TESTIMONIAL: I was arrested while reporting on a peaceful protest

What one writer saw during the march through the Fab 40s

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TESTIMONIAL: I was arrested while reporting on a peaceful protest

Will Coburn, News editor

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The evening started off seemingly benign enough, with our news team originally sent out to cover protests at the Golden 1 Center. Later, crowds started gathering at the Trader Joe’s on Folsom Boulevard. I grabbed a camera and hailed a Lyft, telling my news team I’d meet them there.

“See, I think the problem in this country is the gun culture,” Dennis, my Lyft driver said as we were on our way. “Everyone here’s got a gun, so of course the police have to have guns. Get rid of the guns, then the police don’t carry guns either.”

Dennis chuckled when I told him I was going to the Trader Joe’s.

“Oh, I just got some people out of there, I’ll get you as close as I can, but you know there’s a thing right?” he asked.

Monday night, I was with a team of State Hornet staff members and editors covering the protests in response to the Sacramento County District Attorney’s decision not to charge the officers responsible for fatally shooting unarmed 22-year-old Stephon Clark.

Sacramento Police Department officers arrested 84 people — peaceful protesters, journalists, students. I was one of them.

When we got to the Trader Joe’s parking lot it was eerily silent, like something was missing. Dennis grimly told me he’d take me a little bit further. We saw red and blue lights up ahead and I bailed out, thanking Dennis.

After I ran past the police line my anxieties quickly dissipated. A PA system on wheels was making its way around the Fab 40s as the familiar chorus of “When human rights are under attack what do we do, STAND UP, FIGHT BACK,” reverberated around what’s known historically as one of the wealthier parts of Sacramento.

Tonight, their mission was dire. They were out there seeking justice for Stephon Clark and bringing it to the doorsteps of the affluent houses of Sacramento who would normally turn a blind eye to the problems of their neighbors just across the freeway.

This was made all the worse by District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s press conference being a long-winded and rambling affair that all but blamed young Clark for his own death.

Schubert could have given a family that had lost a second son some closure. Instead, she decided to rip those wounds right back open.  

That wound she tore back open reverberated across the community. A whole lot of people, in protests all across this city, are making good on the promise they’ve chanted through the streets of Sacramento: they’re standing up and fighting back.

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At each stop the differences between what life is like for the affluent of Sacramento versus what it’s like in less wealthy neighborhoods were highlighted.

Pia Wong, a resident that came out to cheer on the procession told me she thought it was a good idea for protesters to come to East Sacramento.

“I think it’s brilliant, most of the folks in this neighborhood, if it happens downtown, it’s not going to affect them,” Wong said. “I think it’s important for the affluent people to see this city face-to-face.”

Flanking the protestors were officers on bikes, occasionally turning their rides sideways to form makeshift barricades, with the occasional Sac PD SUV blocking roads.

After a moment of speech, officers started hounding protesters, forcing them forward into the dark streets of well-off neighborhoods, until the light of the next intersection would give them a moment’s reprise.

The only scuffle I saw happened as the march left Mercy General Hospital on J Street. A few stragglers had a near brawl, which I would later find out was over a MAGA hat that was stolen off of a heckler and lit on fire.

However the bleeding, healing, unity, support and love that I saw had to come to an end as the march made its way back to the Trader Joe’s where it had begun.

Things were slowly coming to an end. It was getting late and the fire inside the chanters was dying down. And then, all of a sudden, riot police amassed in force.

“We’re on the sidewalk,” the group of high school kids I was next to said as they were clearing the streets to get away from the batons.

“This has been declared an unlawful assembly,” an officer repeated over a megaphone.

Some people milled about, unsure where to go. The organizers made a call over their PA.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” organizers called. “We need every one of you to come out tomorrow.”

Organizers listed the many ways everyone could contribute over the following week as they encouraged people to disperse.

RELATED: MAP:  Protests and events in Sacramento following Stephon Clark decision

With dispersal orders being called and police everywhere, there was only the dark alley of 51st street for the crowd to disperse to. A pair of bike officers led both journalists and protesters way down the street — an escort, perhaps, the most optimistic of us thought — guiding us out of the neighborhoods to the safe space we could disperse from.  

However, police presence was heavy on each side of the street.

“We’re being kettled,” I sent out in Slack, the communication application The State Hornet uses to communicate, to the editor I was hoping was going to be my ride home.

Kettling is a form of police corralling where officers line up and block off exits from an area, then order everyone to disperse. It’s become a police tactic that’s drawn criticism from human rights groups such as the National Lawyers Guild due to its tendency to scoop up innocent bystanders — and journalists.

Eventually we came to the overpass.

The bike cops shined lights as if to signal, “this way out.” No one was able to peel off though, as all the side roads were blocked by officers.

Then once those of us that remained were on the overpass, officers moved to cover both ends of 51st street. I marched quick alongside the other photographers. I remember seeing Scott Rodd from the Sacramento Business Journal, rushing to keep ahead of the police, who I tried to stay close to given his credentials and experience.

I clung to Andrew Nixon from Capital Public Radio, who was teasing me earlier because my flash kept popping on, like a security blanket.

But the space got smaller and smaller there on the bridge.

At about this point Andrew did whatever it is that good journalists do, managing to get out of the way while continuing to work. I let years of mosh pit experience take over and stand between the wall of bodies and a woman in a wheelchair, phone out recording.

This was a mistake.

Like a vacuum, I was sucked into a line of riot cops. My pleas of “Hey! Press! Press! Press!” were ignored over shouts of “stop resisting” as they smacked the phone out of my hand.

Officers tried to remove my backpack before taking the camera off of my neck. I refused. The camera wasn’t taken off well until I talked them through the complex system of straps around my body.

I was handcuffed, given proper ones at first. Officers tucked my notebook and pen into my back pack and put my camera in its case. I pointed out my phone was missing and they looked around for it ineffectively, and I was told to go sit on a curb.

I sat there for awhile, and then some other people sat next to me, and then some other people I recognized were put across the street from me.

RELATED: Stephon Clark protest in East Sac ends with 84 arrests

Eventually the officer who arrested me came back around to process my paperwork, and I asked him, “So, uh, as a member of the press, how does this part work?”

He looked down at me and said, “I really don’t know.”

He hesitated a bit and said he was going off to find my phone.

“Blue case right? Sorry can’t find it,” he said a short time later.

Arrest first, ask questions later seemed to be the theme of the night.

Normally, the idea of being released from something like a drunk tank with no way to call a ride or reach home would trigger an anxiety attack.

Instead, the professional detachment of a journalist took hold, and I thought about the tablet in my backpack that I knew I could connect to WiFi when they took me wherever they planned on taking me.

We sat there for a few hours in the cold and quiet. Things went grim. I wondered to myself if this was really how that march was fated to end.

Then somewhere, among the line, someone yelled, “SAY HIS NAME.”

And about 80 people, sitting on a curb over the freeway with their hands in zip ties and staring down twice their number in armed riot police, replied back “STEPHON CLARK.”

Detained, not broken.

The chant carried on for a moment. When it had subsided, the tone had changed.

They had detained us, but I think every police officer on that bridge realized how inconsequential the whole action was.

The purpose of social action — like marches — is to bring the community together, to have a place where you can be recognized as part of a greater community. It’s a place for community members to realize that they are not alone.

I saw a lot of terrified people on that bridge, panicked and grief stricken, many of them minors, worried that this could be the end of their futures.

With that chant, with that simple act of defiance, each one of them was reminded they were not alone.

They bound us, but they didn’t gag us. Those plastic bindings around our wrists became spiritual bindings around our souls, holding us together against the encroaching fear.

And there was a shift.

The brigade on the bridge was recognized as the farce for what it was. Ministers who had been arrested a dozen times before started talking children through the process of what was about to happen, and how rarely the charges are kept.

We started cracking jokes, making friends.

I saw an officer hug a minister and pray alongside her while she sat cuffed on the curb.

I found out I was sitting next to Takayla Johnson, who sits on the board of the Black Student Union here at Sac State. She was exhausted from the overnight sit-in at Arden Fair Mall, and she told me all about the different organizations that came together to make tonight happen.I met Raven, a nursing student from American River College who was able to work her handcuffs just right to get to her cell phone as officers weren’t looking.

We joked as they forced my handcuffed arms to carry a backpack and a camera bag while working its way into a van. The anxiety crept back up as we worked our way into the back parts of Cal Expo.

We sat in cold white rooms, and the minister from earlier, Mary Westfall, offered everyone an Uber home. I told her I’d take it if she’d let me repay her later.

We were then led into a back room, lined with a few computers and a Thin Blue Line flag hung on the wall, and we began being processed. As if by design, my processing officer was a newbie as well, second-guessing every move he made and checking in frequently with a more experienced officer as he moved me through the process.

Eventually, Johnson and I were loaded into a van together as we tried to figure out who our mutual friends were. There was a mother/daughter pair with us. The mother, Brandy Bains’ ankle was broken in the scuffle and she was barely able to walk, which left me feeling bad that with my arms bound I was unable to help.

I’d see Bains the following day on the city council live stream, foot still broken, telling the city council, “You need to do your action and get these people out of office.”

Those two were a reminder that there were children out there, elders out there, people with far more on the line than I will ever have out there.

How many of the 80 some odd people arrested were worried they’d wind up just like Stephon Clark, blamed for our own death but with bullets in our back?

I’m a white guy with a press pass and a camera; getting arrested is an occupational hazard. How many of the people on that bridge that night thought, even fleetingly, that it could potentially a life-ending moment?

After being let loose, as I saw the crowd gathering just up the way in the Cal Expo parking lot, I went to get my camera out. As I was fussing with my gear, my managing editor ran up to me, on the verge of tears.

My phone was found by Reverend Kevin Ross from Unity Church, and he got it to my team at The State Hornet. I’m super thankful for that.

The State Hornet sent a team of staffers and editors to the Associated Collegiate Press Midwinter National College Journalism Convention in La Jolla this weekend. I got back at 7:30 a.m. Monday morning and I’ve still not slept on my futon since.

Stephon Clark was killed, and the people who did it will not face consequences. Me, being an idiot camera guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, got to bear witness to the fact that he’s found no better champions than the people of Sacramento.

RELATED: EDITOR’S NOTE: Arresting journalists is a breach of First Amendment

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