William Coburn, a reporter for the California State University student newspaper, The State Hornet, was one of three journalists arrested while covering a protest march on March 4, 2019, in Sacramento, California.
Then-Sacramento Business Journal reporter Scott Rodd and Sacramento Bee reporter Dale Kasler were also arrested that night. A Bee photojournalist, Hector Amezcua, was shoved to the ground by a bike officer when police began to cordon protesters.
About 100 people gathered around 6:30 p.m. in East Sacramento to protest the district attorney’s decision not to bring criminal charges against officers in the 2018 shooting death of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man. The march proceeded uneventfully and eventually circled back to where it had begun, in a Trader Joe’s parking lot in the Fab 40s neighborhood.
Coburn told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the march had started uneventfully, and that fewer people had gathered than in the days after Clark was killed. After about two hours, the march circled back to the parking lot where it had begun.
“It looked to me like the protest was winding down,” Coburn said.
Police spokesperson Sgt. Vance Chandler told NPR that officers gave 10 orders to disperse over a two-hour period. “Shortly after we started monitoring the group at [approximately] 7:30 p.m., we established the group was unlawfully assembling by standing in the street,” Chandler said.
Protest organizers also encouraged people to leave, Coburn said, and many did. Others were still mingling in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, including a few photographers, and Coburn joined them to conduct a few final interviews. Then, he said, a row of riot gear-clad officers formed a line and began slowly advancing, leaving the only exit down 51st Street.
“The police just started marching forward, taking a few steps and then stopping,” Coburn told the Tracker. “By stepping forward, we all started moving along 51st Street looking for places to get out, but all of them were blocked off, either by vans or by a few bike cops. It looked like it was just the two bike cops going over the overpass, so we assumed they just wanted us out of this neighborhood.”
A line of officers, unseeable at first, waited for them at the end of the bridge.
Police had received reports that at least five cars had been keyed, according to a tweet from Sacramento Police Department Capt. Norm Leong, and shortly after 10 p.m. officers began arresting those that had not dispersed.
The Bee reported that 84 people were arrested over the next four hours.
Coburn told the Tracker that he had a professional camera around his neck, and when officers came to arrest him he said repeatedly that he was a reporter.
“After a while I just stopped saying [that I was a journalist] because they just didn’t know what to do about it,” he said.
While he was originally in handcuffs, Coburn told the Tracker that once officers sat him down on the curb they switched him into flexi-cuffs. He sat that way for 2 ½ hours before police loaded all those arrested into vans heading to Cal Expo, a state fair ground, to be processed.
After more than four hours in detention, Coburn was released around 2:30 a.m. on March 5 with a ticket for failure to disperse and a court hearing scheduled on June 4.
The Sacramento County district attorney’s office announced a few days later that it would not charge those arrested at the protest, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Sacramento's police department and public safety accountability office are conducting ongoing internal investigations into the police tactics used during the protest, The Bee reported.
“I’m very disappointed the protest ended the way it did. I have many questions about what went on that precipitated the order to disperse and the subsequent arrests,” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg tweeted in the early morning on March 5. “No matter the reason an order to disperse was given, no member of the press should be detained for doing their job.”
Kettling—surrounding protesters in order to prevent any exit, often followed by indiscriminate detentions and arrests—is used across the country as a protest response despite the risk it poses to journalists covering the protest.
Editor's Note: William Coburn originally reported to the Tracker that he was wearing university-issued press credentials when he was arrested, but it was later confirmed that he was not. This article was updated March 3, 2020.