Six days after the murder of George Floyd, the Des Moines Register journalist Andrea Sahouri went to work.
The public safety reporter was assigned to cover one of the many protests against police brutality happening around the country, set to take place outside Merle Hay Mall, a shopping complex near the city center of Des Moines, Iowa.
Little did Sahouri know, she would would be arrested that day, and fall victim to the excessive use of force she was meant to be reporting on. CNN called her story: “a scene you should not expect to see in the United States” and “stunning to many press freedom advocates”.
During the waves of protests following the murder of yet another Black American at the hands of law enforcement, Sahouri became one of 130 journalists arrested in 2020, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker. She was one of 14 to face criminal charges – making her case exceptionally rare in the US.
Sahouri, 25, has spent the last 10 months of her life fighting those charges, which included “failure to disperse” and “interference with official acts”. If convicted, she would have had to pay a fine and spend a month in prison.
In a courtroom last week, Sahouri breathed a sigh of relief after she was acquitted of all charges.
“I’m just feeling really powerful,” she said over Zoom, explaining how it felt to be found not guilty.
“And relieved. I had like over 200 unchecked text messages. I can’t even look at my Twitter. Every time I do, it is overwhelming. I just received a lot of support from every corner of the globe so that was just a super surreal feeling. At one point, Amnesty [International] had launched a school-level campaign and there were these students in Sweden who had signs that said ‘we stand with Andrea.’ They sent me pictures of them holding up the signs.”
Denise Bell of Amnesty International said: “Journalists must be able to report on scenes of protest without fear of retribution. The right of the media to do their work is essential to the right of freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly. Clearly, the jury saw these charges for what they are – completely ridiculous.”
On 31 May, Sahouri was arrested by a Des Moines police officer while she was peacefully working. She called the event “a very traumatizing experience”. The photographs of her in sneakers, jeans and a tank top, restrained and surrounded by police officers were shared widely across social media and news outlets around the world.
Recounting the incident, she said: “I look back and I see an officer coming out of nowhere. Like charging at me. I thought at that moment: ‘Put up your hands. Stop. Don’t run from police, Comply.’ I immediately put up my hands and said multiple times that I was press. The officer instead grabbed me, pepper-sprayed me directly at close range to my face and said ‘That’s not what I asked.’”
The officer, Luke Wilson, claimed 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 shown during Sahouri’s trial captured her telling officers she was just doing her job.
During Wilson’s testimony on the first day of trial, he said he did not “have a whole lot of conversation” with Sahouri. “Once I determined she wasn’t leaving, I had to take action.” He maintained that he didn’t know she was a journalist.
“I just didn’t understand 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 then boyfriend Spenser Robnett, were pepper-sprayed, zip-tied, and placed in the back of a police van where she recorded a video explaining what just happened. Wilson failed to turn on his body camera though he was required to. The pair were taken to Polk county jail.
Asked why Sahouri, who is Palestinian American, thought she was arrested while other journalists at the protest were not, she said: “Great question. I am left to wonder that as well. It’s hard for me to speculate someone’s motives, but it’s been brought to people’s attention that I was the only journalist of color at the scene and I was the only journalist arrested at the scene. I’m just gonna let the facts speak for itself. I couldn’t tell you what someone’s motives are.”
Sahouri called the the months following the arrest “stressful”.
“It really came it waves. I didn’t realize the extent of how traumatizing it was to experience something like that. I realized how anxious I would get about little things like having to text a police officer about a crime I had to write about. There were a few days that were just harder.”
In a statement urging the Polk county attorney to drop all charges brought against Sahouri, Bruce Brown, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said: “Law enforcement should never have arrested Andrea Sahouri in the first place simply for doing her job as a reporter, and the decision to move forward with her prosecution flies in the face of the first amendment.”
The prosecution refused to drop the charges. Sahouri said there was nothing left to do but place trust in her “extremely smart and skilled” legal defense team, paid for by her paper’s parent company, Gannett Media.
Before and during her trial, Sahouri also had the support of Columbia’s journalism school, where she obtained her master’s degree.
“I didn’t study journalism undergrad but it was my senior year and I was like ‘you know, I really like to talk to people. I love to amplify others’ voices’. I love to write. I’m good at talking to people and I don’t really like a normal office setting. I had a passion for documenting history, telling stories and informing communities.”
She said her background had inspired her to pursue journalism as a career.
“I’m a Palestinian American and I actually grew up really frustrated with the media because I had always felt like there was never the Palestinian narrative. They would talk about Palestinians but never include Palestinian voices and that really frustrated me. I didn’t understand it.”
Sahouri is sure to cover more protests in the future. Apart from maybe carrying her press pass on her person, she won’t be doing anything differently.
“I’m not going to change my behavior. I did my job and I did it correctly. I did my job while complying with police orders and that’s what the evidence exactly showed. The jury decided as well.”
Sahouri also said she refuses to let this experience taint her outlook on her career. After taking one week off to relax, she is looking forward to getting back to work.
“I really want to get into investigations … That’s really a big passion of mine. I’m just excited to continue to do my job.”