An Iowa journalist recounted getting pepper-sprayed and arrested while covering a protest for racial justice last year, testifying in her own defense Tuesday at her trial on charges stemming from the incident.
Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri told jurors she was running away from a scene where riot police had shot tear gas and were advancing to disperse protesters outside a mall in Des Moines, Iowa. She said that after she rounded the corner of a Verizon store, she saw an officer charging at her and put her hands up.
“I wasn’t doing anything wrong,” Sahouri said. “I said, ‘I’m press, I’m press, I’m press.’ He grabbed me, pepper-sprayed me and as he was doing so said, ‘That’s not what I asked.’”
Sahouri said the pepper spray was “extremely painful” and made her think she was going to go blind.
Sahouri’s testimony came on the second day of a trial in which Sahouri and her former boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, are charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. The case has drawn widespread criticism from media and human rights advocates, who call the charges an attack on press freedom. The pair face fines and potentially jail time if convicted of the misdemeanors.
Judge Lawrence McLellan on Tuesday reserved a ruling on the defense’s motion for an acquittal and could issue one from the bench Wednesday. A six-member jury is expected to begin deliberations Wednesday morning.
Body camera video played for jurors before Sahouri’s testimony backed up her account, showing that she was temporarily blinded and hurting from pepper spray and repeatedly told police she was a reporter.
“This is my job,” Sahouri tells an officer. “I’m just doing my job. I'm a journalist.”
The Freedom of the Press Foundation called the video powerful evidence that Sahouri was “arrested while doing her job reporting on historic protests” and should have never faced prosecution.
Robnett, who accompanied Sahouri to the protest for safety reasons, also took the stand Tuesday. He said he saw Officer Luke Wilson spray Sahouri from close range, and that he stepped forward to say that Sahouri was a Register reporter. The officer then shot pepper spray at him, knocking him to the ground, before he was handcuffed and jailed, Robnett said.
Robnett and Sahouri testified that they did not hear any earlier police orders to leave the scene, and that they did not interfere with the officers who arrested them.
The newspaper assigned Sahouri to cover the protest at Merle Hay mall days after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was declared dead after a white officer in Minneapolis put his knee on Floyd’s neck for about 9 minutes.
Des Moines Register executive editor Carol Hunter testified that Sahouri did her job “very well” that night, reporting observations and images of the event live on Twitter. She noted the protests were the largest in the city in decades.
A second Register reporter who was with Sahouri, Katie Akin, testified that she was surprised to see Sahouri get arrested because “I didn't understand us to be breaking any laws.” Akin yelled that they were journalists and showed a press badge, before Akin was told to leave without arrest.
Wilson, an 18-year Des Moines Police Department veteran, said he responded to the protest and found a “riotous mob” breaking store windows and throwing rocks and water bottles at officers. He said his unit was told to clear a parking lot, and he used a device known as a fogger to blanket the area with clouds of pepper spray.
He said he decided Sahouri needed to be arrested when she did not leave and that he was unaware she was a journalist when he grabbed her. He said that Robnett tried to pull Sahouri out of his grasp, and he deployed more pepper spray that “incapacitated” Robnett.
Sahouri had her hands cuffed in zip ties and was taken to jail in a police van.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt, Wilson said that he charged Sahouri with interference because she briefly pulled her left arm away while he was arresting her. He acknowledged that he did not mention that claim in his police report.
Wilson said he failed to activate his body camera before arresting Sahouri, saying he mistakenly believed it was recording.
The cameras are always capturing video when on and can retrieve video of incidents that were not recorded in some circumstances. Officers who fail to record significant incidents are required by department policy to notify supervisors, who can then try to recover video. Wilson said he did not do that.
Prosecutors say Sahouri and Robnett ignored police orders to leave the area that were broadcast over a public address system about 90 minutes before their arrests.
The defense argued those orders were intended only to clear an intersection where protesters were surrounding a squad car. Body camera video played for jurors showed officers yelling at protesters to get out of the intersection and be peaceful. Separate orders to disperse could be heard faintly in the background — so quiet that an officer testifying for the prosecution struggled to make them out.
Sahouri testified she did not hear any dispersal orders and continued reporting on what she called a historical moment.
“It’s important for journalists to be on the scene and document what's happening,” she said.