Arrested journalist pleaded with officer: 'This is my job'

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Andrea Sahouri

A press badge for Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri features her jail booking photo from her May 31, 2020 arrest while covering a Black Lives Matter protest. Sahouri is set to stand trial on Monday, March 8. 2021, on misdemeanor charges, a case that prosecutors have pursued despite international condemnation from advocates for press freedom. (Photo courtesy Andrea Sahouri via AP)

IOWA CITY, Iowa – An Iowa journalist covering a protest for racial justice was blinded when a police officer shot pepper spray in her face and jailed for hours despite telling him repeatedly that she was just doing her job, according to video played Tuesday at the reporter's trial.

Body camera video captured by Des Moines Police Sgt. Natale Chiodo showed Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri in custody on May 31, 2020, her eyes burning from pepper spray. She said she was with the newspaper and asked Officer Luke Wilson why he arrested her, adding that she was in pain and couldn’t see.

“This is my job,” Sahouri says on the video. “I’m just doing my job. I’m a journalist.”

Sahouri’s defense played the video for jurors on the second day of a trial in which Sahouri and her former boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, are charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. The prosecution has drawn widespread criticism from media and human rights advocates, who say that the charges are an attack on press freedom and unwarranted. The pair face fines and potentially even jail time if convicted.

Officer Wilson testified Tuesday that he failed to record the arrest on his body camera and did not notify a supervisor as required by department policy. But Chiodo captured the scene shortly after Wilson detained Sahouri on his body camera. Chiodo said he did not arrest a second Register reporter who was nearby because she wasn’t disobeying orders and “seemed very scared.”

“I just tried to give her very simple instructions that she needed to get up and go,” Chiodo testified.

The newspaper had assigned Sahouri to cover the protest at Merle Hay mall in Des Moines, days after the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who was declared dead after a white officer put his knee on his neck for nine minutes. Hundreds of protesters gathered, and Sahouri was reporting the details live on Twitter.

Wilson, an 18-year veteran of the Des Moines Police Department, said he responded to the protest and found a “riotous mob” that was breaking store windows, throwing rocks and water bottles at officers, and running in different directions. He said his unit was told to clear a commercial parking lot, and he used a device known as a fogger to blanket the area with clouds of pepper spray.