Avi Wolfman-Arent was covering a small march that started in Old City when he was detained by police.
“The guy who actually cuffed me, I don’t remember him saying anything when I was saying, ‘I’m with the press, I’m with the press,’” the Jewish WHYY education reporter said.
The arrest was entirely unexpected. “I had never seen the police behave that way towards protesters or press,” he said.
Wolfman-Arent is not the only local journalist who has been subjected to violence or arrest while doing his job.
Samantha Melamed, a Jewish staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, was arrested while reporting on a protest at the Municipal Services Building on June 23. Her Twitter thread about her experience went viral, in part because of how many times she told police she was a journalist — a status that should have protected her from arrest.
Video footage she posted showed Melamed telling a group of police officers six times that she was a reporter.
“So I just told a police officer wielding a baton that I’m a reporter. He told me to ‘put this on Twitter.’ Then he tightly handcuffed me with zip ties and he and another one mocked me while dragging me backward down two flights of stairs along with few dozen others arrested in MSB,” she tweeted.
The video of Melamed’s arrest made its way to Philadelphia public officials, who took to Twitter to respond.
“I am extremely disturbed by the video of a reporter being detained while doing her job and covering one of today’s protests — and also very concerned that it may violate the law and
@PhillyPolice policy. It will be fully investigated and addressed,” Mayor Jim Kenney tweeted.
District Attorney Larry Krasner also weighed in.
“I’m tired of reporters being abused & people who threaten with bats & punch others being coddled. What is really going on here? Should we believe our ears or our eyes? Our office believes actions speak louder than words. Accountability must be evenhanded. Stay tuned,” he tweeted.
The tweet referred to police arresting reporters and failing to protect them from violence during protests in Fishtown and South Philly. But the issue of violence against journalists during the George Floyd protests goes well beyond Philadelphia.
The Washington Post reported at least a dozen journalists were injured in cities across the United States from May 29-31, the first weekend people took to the streets
“In several cases, reporters appear to have been swept up in indiscriminate efforts by authorities to disperse crowds. But in a number of incidents, journalists were harassed or arrested even after identifying themselves as reporters — a blatant violation of constitutional protections and long-standing ground rules that guide interactions between media and law enforcement officials,” Paul Farhi and Elahe Izadi wrote in a Post article published May 31.
Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske wrote that she was hit by at least one rubber bullet when police fired at her while she covered the Minneapolis protests.
“I didn’t realize it, but I was bleeding from several wounds to my leg. Blood covered the face mask of a reporter next to me, who was so stunned someone had to tell him he was hurt,” she reported on May 30.
The New York Times also reported journalists across the country were arrested, struck with batons, pepper-sprayed and shot with rubber bullets while covering protests and displaying press credentials.
“In a sign that police officers would not follow the customary hands-off approach, Minnesota State Patrol officers arrested a CNN reporting team live on the air on Friday. That same day, a TV reporter in Louisville, Ky., was hit by a pepper ball by an officer who appeared to be aiming at her while she covered the protest on live television,” wrote Marc Tracy and Rachel Abrams in a June 1 article.
Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, an organization at the Columbia University School of Journalism, told the Times there is now a culture of impunity for attacks on the press. “It’s essentially the abandonment of press freedom as an American value,” he said.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a project of the international Committee to Protect Journalists, has logged more than 470 attacks against journalists covering the protests, including at least eight in Philadelphia.
Wolfman-Arent’s arrest is under investigation by Internal Affairs, while Krasner announced on June 24 that assault and related charges were filed against a bystander for his role in the assault of a professional photographer at Marconi Plaza on June 23. And on June 25, Krasner and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw announced that conspiracy aggravated assault and related charges were filed against a different bystander resident for his role in the assault of off-duty WHYY radio producer Jon Ehrens and his girlfriend during a protest in Fishtown on June 1.
During the altercation, Ehrens sustained a broken nose, fractured upper jaw and other injuries, and his girlfriend sustained minor bruising, according to a statement from Krasner’s office.
U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, who represents Pennsylvania’s 5th Congressional district, joined U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff in introducing a resolution to condemn violence against journalists and reaffirm Congress’ commitment to a free press.
She cited Melamed’s experience during an oversight hearing on protecting freedom of the press on June 29.
“The ability of a free press to report on and speak truth to power is a foundational and critical piece of our American democracy,” she said.
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