BY Anna Bevan

“I thought that identifying myself as press would be enough. It wasn’t”

Freelance journalist Adam Schrader was arrested in October 2016 while covering the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in the US state of North Dakota. He was detained for 36 hours. INSI spoke to him about his arrest and the wider consequences for press freedom.

What were the circumstance that led to your arrest? That day was one of the biggest protest actions in the entire Dakota Access history – 141 people were arrested. Protestors had set fire to hay bales, disabled vehicles and set up tyres to form a barricade against police.

I had been warned that police were arresting journalists and that I should be careful. Police were not issuing press cards. I thought having a recorder in my hand and identifying myself as press would be enough. It wasn’t.

Voice recorder in hand, both arms raised, I walked up to an officer holding a mace canister and said: “I’m press. Why do you have the gas there? Why do you have the gas there?”

The officer told me to back up, but didn’t give me the chance to. He grabbed my arm and pulled it behind me. I asked him what he was arresting me for and he said, “because you didn’t back up.”

They initially charged me with criminal trespass and resisting arrest. I was held in Morton County Jail, then transported to another county jail.

What were you charged with? Everybody who was arrested that day was given the same charges. I received the same charges as the protestors: endangering by explosives (felony); maintaining a public nuisance (class A misdemeanour); and engaging in a riot (class B misdemeanour). The felony charge has now been dropped, and I have a court case in August for the misdemeanours.

Was any of your equipment confiscated? I watched [the officer] press the erase button on the recorder a couple of times, but the files were recovered. The equipment that I’d left in my car - like the notebook and Zoom recorder - were missing even though the vehicle was locked. The vehicle was impounded.

What legal assistance did you receive? I was initially denied applications for public defenders but eventually granted a public defender.

What about the publication you were writing for, did they do anything? No, because I had been out there on spec – I hadn’t been commissioned. And since my notes had been confiscated I couldn’t write anything.

Do you think police were specifically targeting reporters? It could be argued either way. The fact that only one journalist was arrested that day shows they were just trying to arrest everyone. But they also tried to arrest a number of other photographers and reporters who ran away or were pulled back by protestors. When you look at those instances, it does appear as if they were specifically targeting journalists, even though we had identified ourselves as press at several points throughout the day.

What do you think the results of these arrested will have on covering protests and press freedom in general?

I think it does have repercussions, because it’s going to set a precedent for future protest actions around the United States, especially in this volatile political time. I’m afraid that if there are any convictions of journalists in North Dakota it will justify police action against reporters in the field.

Would this experience deter you from future protest coverage? After [my arrest] I was afraid to go back again, and so were other reporters I knew. Nobody wants to get arrested. This was a rural, very conservative area of America. It probably wouldn’t deter me from protest coverage in major cities, because the treatment of press is entirely different.

What advice do you have for journalists who cover protests? I learned the buddy system. I will never go anywhere again without another journalist being with me. Any journalist covering protests should attend training courses on protest coverage. Write the number of your organisation or your lawyer’s number on your arm, so if you are arrested you can immediately call them. If you are arrested, just shut up and tell them you are press. If they don’t honour that then be quiet and let things play out. Try not to get frazzled. Being arrested messes with your head, but you need to pay attention. People need to understand that covering protest actions in rural places is very different from covering protest actions in major cities.

Why? The police have no experience [with protests], they are understaffed, undertrained. The way police responded in North Dakota was highly militarised, they seemed disorganised.

Before I went to Standing Rock, I told my parents if you don’t hear from me every two hours then call the local [police] departments, and I gave them the numbers. I had people calling around for me, but police had been denying my location for more than 24 hours.

I think police have a lot more ability to handle protest actions in major cities as they deal with it more. How often do people protest in North Dakota compared with DC?

Image by AFP