Student photojournalist arrested, equipment seized during L.A. protest
Pablo Unzueta, a freelance photojournalist and video editor for California State University, Long Beach’s newspaper, the Daily 49er, was arrested while documenting protests in the South Los Angeles area on Sept. 8, 2020.
Unzueta told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker he was following a group of protesters as they gathered for the fourth consecutive night outside the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department following the fatal shooting of Dijon Kizzee, a Black man, by deputies on Aug. 31.
At approximately 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 8, Unzueta said, deputies declared the protest unlawful and ordered the crowd to disperse. Following the order, Unzueta said he saw deputies firing tear gas and flash-bang grenades into the crowd around the intersection of Normandie Avenue and West Imperial Highway.
Unzueta said officers pushed the crowd north on Normandie as they advanced, and that many of the protesters began splitting off and dispersing.
“I didn’t know the area that well so I made a left into this neighborhood on this very narrow street,” Unzueta said. “The sheriffs would get on the trucks and then the truck would speed up through the street and then they would start firing more [flash-bang grenades] and then more tear gas.”
“I kept ducking behind cars while I’m running so I wouldn’t get hit.”
Unzueta said a few minutes passed as he kept looking for a way to get back to his car, which was parked near the Sheriff’s Department, but realized that he was stuck on a long, narrow block.
Two sheriff’s vehicles pulled up at approximately 9:30 p.m., Unzueta said, and deputies began arresting the demonstrators that remained.
“This was sort of a ‘holy shit’ moment for me, and I immediately identified myself as press just to avoid getting tackled or being shot with a rubber bullet,” Unzueta said.
He said that after a couple of deputies saw his credentials and camera and didn’t stop him, he thought he would be allowed to leave and began to head back the way they had come to return to his vehicle.
“I start walking on the sidewalk and that’s when an officer from up above in the truck said, ‘Hey! Grab that guy!,’” Unzueta said. “Again I yelled, ‘Press, press, press!’ And that’s when the officer…just grabbed me, threw my camera on the ground and ripped my backpack off my back.”
Unzueta told the Tracker he was wearing press credentials from Mt. San Antonio College, where Unzueta used to be a student, and his College Media Association badge, and repeatedly told the deputies to call the newspaper’s adviser.
During the course of his arrest, Unzueta said that officers tightened his metal handcuffs so tightly that he lost all feeling in his hands, and that they called him demeaning names and slurs. Unzueta said deputies then pushed him into the back of a department van, causing him to fall on and rupture multiple pepper balls. The officers left him to struggle to breathe amid clouds of pepper powder, he said.
Unzueta also alleges that some of the officers used their personal cell phones to photograph him and other detainees.
“The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department values the media and highly respects the freedom of the press,” Department spokesperson Deputy Trina Schrader told the Tracker in an emailed statement. “Please be aware an administrative investigation has been launched into the circumstances surrounding this incident. A lieutenant from South Los Angeles Station has been assigned and will be contacting Mr. Unzueta to investigate these allegations.”
Unzueta said deputies seized his iPhone and Nikon D800 camera. He said he was handcuffed for about two hours. He was transported to the South Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station where he was booked at 10:30 p.m., and then transferred to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.
Unzueta estimated he was in police custody for 10 or 11 hours. His booking data, reviewed by the Tracker, shows he was released the following day with a citation. A copy of the citation shared with the Tracker shows Unzueta was arrested for unlawful assembly, a misdemeanor, and was ordered to appear in court two days later.
Unzueta said his equipment and cell phone weren’t returned to him upon his release.
The Student Press Law Center, a Tracker partner organization, connected Unzueta with the Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. LAist, part of Southern California Public Radio, reported that the clinic was able to secure the release of Unzueta’s camera, but the memory card — which Unzueta told the Tracker contained two years worth of freelance work — had been removed.
Unzueta said deputies first claimed that the camera hadn’t contained an SD card and then that it may have fallen out when the deputy threw it to the ground during the arrest. Unzueta disputed both of these assertions, and said the design of the camera makes it nearly impossible for the memory card to call out.
In a letter sent on Unzueta’s behalf, the clinic asked that the cell phone and memory card be returned, assurance that the case wouldn’t be presented to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office for prosecution, a copy of his arrest report and an apology from the department.
“Sheriff’s deputies had no basis to arrest Mr. Unzueta,” the letter reads. “A truck full of deputies passed by, and a deputy pointed at Mr. Unzueta and said, ‘Get him.’ Mr. Unzueta repeatedly identified himself as a member of the press and as a student journalist, displaying his student press badge, but the deputy who arrested him ignored him.”
Unzueta confirmed to the Tracker that he still hasn’t regained complete feeling in his palms more than two and a half months later, attributing the numbness to the overly tight handcuffs.
The Long Beach Press Telegram reported on Nov. 17 that the department hadn’t responded to the letter, according to one of Unzueta’s lawyers.
“I’ve been photographing protests since the Trayvon Martin protest, which was in 2013 and I was 17 at the time. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I never thought I’d have to experience something like I experienced on September 8th,” Unzueta said.
Unzueta told the Long Beach Post that while he has always had a passion for photography, he was shaken by the incident.
“I don’t feel safe going out anymore,” Unzueta said. “This is the last thing I want to do.”
Student journalist Pablo Unzueta told Columbia Journalism Review, a partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, that the Los Angeles district attorney dropped the misdemeanor unlawful assembly charges following his September 2020 arrest.
The journalist, whose equipment was also seized during his arrest, said that he obtained a pro-bono lawyer from the UC Irvine Law Clinic and was able to get his camera gear back within two months after his arrest and his phone within a 4-month period. His memory card, however, has not been returned.
“The UC Irvine Law Clinic will be filing a claim this month in regards to my arrest and missing SD card,” Unzueta told CJR.