Why Police Tried to Make an Example of Journalist Andrea Sahouri

Most arrested reporters never go to trial—and this case should have been no different

Photo: Steve Skinner Photography/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Andrea Sahouri, a journalist with the Des Moines Register, and Spenser Robnett, her boyfriend at the time, were acquitted of all charges that they failed to disperse and resisted arrest while reporting on a Black Lives Matter protest late last spring.

But Sahouri and Robnett should never have been arrested in the first place. There was no reason to arrest Sahouri, much less take her to trial, other than to send a message to journalists about power, race, and gender. Sahouri, who is Palestinian, told me in an interview that she believes that race played a role in her arrest and pointed out that Katie Akin, a white reporter who had been standing nearby, was not arrested.

“Officer Wilson turned that corner, saw a woman with darker skin and darker features and made assumptions about me and decided to assault me even when I said ‘I’m press. I’m press,’” Sahouri told me in an interview after the trial. “So, why me? I’d love to ask that question. I think race definitely plays a role.”

On May 31, 2020, Sahouri was on assignment for the Des Moines Register, reporting from a Black Lives Matter protest in the city. Robnett accompanied her out of concern for her safety. In the evening, Sahouri made her way to Merle Hay Mall, where protesters were clashing with police. Sahouri live-tweeted throughout the evening, showing looters breaking windows, protesters pleading with looters to stop, the police tear-gassing crowds. It was then that Sahouri and Robnett were pepper-sprayed and arrested by Des Moines police officer Luke Wilson.

Video taken from another officer’s body camera shows Sahouri crying in pain from the pepper spray. “This is my job!” She said to the officer and asked them not to arrest Robnett. Her version of events is backed up by Akin, another reporter who was at the scene but was not arrested. In a live video taken from the back of a police van, Sahouri, eyes and face swollen, says she clearly identified herself as a journalist to Wilson. She and Robnett were charged for failure to disperse and interference with official acts. The last charge was because Wilson claimed that she’d resisted arrest.

While Sahouri’s side was corroborated with video evidence, Wilson’s is not. He was wearing a body camera, but he didn’t save the video. Brad Kinkade, an assistant Polk County attorney, told the judge in July there was no time to preserve the footage and that the case was “low priority.” During the trial, Wilson said he simply forgot.

It was Sahouri’s word against a police officer who failed to preserve evidence. And while the verdict is worth celebrating, the fact that the case got this far sends a clear message to journalists about power and race and whose narrative will be tolerated and who is allowed to tell the story.

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 126 reporters were arrested last year across the United States — more than in 2017, 2018, and 2019 combined. Many of those cases were dropped, but Sahouri is just one of a few reporters whose case is going to trial. Why? Despite widespread condemnation of the case, the Polk County District Attorney John Sarcone refused to drop the charges, remaining cryptic as to why this of all cases was going to trial.

Throughout the trial, the prosecution denied Sahouri’s status as a journalist had any bearing on the case and insisted she was just another person breaking the law. While the First Amendment doesn’t give journalists special permission to go to places the general public can’t go, prosecutors rarely try journalists for covering protests. What is striking in Sahouri’s case is that other white reporters in the same area at the same time were not pepper-sprayed or arrested.

In an email sent to Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert on June 2, police spokesperson Paul Parizek blamed Sahouri for her arrest and pointed out that unlike other journalists at the scene, she hadn’t coordinated her reporting with him. But coordinating with the police was not only unnecessary, but it would have been bad reporting — it would have only allowed Sahouri to parrot an official narrative rather than report the truth. Her offense, in the eyes of the police, was that she did her job while existing as a woman of color.

The Black Lives Matter protests that ignited over the pandemic summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, provided a way for people across America to hold their own police force accountable. Places there had previously never been a Black Lives Matter protest, like the city of Sheldon, Iowa (population 5,000), saw people gathering to demand accountability and to do what many local news outlets had failed to do for centuries — ask important questions about police brutality against people of color in their own communities.

Sahouri’s work is important not just because she’s a journalist but because she’s a journalist who worked to highlight the stories of the protesters rather than the narrative of the police.

Sahouri has been acquitted, but I worry about the silencing effect on aspiring journalists, especially on young women of color, especially in a state where newsrooms are gutted and jobs are scarce. Not every newsroom will be able to defend its reporters, and not every newsroom will want to. Sahouri’s story easily could have gone another way.

There are more questions here. More stories that need examining and official narratives that need to be held to account. We need more journalists like Sahouri, not fewer. The edict of journalism should not be to bow to power but to question it. The point of telling stories is not to reinforce the status quo but to illuminate it.

“This isn’t going to stop me,” Sahouri told me. “It will only make me a bolder, smarter journalist. The state was trying to send a clear message about who can report and how, but I won’t let them tell me how to do my job.”

Author of God Land. Columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The book Belabored is forthcoming from Bold Type Books in August of 2020.

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