DES MOINES, Iowa – Andrea Sahouri, the Des Moines Register reporter arrested while covering racial justice protests last summer, took the stand Tuesday, saying she was a reporter doing her job as historic unrest overtook the city.
Sahouri’s case has drawn widespread condemnation from journalism and free press organizations as she is one of a handful of reporters facing charges after being arrested during coverage of the protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
“It’s important for journalists to be on the scene and document what’s happening,” Sahouri said during her testimony. “Protests erupted not just across the country but all over the world. I felt like I was playing a role in that. I know we are a small city, but I felt like I was playing a role in that.”
Sahouri faces two charges – failure to disperse and interference with official acts, both misdemeanors – after she and Spenser Robnett, her then-boyfriend who accompanied her to the protest for safety reasons, were pepper-sprayed and arrested near Merle Hay Mall on May 31.
The trial was slated to resume Wednesday morning. The two sides were still hashing out jury instructions. The judge has also not ruled on a motion filed by Sahouri’s attorney during the trial for a directed verdict to decide the case in Sahouri and Robnett’s favor
The attorney, Nicholas Klinefeldt, on Tuesday argued his client was simply doing her job and that any dispersal orders issues were not clear, instead telling protesters to get off the street and protest peacefully.
Prosecutors from the Polk County Attorney’s Office argued instead that Sahouri and Robnett were ordered to disperse, failed to do so, and when Sahouri was arrested, attempted to pull away.
The Backstory:A reporter arrested while covering a protest faces trial Monday. Here’s why you should care.
Body camera footage seen Tuesday during trial captured the moments immediately after Sahouri’s arrest and showed Sahouri, visibly shaken from the pepper spray, repeatedly telling officers that she was on assignment as a reporter.
“This is my job. This is my job,” Sahouri said. “I’m just doing my job. … I was sent here. … I’m a journalist.”
Sahouri’s newspaper, the Des Moines Register, is owned by Gannett, the same parent company as USA TODAY.
Sahouri testified that as she arrived at the scene near the mall, she began tweeting photos and video of the protests that eventually turned violent as the crowd clashed with police.
When a police car stopped in the street around 6:30 p.m., shortly after Sahouri arrived, she said she saw protesters surround it and throw water bottles while police began to make arrests.
Sahouri was with Robnett for most the evening and also met with another then-Des Moines Register reporter Katie Akin.
Near where the police car was, officers told Sahouri and Robnett to get back and Sahouri said at a distance off the road and continued to report. She and Robnett both testified Tuesday they did not hear the order as an order to dispere the area altogether.
As the evening progressed, Sahouri documented property damage, looting and people entering the mall. More police arrived and Sahouri, at one point, told Robnett to move the car they had driven to the area.
In a parking lot near where looting was occurring, Robnett said he heard Sahouri speak with a police officer who he believed told them they were allowed to be in the area in general.
Police soon deployed tear gas on one group whose actions Sahouri was documenting. She, Robnett and Akin started to move away from the parking lot and headed toward a Verizon store parking lot to leave the area as the entire crowd scattered, she said.
As they were leaving, Robnett was struck by a projectile which made him drop to the ground and slow his pace.
Sahouri said she later turned around and saw an officer coming at her. She stopped immediately, she said, adding. “I didn’t think it was a good idea to run from officers.”
When she told the officer she was a reporter, she said he responded, “That’s not what I asked.” Sahouri said she was pepper-sprayed and arrested.
Sahouri testified she never disobeyed police commands nor pulled away from the officer who arrested her.
However, Des Moines police officer Luke Wilson said earlier in the trial that he had pepper-sprayed a group of people before arresting Sahouri. Sahouri was the only person who remained in the immediate area after he deployed the spray, so he began to arrest her, he said.
Wilson said that as he grabbed Sahouri, she moved her arm away from him, though it was possible she was moving because of the effects of the pepper spray. Robnett also grabbed Sahouri as Wilson had her in his clutch, too, the officer said.
“I don’t know why she tried to pull her arm away,” Wilson said.
Robnett said he never tried to pull Sahouri away nor interfere with her arrest.
More than 120 reporters were arrested or detained during the summer protests, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, but in most cases, prosecutors dropped the charges, including in Des Moines with another freelance reporter.
Advocates and legal experts have said that the charges were not dropped and the case has gone to trial is rare in the United States.
On Tuesday, Carol Hunter, the Register’s executive editor, testified that Sahouri was doing her job that day and had been working with editors not on the scene to determine where she should be positioned. She said Sahouri did not violate any Des Moines Register policy the night of her arrest.
Sahouri was not wearing a press credential at the time of her arrest, but there is no formal press credential that Sahouri could have been issued, Hunter added.
Jurors also heard testimony Monday and Tuesday from other police officers who responded to the protest.
While other officer had activated their bodycams to record footage of their interactions with the public, Wilson did not. The officer explained he mistakenly thought he had pressed the record button but realized some time after that he had not. The video was not preserved before it was overwritten.
Sgt. Natale Chiodo, whose body camera footage was shown, had responded along with Wilson to the area where Sahouri was arrested.
In the video during which Sahouri repeatedly told the officers that she was on assignment as a journalist, Akin, the other reporter, was also seen in the group.
When asked by the defense why Akin wasn’t arrested, Chiodo said, “She just seemed very scared to me,” and added that “she wasn’t a threat. She wasn’t disobeying our orders.”
Prosecutors argued, however, that it is at the discretion of the officer whether to arrest a suspect and that Chiodo did not see what led up to Sahouri’s arrest.
Akin also took the stand and said throughout the time she was at the scene and with Sahouri and Robnett, she heard no dispersal order from police.
When she was with Sahouri and Robnett, she described standing away from the action and simply observing police and protesters’ actions.
Akin described multiple times, both when she was alone and with Sahouri and Robnett, that she moved away from police based on instinct rather than an order to leave the area.
When the arrests occurred in the parking lot of a Verzion store, Sahouri, Robnett and Akin were walking together away from a chaotic encounter between police and protests, Akin said.
Akin was a few feet ahead of the two when she heard Sahouri yell. She turned around and saw two police officers approaching Sahouri and one then pepper-spraying her. Akin said she was surprised because she did not think they were breaking any law at the time.
“When I saw Andrea getting pepper-sprayed, I started to yell that we were reporters,” Akin said
As Sahouri was being arrested, Akin pulled out her phone and took a photo, knowing she would have to tell her editors what was happening.
Akin said she was focused mainly on Sahouri during the incident. She did not recall seeing Sahouri pull away from the officer arresting her nor Robnett ever approaching Sahouri or the officer.
Robnett also testified he saw an officer pepper-spray Sahouri. He was about 5 feet away, he said, but took a step toward Sahouri to tell the officer that she was a reporter. Robnett said he was then pepper sprayed by the officer and dropped to the ground.
He said he then thought to take out his phone and record a video in which he and Sahouri were heard telling officers she was a reporter. Robnett denied ever grabbing Sahouri or rushing Wilson.
Other images that the jury saw Tuesday included screenshots from a local TV station’s live coverage of the protest streamed on Facebook.
Detective Ben Carter was also at Merle Hay Mall that day but did not observe the arrest. He later reviewed the news footage of the event and identified Sahouri and Robnett in screenshots of their coverage that were taken between the time officers told the group to clear the road and when Sahouri and Robnett were arrested.
Carter testified that the crowd continued to move throughout the area after the order was given and generally stayed together as one group. Some in the group were destroying property and throwing rocks and water bottles.
Earlier in the trial, Des Moines police Lt. Chad Steffen answered questions about his role responding to the protests and helping clear traffic about an hour and a half before the arrest. In his bodycam footage, Sahouri and Robnett are seen on the side of the road, and a squad car public address system can be heard in the background telling people to “disperse” and also “protest peacefully.”
Klinefeldt, through cross-examination, argued that the orders told the protesters to clear the street and remain peaceful but did not imply everyone should leave immediately.
Before the trial, numerous media and journalism groups called for the charges to be dropped, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and students and staff from the Columbia University School of Journalism, where Sahouri earned a master’s degree. The human rights organization Amnesty International has also taken up the cause.