10.

Gutenschwager said police confiscated his cell phone, saying it could be used for evidence, but did not explain what type of evidence. He said he retrieved his phone a week after he was arrested. When he got it, he said it had been put into airplane mode.

Gutenschwager said that he had significant pain in his back and neck the day after the arrest and went to a hospital in Michigan, where he was given a CT scan and diagnosed with a concussion that likely resulted from his fall during the arrest. He said he was treated for his injuries and told to avoid computer screen time, which he noted was difficult because of his work

Wauwatosa Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Abby Pavlik told the Tracker in an email that Gutenschwager was not wearing anything that identified him as a member of the press and did not show police any credentials when police asked. She did not respond to a question about the use of force during the arrest.

On Oct. 9, the police department posted on Twitter contradicting the reports that four credentialed journalists had been arrested. “Two individuals were arrested and they showed no press credentials at the time of their arrest,” the department wrote.

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 these protests across the country. Find these incidents here.

This article has been updated to include comment from the Wauwatosa Police Department.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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