The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

L.A. police arrest reporters and legal observers at protests over homeless encampment

Demonstrators have for two consecutive nights protested the planned temporary closure of Los Angeles's Echo Park Lake, home to a large homeless encampment that has grown throughout the coronavirus pandemic. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Earlier this month, Los Angeles Times reporter James Queally wrote about an unusual case of police action against a journalist. As he noted, authorities in L.A. had charged a freelance reporter — but no one else — with failing to disperse from a protest scene last fall.

Late on Thursday night, Queally found himself in a similar situation: He was briefly detained for the same offense, video from the scene shows, his hands zip-tied while covering unrest over the city’s efforts to clear a large homeless encampment.

Queally said he and Kate Cagle, a TV reporter for Spectrum News 1 SoCal, were among at least five reporters arrested amid demonstrations Thursday near Echo Park Lake, a central Los Angeles landmark that has become a literal and ideological battleground over the city’s homelessness crisis. Queally said multiple legal observers, lawyers who typically identify themselves with bright green hats, were also arrested.

Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment on those arrests and have not released any information about total arrests at the protests.

As protesters by the park faced off with police for the second night in a row, Queally found himself standing next to Lexis-Olivier Ray, the freelancer whose case he had just covered last week.

“We were looking at each other, asking, ‘Is it going to happen again?’ and of course, it did,” Queally told The Washington Post after his release from police custody. “The fact that it has to enter people’s minds is concerning.”

Indeed, during the many demonstrations that have erupted since last spring, police have repeatedly arrested the journalists on the scene — in many cases, after they have identified themselves as members of the press.

‘The norms have broken down’: Shock as journalists are arrested, injured by police while trying to cover the story

In September, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies violently tackled and arrested a reporter for the local NPR affiliate. A reporter for the Des Moines Register recently was taken to trial and acquitted after her arrest at a racial justice protest in Iowa last summer.

And on Thursday, Queally was the one put into zip-ties, even as he had a police-issued credential hanging around his neck.

As Queally and his Times colleagues have reported, hundreds have demonstrated for two consecutive nights against the city’s plan to remove the Echo Park Lake homeless encampment and fence off the entire park for repairs. Although many living in tents there had agreed to move to hotel rooms rented by the city, according to the newspaper, a handful continued resisting Thursday night.

Shortly after 8 p.m. local time, Los Angeles Police Department officers declared an unlawful assembly at the park’s northern entrance after some protesters flashed “high-intensity lights in an attempt to blind officers,” the agency said in a statement.

A line of police officers repeatedly gave the crowd several warnings to disperse. Queally, who was standing with other reporters between protesters and the initial line of police, said some protesters started to step away.

But before they could exit a short side street, a supervising officer told the crowd they were all under arrest. About a dozen officers appeared from an alley and suddenly trapped them on both sides, Queally said, as officers began arresting people one by one.

Given that he covers policing and criminal justice, “I’m probably more deferential to police than your typical reporter,” Queally said. “I have no problem writing critical stories about them, but I’m going to follow instructions.”

According to Ray’s video, that is precisely what Queally did.

Queally announced himself as a member of the media several times to the arresting officers, showing off his press credential, and they called a supervisor over. The sergeant didn’t budge.

“This is the policy tonight,” he told Queally.

Just two minutes later, LAPD put out a statement on its Twitter account: “As a reminder, members of the media are also to obey the dispersal orders. Members of the media are to use the designated media viewing area.”

Lawyers and a managing editor for the Times contacted the LAPD, and Queally was released after about half an hour, he said, just as he was about to board a transport bus. While Queally said he was not in the media pen, he said that area was so far from the standoff that it would have been impossible to cover the protest.

During the melee, Cagle was arrested while conducting a live-shot on camera. Other reporters, including two for Knock LA, a nonprofit community journalism outlet, were also taken into custody, the news site said on Twitter.

The whole ordeal, Queally said, demonstrates the dangers of police failing to distinguish between demonstrators and members of the media who are merely trying to do their jobs.

“It’s a risk when you’re covering a crowd-control situation that you’re going to be among the people police are going after,” he said, but arrests and police violence toward journalists could make some reporters think twice about covering future unrest.

“If there are less of us willing to put our eyes on these situations,” he said, “what does that open the door to?”