Two reporters for the USA TODAY Network were arrested on Wednesday night while covering a protest in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
Ayano Nagaishi and Alison Cutler, government watchdog reporters for the Staunton News Leader, were reporting on a small protest for Andrew Brown Jr., an unarmed Black man who was shot and killed by deputies in Elizabeth City. About 50 people had gathered to demand transparency and the release of body camera footage.
Nagaishi was filming a Twitter live video when she and Cutler were approached by police, asking for the “ladies in the vests.”
Nagaishi and Cutler, who were both released at 10:30 p.m, later told USA TODAY that they were no more than a foot away from the curb, in a crosswalk, when filming the scene across the street.
Nagaishi had been filming a protester being arrested across the street when she was arrested.
In the video, Cutler is heard asking officers repeatedly why they were being arrested. An officer can be heard replying: “For standing in the middle of the street in the roadway.”
Nagaishi and Cutler were wearing their media vests. They repeatedly identified as media as they were being cuffed.
A citizen was holding Nagaishi’s phone to film the arrest, then an officer confiscated the phone and put it in Nagaishi’s pocket.
Cutler was put in the front of the van with two other people, while Nagaishi was put in the back with six others.
The video is over 40 minutes long, as Nagaishi was filming other parts of the protest. It’s unclear whether either reporter will be charged.
In a statement, Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of the USA TODAY Network and publisher of USA TODAY, said that “we are grateful that Alison and Ayano have been released.”
“Two journalists, clearly identified and doing their jobs, should never have been arrested in the first place,” she said. “These senseless attacks on press freedom must stop.”
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Both Nagaishi and Cutler recently graduated from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, interim Dean Kristin Gilger said in a statement.
“This appears to be another example of reporters being targeted for doing their jobs, and in this case, it involved two of our own, who graduated just months ago,” Gilger said. “These kinds of incidents, which are happening with increasingly frequency, are a threat not just to our profession but to everyone who values the role that a free press plays in our democracy.”
In March, Iowa journalist Andrea Sahouri, who was arrested as she reported on racial justice protests last summer, was found not guilty for charges drawn from the protest. Her case drew widespread condemnation from journalism and free press organizations.
Wednesday night’s arrests happened about five minutes after police and the protesters dispersed from a tense scene on a larger main street shortly before 9:00 p.m. Police threatened to arrest protesters for a law that prohibits, according to their announcement, standing, sitting, or lying on a street or roadway.
Protesters walked several blocks on the sidewalk and came to a street where two white police inmate transport buses were parked. Those buses had additional police inside.
Police declared an unlawful assembly just before 8:30 p.m.
Brown, 42, was shot April 21 as county deputies attempted to serve him with arrest warrants over “the sale of uncontrolled substances,” District Attorney Andrew Womble said.
The Pasquotank County district attorney on Tuesday announced that a state investigation found Brown endangered the deputies by using his vehicle as a deadly weapon while resisting arrest last month. The deputies involved – Investigator Daniel Meads, Deputy Robert Morgan and Cpl. Aaron Lewellyn – were justified in their actions and will not face criminal charges, Womble said.
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Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten said Tuesday the deputies who shot Brown will keep their jobs but be “disciplined and retrained.” Morgan is Black and Meads and Lewellyn are white, according to the sheriff. Four others who were at the scene were reinstated after the sheriff said they didn’t fire their weapons.
The decision prompted protests Tuesday night in Elizabeth City, about 170 miles northeast of Raleigh. About 70 people gathered to demand transparency and the release of body camera footage.
Contributing: Sophie Blaylock and Jeff Schwaner, Staunton News Leader