I was out Friday night and Saturday night/Sunday morning, covering the rioting in the East Village and Court Avenue District in Des Moines. On Friday, from my perspective, the police were relatively cooperative and respectful to media covering the civil unrest. For the most part, I was able to go where I felt like I needed to go to document what transpired.
Early Sunday morning, however, that changed. As law enforcement officers dispersed the crowd on Court Avenue, my daughter, Kelvey, who also writes for Caffeinated Thoughts, and I were approached as we attempted to recover from inadvertently walking into an area where the police deployed tear gas.
Even though we identified ourselves as press, and we were wearing press badges, they said we needed to move back or be arrested. We moved down Court Avenue and turned on 4th Street with the police following us continuing to tell us that we would be arrested if we did not move back (we moved back while continuing to identify ourselves as press). One officer ordered Kelvey to turn around (she was walking backward and continuing to film). She said she would not turn around, but would comply with the order to move back.
We complained that their actions were unconstitutional because they were.
They eventually moved away and left us about halfway between Court Avenue and Walnut Avenue on 4th Street. We spoke to some protestors or bystanders; bars were letting out at that point, so we were not sure why they were downtown. Kelvey offered first aid to one young man who had a cut on his leg (she brought along a first aid kit).
Shortly afterward, we were approached by a different group of law enforcement officers who ordered us to leave, or we would be arrested because they were locking down the area. We explained, again, that we were press, and we needed to walk back to the parking garage on 3rd Street and Court Avenue because we parked there. They told us to walk toward Walnut and loopback.
That is what we did while I continued to record a Facebook Live video, and then we ran into a third group of law enforcement officers as we walked south on 3rd Street. They said we needed to leave or we would be arrested and maced. We, again, said we were press, holding our press badges up, and said we were going the area.
They said we could not go the direction we were headed, and we had to turn around. I said we needed to get to my car. One officer replied, “that’s too bad.”
We then informed the group of officers that other law enforcement officers told us to go this way to get to the car. We emphasized, again, that we were leaving, but couldn’t leave without the car. They let us pass, but another officer said that we would be arrested and maced if they saw us again. Was that threat really necessary?
I want to emphasize, again, we were doing nothing wrong. We were reporting. We were doing our jobs. The law enforcement officers we encountered early Sunday morning in the Court Avenue District were disrespectful, rude, and impatient. Even so, we complied but still were continually threatened with arrest as we complied to their orders.
Compared to what other reporters experienced, what we experienced early Sunday morning was minor. In Minneapolis, a CNN crew was arrested. Reporters have been targeted with tear gas and rubber bullets by police. Several journalists have been injured.
Sunday evening, Des Moines Register reporter, Andrea Sahouri, was arrested by police during rioting and looting at Merle Hay Mall. Other reporters were threatened with arrest.
Sahouri recounted her experience in the back of a police van:
The Des Moines Register worked for her release but was originally told she would not be released until Monday morning, but she ended up being released shortly before midnight.
I understand that law enforcement officers have a tough job to do. I know that this is extremely stressful. Even so, they must do better. It is not difficult to distinguish between reporters and people rioting and looting.
We do not want to get in their way or impede police from doing their job. They shouldn’t hinder the press from doing their jobs either. It’s a guaranteed constitutional right.
They must respect the freedom of the press. The behavior demonstrated by several law enforcement officers within the Des Moines Police Department is unacceptable in a free society.
Also, the Polk County Board of Supervisors, who issued a county-wide curfew starting at 9:00 pm on Sunday night, should make it clear that members of the press who are out reporting on civil unrest are exempt from the order.