IOWA CITY, Iowa – A police officer testified Monday that he arrested a journalist at an unruly Black Lives Matter protest last year in Iowa after she did not leave when he repeatedly shot clouds of pepper spray to disperse the crowd.
Des Moines Officer Luke Wilson said he wasn’t aware Andrea Sahouri was a Des Moines Register reporter when he responded to a chaotic scene where protesters were breaking store windows and throwing rocks and water bottles at police outside Merle Hay mall on May 31.
Wilson said he sprayed the chemical irritant from a device known as a fogger to clear a commercial parking lot and that it worked in scattering the rest of the group, including Sahouri’s then-boyfriend Spenser Robnett. But he said Sahouri stayed put despite the spray, which can cause a burning sensation and temporary blindness.
“Once I determined she wasn’t leaving, I had to take action,” Wilson testified, adding that he still didn't know who she was.
Wilson, who was wearing a riot helmet and gas mask, said he approached and grabbed Sahouri with his left hand while still holding the fogger in his right. He said he shot more pepper spray when Robnett returned and tried to pull Sahouri out of his custody, hitting them both again from close range.
Wilson testified on the first day of trial for Sahouri and Robnett on misdemeanor charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts. Prosecutors pressed ahead with their case despite local, national and international pressure to drop the rare effort to punish a working reporter.
If convicted, they would be fined hundreds of dollars and have a criminal record. A judge could also sentence them up to 30 days in jail on each count, although that would be unusual.
Advocates for journalism and human rights in the U.S. and abroad have pressed Iowa authorities to drop the charges, arguing that Sahouri was simply doing her job by documenting the newsworthy event. Iowa Democrats have blasted one of their own, longtime Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, for pursuing the case.
The pair are standing trial in a courtroom at Drake University in Des Moines as part of a unique program that allows first-year law students to observe real trials. The university is broadcasting the proceedings, which are expected to last two days. A six-member jury was empaneled mid-day and heard opening statements and prosecution testimony Monday. The trial will resume Tuesday.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has not recorded any other trials of working journalists in the country since 2018. Sahouri was among more than 125 reporters detained or arrested during the civil unrest that unfolded across the U.S. in 2020. Thirteen, including Sahouri, still face prosecution although the majority of those arrested were not charged or their charges were dismissed, the group says.
Employees in the Gannett newspaper chain, which owns USA Today, the Register and hundreds of other newspapers, have flooded social media with support for Sahouri in recent days. The company is funding her defense. Columbia Journalism School, where Sahouri graduated in 2019 before joining the Register, expressed solidarity Monday by promoting the hashtags #StandWithAndrea and #JournalismIsNotACrime.
Amnesty International also publicized her case and demanded the charges be dismissed.
Sahouri was assigned to cover the protest where activists were demanding better treatment for people of color days after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was declared dead after a white officer put his knee on his neck for about nine minutes.
Prosecutor Brecklyn Carey told jurors that body camera footage will show police giving a dispersal order to a crowd that included both defendants around 6:30 p.m. at an intersection outside the mall. Testimony will show that the pair was arrested 90 minutes later near the same intersection, and that Robnett tried to pull Sahouri away from the officer who arrested them, she said.
Carey urged jurors in an opening statement to keep their “eyes on the ball” and answer only three questions: was there a dispersal order, did the two disperse, and did they pull away from the officer?
But defense lawyer Nicholas Klinefeldt told jurors that the case was about a journalist who was wrongly arrested while doing her job, adding that Robnett accompanied her to the event for safety purposes.
He said the 6:30 p.m. dispersal order was intended only to clear people who were blocking an intersection and that both complied. Body camera audio played for jurors showed officers yelling to “get back” and to protest peacefully, while an order to “disperse” could only faintly be heard.
“Nobody was telling anybody to leave the scene. Quite the opposite,” Klinefeldt said.
When police deployed tear gas before 8 p.m., Sahouri and Robnett ran away and around the corner of a Verizon store. Wilson then grabbed her and blasted pepper spray into her face as she put her hands in the air and yelled that she was press, Klinefeldt said.
The officer told Sahouri “that's not what I asked,” Klinefeldt said. Then, Wilson shot pepper spray at Robnett after he yelled that she was a journalist. A second Register reporter who was nearby was ordered to leave but not arrested, he said.
Sahouri was loaded into a police van and jailed for a couple of hours.
Wilson testified that he did not “have a whole lot of conversation” with Sahouri when he arrested her. He said he believed he had activated his body camera but later learned he had failed to do so and never sought to use a camera function to retrieve the video afterward before it was erased.