As a journalist, I’ve covered my share of protests and rallies, both peaceful and violent. To stay safe, I follow two rules: First, obey the law. Second, identify myself clearly as a journalist. That’s always been sufficient for getting close to the story without becoming a part of the story myself.
Until last Saturday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
I had been reporting on the story of Alton Sterling's killing for NPR all week. Trawling through Twitter, I caught wind of a protest gathering near the East Baton Rouge Police Department on Airline Highway, a busy six-lane thoroughfare. When I arrived, the protest was disorganized and nearly falling apart. Activists couldn’t decide on a location, and the group was splintering and losing steam.
Then, a contingent showed up from the New Black Panther Party. Distinct from the Black Panthers, the NBPP is classified as an “extremist group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Perhaps 30 members showed up, some equipped with shotguns and smaller handguns.
Their arrival electrified the crowd. With the NBPP in the lead, demonstrators began marching in formation up and down one lane of Airline Highway, directly in front of the police department. Over 100 onlookers gathered, some simply watching from the grass shoulder beside the highway. This is where I also stood, recording with my radio equipment and taking pictures and video with my iPhone.
Before long, the police warned the crowd to exit the roadway. When they did not, scores of law enforcement officers began filing out. Perhaps 50 of them were dressed in riot gear with visors and shields, and they flanked an armored vehicle.
In three days of covering protests at the Triple S Food Mart where Alton Sterling was shot, I had not seen a single uniformed officer.
The two groups came to a tense face-off in the street. Law enforcement stood silent and immobile, while the NBPP faced them with loud chants and fists in the air. I didn’t witness any inciting incident (such as a rock being thrown), but at some point the police officers decided to charge into the assembly and subdue the crowd.
This is when time slowed down. If you’d asked me, I would have said the following events occurred over a minute’s time. Reviewing my video of the situation, it was four seconds.
The officers began to wrest guns from the NBPP members. Shotguns that had been pointed at the sky were now akimbo, four or six hands to one gun. I stepped back, then turned around to flee. But unbeknownst to me, a line of city police had fanned out behind those of us on the grass. Now, they prevented us from leaving. An officer grabbed me and threw me back toward the violence. I smacked up against a wall of riot shields. The riot police knocked me to the ground. The city police flipped me face-down, then pinned and handcuffed my hands behind my back.
I repeated that I was a journalist. The officers told me to stop resisting arrest. I stopped talking and let my body go limp. After that, the officers were courteous, respectful and polite. They asked if I was hurt or needed medical attention, then collected my strewn belongings and stuffed them into my pockets.
Saying that I was a journalist made no difference, despite my press credentials. At no point was I told that I was under arrest, told why I was being arrested or what I was charged with, or read my Miranda rights.
At one point, an officer told me, “I’m tired of y’all saying you’re journalists.”
From there it was a series of long and boring bureaucratic procedures. I was arrested shortly after 6 p.m. and wasn’t finished until after 1 a.m. I was transferred between six locations, searched naked, given an orange jumpsuit and a medical and mental health screening, and finally checked in to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. In the morning, we were given the local paper, The Advocate. It was only when an inmate paging through it looked up at me and said, “Hey, you’re in here!” that I learned I was being charged with “simple obstruction of a highway.”
Thankfully, my video shows that I never set foot in the road.
Many people have asked me about the racial element of my arrest. It’s not for me to know what’s in another man’s heart, and I won’t speculate. What I can say is this: I am an Indian American born to South Indian parents. My skin is light brown, my features ambiguous and my hair black and nappy.
During the protest, some 30 people were arrested, almost all of them black. A white reporter standing some eight feet to my left was not arrested.
At the prison, I was checked in as a black male. Nobody asked my race.
Others have asked about the prison experience: Was it scary? Was it rough? More than anything, prison was boring. You’re kept in the dark with little idea of next steps or when help might arrive. But I’m a person of relative privilege, a college-educated employee of a nonprofit, with a supportive family and no criminal record. My workplace stood behind me to pay my bond and engage lawyers on my behalf. Many of the protesters I met in prison had no such advantages. Some had outstanding bench warrants for other, minor crimes. Others had no one to pay their bond, and languished in prison.
I was released after some 22 hours.
Another point has been somewhat overlooked. Journalists can be tribal; we look out for one another. As I said, I’ve covered many protests during my career, and following two rules have up until now been sufficient to avoid arrest. My story has gotten a lot of attention — a journalist arrested while exercising the First Amendment right to freedom of the press.
Yet more importantly I, like many I observed, was a citizen arrested while obeying the law. That’s the story that deserves attention.
Ryan Kailath is a reporter with WWNO in New Orleans.