Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri was acquitted on Wednesday of two charges she faced after being arrested while covering a Black Lives Matter protest last May. After a three-day trial, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on charges of failing to disperse and interfering with official acts, after two hours of deliberation.
Sahouri’s arrest on May 31, while covering a protest against the police killing of George Floyd, brought international attention amid a rise in journalist detentions in the United States. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 128 journalists were arrested or detained in the U.S. in 2020, compared to nine the year prior. Some 13 other journalists currently face criminal charges stemming from their work.
At a protest six days after Floyd’s death, Sahouri was detained by a police officer named Luke Wilson, who pepper sprayed and zip-tied her after she identified herself as a reporter for Iowa’s largest paper. In her testimony this week, she said she told Wilson: “‘I’m press, I’m press, I’m press.’ He grabbed me, pepper sprayed me and as he was doing so said, ‘That’s not what I asked.’” During cross-examination, Wilson said he charged her with interference because she pulled her left arm away from him while he was arresting her, an act that was not mentioned in his police report. Police body-cam footage shown at the trial confirmed Sahouri’s account; after being pepper sprayed, she told Wilson, “I’m just doing my job. I’m a journalist.”
The unconventional decision to try Sahouri on two misdemeanor counts came from Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, who has previously said that law-enforcement biases are not connected to Iowa’s disproportionate imprisonment of Black people. “Guess what? They are committing the crimes,” Sarcone told the Register in 2016. “The reality is, there’s a disparity in the number of crimes committed by people of color. What you have to do is address the conduct there.”
After her acquittal, Sahouri released a statement thanking her family, friends, and employer, as well as the community of “people around Des Moines, nationally and globally who have supported me for nearly a year after I was unjustly assaulted and arrested.” She added that the jury’s decision “upholds freedom of the press and justice in our democracy.” On Twitter, she was succinct, posting two pictures of her arrest with a one-word caption: