Six days after George Floyd’s murder, Andrea Sahouri, a reporter for the Des Moines Register, went to work.
The public safety reporter was assigned to cover one of the many protests against police brutality occurring across the country, taking place outside Merle Hay Mall, a shopping complex near downtown Des Moines, Iowa. .
Little did Sahouri know, that she would be arrested that day and would be the victim of the excessive use of force that she was required to report. CNN he called his story: “a scene you shouldn’t expect to see in the United States” and “dazzling to many advocates of press freedom.”
During the waves of protests that followed the murder of another African-American by police, Sahouri became one of 130 journalists arrested in 2020, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker. She was one of 14 who faced criminal charges, making her case exceptionally rare in the US.
Sahouri, 25, has spent the last 10 months of his life fighting these charges, which included “failure to disperse” and “interference in official acts.” If found guilty, she would have had to pay a fine and spend a month in prison.
In a courtroom last week, Sahouri sighed in relief after she was cleared of all charges.
“I feel really powerful,” she said above Zoom, explaining how it felt to be found innocent.
And relieved. He had like over 200 unmarked text messages. I can’t even look at my Twitter. Every time I do it, it is overwhelming. I got a lot of support from all corners of the world so it was a super surreal feeling. At one point, Amnesty [International] I had launched a campaign at the school level and there were students in Sweden who had signs that said “we are with Andrea”. They sent me pictures of them holding the signs. “
Denise Bell of Amnesty International said: “Journalists must be able to report on protest scenes without fear of retaliation. The right of the media to do their job is essential to the right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly. Clearly, the jury saw these charges for what they are, completely ridiculous. “
On May 31, Sahouri was detained by a Des Moines police officer while working peacefully. She called the event “a very traumatizing experience.” Photographs of her in sneakers, jeans and a tank top, restrained and surrounded by police officers were widely shared on social media and media around the world.
In recounting the incident, he said: “I look back and see an officer coming out of nowhere. How to attack me. I thought at the time: ‘Put your hands up. Stop. Don’t run from the police, Comply. I immediately raised my hands and said several times that I was pressing. Instead, the officer grabbed me, pepper sprayed me directly at point-blank range in my face and said ‘That’s not what I asked.’
The officer, Luke Wilson, claimed that he believed Sahouri was a protester because she was not wearing any press identification. Other local journalists on the scene, as well as Sahouri’s colleague, another Des Moines Register reporter, Katie Akin, informed the officer that Sahouri was, in fact, a journalist. Bodycam footage from another officer who showed up during Sahouri’s trial captured her telling officers that she was just doing her job.
During Wilson’s testimony on the first day of the trial, he said he didn’t “have much of a conversation” with Sahouri. “Once I decided she wasn’t leaving, I had to take action.” He maintained that he did not know that she was a journalist.
“I just didn’t get it,” Sahouri said. “I had the same employee badge that Katie had shown the officers, but it wasn’t on me. I kept saying ‘I have a badge’ but they didn’t want to see it. “
Sahouri, along with her then-boyfriend Spenser Robnett, were pepper sprayed, tied with zippers and placed in the back of a police van where she recorded a video explaining what just happened. Wilson was unable to turn on his body camera, although he was asked to do so. The couple were booked into the Polk County Jail.
When asked why Sahouri, who is a Palestinian-American, thought she had been arrested while other journalists at the protest were not, she said: “Great question. I also wonder that. It’s hard for me to speculate on someone’s motives, but people have drawn attention that I was the only journalist of color on the scene and the only journalist arrested at the scene. I will let the facts speak for themselves. I couldn’t tell you what someone’s motives are. “
Sahouri called the months after the arrest “stressful.”
“Waves really came. I didn’t realize how traumatizing it was to experience something like this. I realized how anxious I was getting over little things like having to text a police officer about a crime I had to write about. There were some days that were more difficult. “
In a statement urging the Polk County prosecutor to drop all charges brought against Sahouri, Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said: “The police should never have arrested Andrea Sahouri in in the first place simply for doing her job as a reporter, and the decision to go ahead with her indictment goes against the first amendment. “
The prosecution refused to drop the charges. Sahouri said there was nothing left to do but rely on his “extremely smart and skilled” legal defense team, paid for by his newspaper’s parent company, Gannett Media.
Before and during his trial, Sahouri also had the support of the Columbia School of Journalism, where he earned his master’s degree.
“I didn’t study journalism, but it was my senior year and I was like ‘you know, I really like talking to people. I love to amplify the voices of others. I love to write. I’m good at talking to people and I don’t really like a normal office environment. He had a passion for documenting history, telling stories, and informing communities. “
She said her experience had inspired her to pursue journalism as a career.
“I am a Palestinian-American and in fact I grew up very frustrated with the media because I had always felt that the Palestinian narrative never existed. They talked about Palestinians but never included Palestinian voices and that really frustrated me. I did not understand “.
Sahouri is sure to cover more protests in the future. Other than perhaps wearing your press pass on your person, you won’t do anything different.
“I am not going to change my behavior. I did my job and I did it correctly. I did my job on the orders of the police and that’s exactly what the evidence showed. The jury also decided “.
Sahouri also said he refuses to allow this experience to taint his perspective on his career. After taking a week off to relax, you’re looking forward to getting back to work.
“I really want to dedicate myself to research … That is really one of my great passions. I am excited to continue doing my job. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism