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Three journalists arrested while covering Stephon Clark protest in Sacramento

March 13, 2019

Three journalists were arrested on March 4, in Sacramento, California, as police blocked off exits and began arresting those associated with a protest march. William Coburn, Dale Kasler and Scott Rodd were reporting or recording the protest when they became among the more than 80 people arrested for failing to disperse.

A Sacramento Bee photojournalist, Hector Amezcua, was also shoved to the ground by a bike officer when police began to cordon protesters. His equipment was damaged.

Around 6:30 p.m. that day around 100 people gathered in a Trader Joe’s parking lot in the Fab 40s neighborhood of East Sacramento to protest the district attorney’s decision not to bring criminal charges against the officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man, last March.

Coburn, a reporter for The State Hornet, the student paper for California State University, Sacramento, 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 National Public Radio 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 starting 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.”

Kasler, a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, told the Tracker that a line of officers, not visible 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 Sacramento Bee reported that 84 people were arrested over the next four hours.



SacProtest_map

Journalist Scott Rodd, who was among those arrested, created a map of the events around the protest and subsequent arrests. Key coloring and descriptions updated by the Tracker.


Kasler was live-streaming when two officers approached him and zip-tied his hands behind his back, placing his phone in his pants pocket. “I had held up my Bee badge and explained that I was a journalist but was taken into custody anyway,” Kasler wrote in an account for The Bee.

Within an hour, The Bee’s publisher and editor had made calls to have Kasler released. “Some higher-ups were summoned, I was pulled out of the line and my zip-ties were cut,” Kasler recounted.

Kasler told the Tracker that after giving a brief statement to a sergeant he was given a certificate of release, on which the officer had checked the box for “arrestee exonerated.”

Rodd and Coburn were also zip-tied, sitting on a curb for two and a half hours before police loaded them onto vans heading to Cal Expo, a state fair ground, to be processed.

Coburn had a professional camera and a lanyard with his school credentials, and when officers came to arrest him he said repeatedly that he was a reporter; Rodd was wearing a black T-shirt with “PRESS” in bold, white letters across the front and back, and a hat displaying Sacramento Business Journal credentials. Rodd told his arresting officer and a second officer at the scene that he was a reporter, but neither reacted. Then, he said, he tried to continue doing his job.

“I started asking one of the officers questions about what precipitated the arrest, what situation made them decide that they needed to arrest people,” Rodd told the Tracker. “After a few questions the officer said, ‘I can’t answer those questions because you’re a member of the press and I’m not at liberty to talk about it.’ He acknowledged that I was a member of the press and I was there, I was in flexicuffs, I was detained, and it looked like I was going to be processed.”

After more than four hours in detention, Coburn and Rodd were released around 2:30 a.m. with tickets for failure to disperse and dates for court hearings set for June 4. The Sacramento County district attorney’s office announced on March 8 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.

“I thought I had made it clear to them as they were detaining me that I was a reporter,” Kasler told the Tracker. “I was telling them that I’m with The Sacramento Bee and my colleagues on the other side of the police line, who were not detained, were shouting, ‘This is a reporter! This is a reporter! This is a reporter!’ And it didn’t seem to matter.”

Editor’s Note: While Kasler told the Tracker that he was not told that he was under arrest nor read his Miranda rights, and his experience is widely considered a detainment, the Tracker is documenting it as an arrest. In our methodology, his detainment for an hour in a context where police had announced that those failing to disperse would be arrested—and were indiscriminately detaining those present ahead of processing—coupled with the certificate noting “arrestee exonerated,” categorizes his experience as an arrest.

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

April 25, 2019 Update

Reporter Scott Rodd received a letter from the Sacramento Police Department informing him that the status of his arrest was being changed to a detention.

The letter, dated April 11, 2019, also said the department would retain any fingerprint records on file.

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