Six journalists have now been charged with felonies for reporting on the black bloc protests on inauguration day in Washington D.C. Police allege that they have violated the district’s laws against rioting.
Evan Engel of Vocativ; Jack Keller, a producer for the web documentary series Story of America; Alex Rubinstein of RT America, Matt Hopard, an independent reporter who was live-streaming; Aaron Cantu, an independent journalist; and Shay Horse also an independent journalist were all swept up by police in last Friday’s protest. All deny wrong-doing.
It’s not hard to see how this happened. I was also there and watched as the riot police, motorcycle cops, and bike cops, blocked the protesters in, and cleared the area with "sting ball" grenades, gas, and copious amounts of pepper spray. As American reporters leaned on their First Amendment rights and waved their press badges as police charged them, international reporters on the scene, perhaps fearful of being shot, raised their hands high above their heads as they fled.
Officers charged at anyone in the vicinity—and numerous people not involved in property destruction or even protest were swept up. One came running at me with her club gripped in both hands, holding it horizontally, and aiming it at my neck, as if she was going to take me down. I did the only thing I knew how to do, I screamed that I was press and at the last minute, she turned to the side, went around me, and knocked someone else down.
I was not skillful or smart; I was just lucky. In that moment of adrenaline, her response matched mine. She could have just as well ignored my plea, in which case I would have likely spent the night in jail and been charged in the same way that these other six reporters were.
Police attacks on the press during protests are not unique to the Trump regime. During the Baltimore Uprising in April 2015, the police seemed to specifically target photographers, and I filmed them as they knocked down and trampled Baltimore City Paper’s photo editor J.M. Giordano. I screamed over and over again “He’s a photographer, he’s press” and eventually they let him go, but not before giving him a few bruises. Another photographer was arrested that same night and two days later, a freelance photographer Sean Carrier was shot with a rubber bullet in the head and held in jail for two days, even though he identified himself as press. He never received medical attention, despite a concussion.
As recently as July 2016, Baltimore police arrested another Baltimore City Paper photographer who was covering a protest and detained her overnight, though she clearly identified herself as press and wore a press badge.
Still, that happened in a climate where the Justice Department was actively investigating police for civil rights violations. In many ways, the Obama administration was horrible when it came to press freedom (and especially whistleblowers) but in comparison, he appears a great champion of the press.
Trump, on the other hand, has called us the lowest form of life, the worst liars in the world, and the enemy. This emboldens individual police officers in dealing with members of the press out on the streets.
There has been a lot of talk about press solidarity lately, especially after Trump refused to answer questions from CNN at his first press conference since the summer, shouting down the organization’s questions by dismissing them as “fake news.”
Yes, within the White House press corp, if he refuses to take a question from an organization, the others should take up the baton and ask the same questions for them. But solidarity is more than the big wigs in the front of the room at the White House with their faces on TV watching out for each other. Where is CNN when it comes to calling for the charges against the Inaugural Six reporters to be dropped?
We know by now that the president and his spokespeople will not truthfully answer questions at press conferences so the kind of solidarity that the big media outlets are advocating is largely symbolic. We need the kind of solidarity that includes standing up for those of us who get arrested. We need to demand that the charges against the Inaugural Six reporters be dropped, we need to go to court to support them, we need to cover the trials, we need to fight.
Additional reporting by Karen Houppert