The People’s History: The Andrea Sahouri Story, former Des Moines journalist arrested at 2020 protest

EXCLUSIVE: New article series from Just Voices. Des Moines police “unprepared for the intensity of the civil unrest,” in 2020, says group.

Editor’s Note: Protests held in the wake of George Floyd’s murder changed the world. This must-read series about the protests in Des Moines is researched and written by Just Voices, which is part of a movement to end racial profiling by the police. The series appears exclusively in Black Iowa News. (The views and opinions expressed in this series are solely the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Black Iowa News.)

On Sunday, May 31, 2020, Andrea Sahouri was simply doing her job as a reporter for the Des Moines Register.  As her boss Carol Hunter, executive editor, described in trial testimony in March 2021, reporters are the “eyes and ears” of the community.  At a protest at Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines, Iowa, that’s exactly what Andrea was trying to do.  She was live-tweeting photos, videos and text to keep the community informed about what she was seeing and hearing at the scene.  (See Andrea’s Twitter feed from the protest).

Andrea grew up in Flint, Michigan. She graduated from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in April 2018 and then obtained a master’s degree in science and journalism from Columbia University in May 2019. 

She was one of two interns hired by the Register in August 2019 to help cover the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses. She was hired full-time in April 2020 as a breaking news reporter, covering car crashes and crime scenes and interviewing police officers, victims and their families and witnesses. That included covering the protests in May 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers.

Tear gassed and Arrested While Doing Her Job

On the evening of May 31, Andrea was accompanied by her boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, who was visiting from Michigan. Out of concern for Andrea’s safety, Spenser followed her as she worked, keeping an eye out for any danger but allowing her space to do her work. Arriving on the scene at about 6:30 pm, the two eventually met another Register reporter on the scene, Katie Akin, and observed as protestors clashed with police and some began to damage property around the mall. In trial testimony, all three spoke of trying to remain out of the way of police and keep a safe distance from any violence that was occurring. They also testified that they never heard police ordering the crowd to disperse but that they did try to leave the scene for their own safety when the chaos intensified. 

That’s about the time that Des Moines Police Officer Luke Wilson arrived on the scene, just before 8 p.m. He had been with the DMPD for 17 years. His regular assignment was with the bomb squad as a technician and K-9 handler, as well as a firearms instructor. For the past seven years, he had worked primarily at the Des Moines Airport with his explosives detection dog. 

DMPD S.T.A.R. Unit Arrives

On May 31, 2020, he was assigned to the Metro Special Tactics and Response (STAR) Unit to assist in riot control at the mall. In trial testimony, he agreed that the assignment was a significant change from his usual work at the airport.

Officer Wilson testified at trial that his team parked across Douglas Avenue from the mall and were deployed to help clear the area and stop property damage. They walked east along Douglas Avenue toward Merle Hay Road and rounded the corner of the Verizon store.

Meanwhile, sometime around 7:45 pm, as the clashes between police and protestors became more heated, Andrea, Spenser and Katie decided it was time to move much further away. As they crossed Douglas Avenue, Spenser was hit in the leg by something, perhaps a tear gas canister. His injury slowed their progress as they continued to move south, away from the scene, with Katie in the lead, followed by Spenser and Andrea, each about 5-10 feet apart. 

In front of the Verizon store, Andrea turned briefly to see what was happening with the crowds behind her. That’s when she saw Officer Wilson coming at her quickly and with obvious intent. She held up her hands and called out, “I’m press, I’m press, I’m press.”  According to Andrea’s trial testimony, Officer Wilson grabbed her arm, sprayed her face with teargas, and said, “That’s not what I asked.”

Both Katie and Spenser heard something and turned in time to see Officer Wilson holding Andrea’s arm and spraying her with tear gas.  Spenser tried to move closer to Andrea and Officer Wilson so he could explain that she was a reporter.  Officer Wilson sprayed him with teargas and Spenser dropped to the ground.

At the same time, Katie was shouting that she and Andrea were members of the press. She tried to show nearby officers her Register ID badge. One of those officers testified that he did not detain Katie because she had her hands up and wasn’t disobeying – “She just looked scared.”  Officer Wilson’s response to Andrea, who also had her hands up and was not disobeying, was extreme by comparison.

Andrea Sahouri. Photo courtesy of Sahouri.

DMPD Officer Testimony Fails to Justify Arrest

Officer Wilson testified at trial that both Andrea and Spenser were charged with interference with official acts because Andrea tried to get away from him, and Spenser had tried to pull her out of his grasp. Under cross-examination by Andrea’s attorney, Officer Wilson admitted that it was possible she was trying to free her arm to wipe the tear gas away from her eyes, and he acknowledged that she was in distress from the tear gas. Officer Wilson admitted that his written report of the incident didn’t mention Andrea trying to pull away from him. The video that Spenser recorded with his phone after he was sprayed and fell to the ground shows that he was not near enough to have grabbed Andrea’s arm. 

After her arrest, Andrea continued reporting from the back of a police van, including a video she recorded that was published by the Des Moines Register at 10 p.m. that night.

Only Reporter in America to Face Trial for Covering a 2020 Protest

It’s rare for journalists to be arrested while covering events like the mall protest. And it’s even rarer for prosecutors to take journalists to trial in such a circumstance. Andrea was one of 116 journalists to be arrested in relation to the protests around the country after Floyd’s murder and the only one taken to trial.

When the case finally came to trial in Polk County District Court in March 2021, the jury deliberated for less than two hours and acquitted Andrea and Spenser of all charges.

Andrea is now living in Detroit, Michigan, and reporting for the Detroit Free Press.

Reflecting Back on a Chaotic Weekend in Des Moines

There were multiple rallies and protests related to the Floyd murder during the weekend of May 29 to May 31 in Des Moines. Some remained peaceful, while others became heated and intense. The initial overall response of the DMPD reflected restraint but quickly became more aggressive, with officers dressed in battle gear using tear gas and armored vehicles.  It also appears that officers did not use their body cameras to record significant activity during the protests, a violation of the department’s policies.

Andrea Sahouri. Photo courtesy of Sahouri.

POV from Just Voices

It seems that the DMPD was unprepared for the intensity of the civil unrest. To manage the large crowds, department leadership pulled in officers who had little experience with crowd control. Many seemed to lack the training necessary to responsibly use their authority and weaponry in dealing with citizens who were legally exercising their free-speech rights under the U.S. Constitution. 

The behavior of some officers, including higher-ranking officials, portrayed personal scorn and hostility toward the protesters. For other officers, their behavior may simply have been a result of being thrust into an intense situation for which they were unprepared.

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