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Iowa reporter goes to trial over arrest during Black Lives Matter protest

Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri stands accused of two misdemeanors in a case widely criticized by advocates for press freedom.
Image: Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri  arrested
Police officers arrested Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri during a racial justice protest in Des Moines, Iowa, on May 31, 2020.Katie Akin / AP file

The trial of journalist Andrea Sahouri began Monday with a police officer stating that he had no choice but to arrest her during last year's racial justice protests in Des Moines, Iowa, because she didn't leave the area after he deployed pepper spray.

Sahouri, a Des Moines Register public safety reporter, is one of 116 journalists arrested or detained while covering Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, but she is the first to be taken to trial. She is charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts, both misdemeanors.

"This is a case about a journalist arrested for doing her job," defense attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt said during opening arguments.

The case has drawn widespread condemnation by journalists and press freedom advocacy groups. At least 11 other journalists still face charges connected to incidents that took place during Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Sahouri is the first journalist arrested while covering a protest whose case has made it to trial since Jenni Monet was acquitted in 2018 of trespassing charges while covering the demonstrations against an oil pipeline at the Standing Rock indigenous reservation, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

“When reporters are arrested, assaulted or otherwise prevented from doing their jobs, it’s not an attack on just a single journalist or a media company,” the Register’s editorial board wrote last month. “It’s an attack on everyone's rights to be informed and to hold those in power accountable for their actions.”

Police pepper-sprayed and arrested Sahouri and her boyfriend at the time, Spenser Robnett, who said he accompanied her for safety reasons, on May 31 as she covered a protest outside a Des Moines mall. Robnett is accused of trying to pull her away from the arresting officer and is being tried in conjunction with her. If convicted, they could both face fines and stints in jail.

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The prosecution team told jurors Monday that the misdemeanor case hinges on "three pretty simple questions" of whether Sahouri and Robnett were told to disperse, whether they did disperse and whether they tried to pull away from the arresting officer.

Prosecutors charge that Sahouri and Robnett refused law enforcement orders to disperse — issued 92 minutes before her arrest — after some demonstrators began vandalizing businesses and throwing objects at officers around Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines, and they argue that her role as a journalist didn't give her special status to remain in the area.

Demonstrators had gathered at the mall because it was the last place that Abdi Sharif, a teenager from a Somali immigrant family, was seen alive before he disappeared in January 2020. His body was discovered in a river in May. Police ruled the death a suicide, which his family find hard to believe. Des Moines police also said they acted "tirelessly" in the investigation, which Sarif's family and activists criticized as lackluster. The Des Moines Black Liberation Movement demanded a more thorough investigation last year.

Luke Wilson, the officer who made the arrest, detained Sahouri outside a Verizon Wireless store across the street from the mall. On the stand Monday, Wilson said he used a "fogger" to deploy pepper spray toward a group of people outside the Verizon store to get them to disperse and then took Sahouri into custody because she was still there.

"Once she didn't leave, I'm required to arrest, because she didn't disperse," Wilson said. When Robnett tried to pull Sahouri from his grip, Wilson said, he sprayed more pepper spray to "maintain control of the situation and maintain control of Ms. Sahouri."

In a video Sahouri recorded in police custody that night, she said she told police multiple times that she was a reporter with The Register. However, she said, "police deliberately took me, sprayed pepper spray on my face and then put me in zip ties and in the back of a cop car."

Wilson said that he arrived at a chaotic scene in which people were throwing rocks and water bottles at police and that he didn't realize he had failed to activate his body camera. He also said he was wearing a gas mask and riot gear and didn't hear Sahouri say she was a member of the media.

Prosecutors had tried to prevent Sahouri's defense team from discussing her job as a reporter, arguing that it was irrelevant and that police believed she was one of the protesters, according to court records. In a police report, an officer described Sahouri as being "dressed very casual and had the appearance of many other subjects on this date."

The trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday morning.