The story of a British journalist getting wrongly arrested by Seattle police during recent protests is making the rounds, mainly for his implication that he was treated worse here than when he’s been detained in places like Cuba or Pakistan.
“It was a brief, partial window into a criminal justice system seemingly bereft of humanity,” wrote Andrew Buncombe, a U.S. correspondent for the British newspaper Independent, who was swept up by police when they cleared the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) last week.
The account brought back strong memories for me of the time I was arrested by Seattle police while covering a protest — and charged, wrongly, with the same crime as Buncombe, failure to disperse. My case, from decades ago, still sits on the Seattle Municipal Court’s case portal, and every few years I get asked about my “criminal past” when someone comes across it.
What’s so interesting about Buncombe’s account is that it comes from the European perspective of how heavy-handed an American police and jail system can feel — even if experienced only in glancing fashion.
Buncombe was on the periphery of CHOP when police cleared it, and though he showed police his press credentials, he got handcuffed anyway. He describes being put in shackles in a van and driven to the downtown jail — having trouble breathing, and repeatedly saying that he was press and shouldn’t have been swept up.
Not surprisingly, at least to me, this didn’t work.
“Get back in the cell. You’ve lost your chance. You’re being condescending,” Buncombe quotes a King County jail official.
The sense of his story is one of an unreasoning machine — that once a police sweep starts, it hoovers up anybody in the path. Another man in his cell was apparently just out walking to get food when he got detained.
That was my reaction, too, when I was arrested in nearly identical circumstances while covering a protest in the 1990s. I was a freelancer for some community newspapers and had followed a protest group through a training session and then onto a sit-in, against U.S. aid to El Salvador, outside the federal building in downtown Seattle.
I was standing off to the side, with a notebook and camera, when officers went full dragnet on the crowd. My arms were yanked from behind and plastic zip tie handcuffs lashed around my wrists — so tight I later lost feeling in both hands. I tried to show my reporter’s notebook (which had dropped to the ground), but this only got me dragged to a nearby squad car and parked against the hood.
“60 Demonstrators Arrested — Crowd Rallies to Demand End of El Salvador Aid,” was the headline in the next day’s Seattle Times.
I must have explained I was a reporter a dozen times after that, but it did no good. We were loaded on buses and taken to a vacant lot on Beacon Hill, where we stood around in a field in the rain for hours, still cuffed. Then they drove us to the jail for processing in large detention rooms. We got released when we signed a form agreeing to show up to court for two misdemeanor crimes — failure to disperse and pedestrian interference.
Buncombe’s perspective after his nine-hour arrest is that our justice system is an unthinking automaton. For example, he says he was stored in a cell for a few hours along with 10 men barely a foot apart, even as stickers on the glass counseled social distancing due to coronavirus.
“In 30 years as a journalist, this was the third time I had been detained by the authorities. The first was in Cuba in 2006 … the second was in 2011 in Pakistan … My encounter with Seattle police was the first time I had been arrested,” he wrote.
It’s unlikely Buncombe will be charged — the city has already said it will be dropping “failure to disperse” cases against nonviolent protesters. I didn’t get so lucky in the 1990s, as the city took me all the way to trial.
A volunteer attorney (a kid six months out of law school, Bob Sterbank, who has since grown up to become city attorney of the City of Snoqualmie) was prepared to argue that I should have been exempt as a journalist. He never got the chance because the trial turned out to be such a farce.
The officer who arrested me took the stand, and was asked whether he recognized anyone in the room from the protest (all the arrested protesters were there, as they were being prescreened in groups to save time).
The officer made an exaggerated show of scanning the courtroom, and then said: “Nope, I don’t see anyone here from that day.”
It was ludicrous. Even the cops thought the whole thing was for show. So the scorecard for my criminal career — so far anyway — is two findings of “not guilty.”
The standard line when journalists get arrested is that it’s chilling of the First Amendment and hinders oversight of government. One of Buncombe’s readers disagreed:
“I quite like the idea that some journalist actually gets treated badly, falsely incarcerated, subjected to the scary physical constraints … too many times, waving a press badge means, precisely, that you DON’T experience the reality,” the reader wrote.
This is right. The point is that people go through this every day, in far worse circumstances — as Buncombe notes, they can’t afford bail so they get stuck in the borg. Even in my privileged state with a pro bono attorney, on a case with no merit, it took nearly a year to fully clear my name.
The U.S. Press Freedom tracker says there have been 64 arrests of reporters since the nationwide protests over police brutality started in May. In some ways, 2020 is a different world than the 1990s, but in others it’s like nothing has changed.