NYPD arrests student photojournalist during Baltimore solidarity protest

NEW YORK — As New Yorkers took to the streets Wednesday in solidarity with demonstrators in Baltimore, who have been protesting Freddie Gray’s death after he was injured in police custody, student photojournalist Sam Bearzi became a part of the story.

New York City Police Department offers arrested Bearzi, the photo editor for Washington Square News, a student newspaper at New York University, on a disorderly conduct charge. Bearzi was among more than 100 protesters arrested in Manhattan, according to The New York Times. While some stopped traffic, others blocked the entrance to a tunnel.

At about 5:45 p.m. Wednesday, a team of WSN student reporters descended on Union Square in Manhattan, just minutes away from their newsroom, to cover the protest. By about 7 p.m., the protesters began to march, splitting into two groups, said Valentina Duque Bojanin, Washington Square News’ editor in chief.

As they marched, New York City Police Department officers used a loudspeaker to tell demonstrators they “may be placed under arrest and charged with disorderly conduct,” if they obstructed pedestrian traffic or walked in the street or roadway. While officers began to arrest protesters, Bearzi said he stepped into the street momentarily to get a picture. That’s when he heard police yell “him!”

“I felt someone grab my backpack and then they pulled me back into the street and they cuff me and don’t tell me anything,” Bearzi said. Although he said an officer eventually said he had been detained because he was blocking the street, “they never told me that I was being placed under arrest, they never read me my rights, it just seemed really odd.”

Before he was placed in a van with nine other protesters, including a freelance photographer for Newsday, an officer handed Bearzi’s camera to Multimedia Editor Shawn Paik, who was also at the protest as a photojournalist for Washington Square News. After that, however, members of the newspaper staff and Bearzi’s family didn’t know for hours where police had taken him.

“There was really not a way for us to get the information that we wanted,” Duque Bojanin said. “I called central booking dozens of times and all of their phone numbers were either hanging up immediately or they would ring and ring and nobody would answer, so for us it was frustrating because we just didn’t know what had happened to Sam or where he was.”

After Paik notified the staff of the arrest, Duque Bojanini and an adviser called the department multiple times to locate Bearzi, but without any luck. Frank LoMonte, the Student Press Law Center’s executive director, called central booking several times to determine Bearzi’s whereabouts, once at about 10:30 p.m., and again at midnight, but he was told both times the department hadn’t yet updated the computers because of the large number of arrests.

“There was no record of Sam being there,” Duque Bojanini said. “So basically until Sam’s dad actually went to the 13th precinct and asked for information, we didn’t really know what was happening with Sam or whether or not he was being charged.”

While he and other journalists were on the scene, Paik said he overheard police officers say photography also was not allowed. But that didn’t stop him from taking pictures.

“We have a right to take photos in the street, that’s recognized and understood by every press photographer out there,” Paik said. “No photographer is going to stop taking pictures at that kind of event just because an officer says ‘no cameras.’”

Police released Bearzi at about 4:30 a.m., Thursday. He was issued a desk appearance ticket, and therefore was not required to post bail. Although he was given a June 22 court date, he said he is discussing with an attorney ways to fight the charge.

Information about Bearzi’s arrest appeared in Washington Square News’ coverage of the protest on Thursday, but Duque Bojanini acknowledged the story was not about him.

“The story is about the protest and what’s going on in Baltimore,” she said, “and how New York was showing support for people who were protesting in Baltimore.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mark Keierleber by email or at (202) 833-4614.