There are rising questions about why two photojournalists were arrested last month at a protest in San Clemente while taking pictures on the streets of a demonstration and vigil for Kurt Reinhold, a homeless Black man shot to death by a Sheriff’s deputy in 2020 after being stopped for jaywalking.
The April 23 arrests happened as calls for justice over the police shooting of Reinhold continue to echo in Orange County amid criticism against the County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s office for disproportionately targeting minorities.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer and his office cleared the shooting death, saying in a report that Eduardo Duran, the deputy who killed Reinhold, had reason to believe Reinhold grabbed his partner’s gun.
Organizers behind last month’s protest are also questioning the police response to the demonstration, which they contend was excessive for the amount of people who showed up and was an attempt to intimidate residents from speaking out.
Jessica Rogers, who identifies herself as an independent photojournalist, said in an interview Friday that she was standing right by Reinhold’s daughter during the protest when several deputies grabbed Rogers at the April 23 demonstration.
“I said over and over again my press badge is here. I am press. I had my camera. I was very visibly press,” Rogers said, adding that she was later put in handcuffs and then chains and later ended up spending the night in jail.
Rogers is based in Los Angeles and started photographing protests in September 2020 mostly publishing her work through social media. She said her press badge is from the National Press Photographer Association.
Rogers said she crossed the street to take pictures and close ups of the crowd and then immediately went back on the sidewalk. A couple hours later she was pulled off the sidewalk and arrested.
She wasn’t the only photographer arrested that day.
Juan Gomez, the other independent photojournalist who is from the city of Orange, said in an interview Friday that he saw police rushing towards the crowd before being cuffed.
“I zoomed in as they were coming and I did not realize that they were coming at me when I lowered my lens. They were much closer,” he said, adding that he got startled and began to run in the direction of the police before being tackled and arrested and spending the night in jail.
Gomez said he was a photographer who became a photojournalist and activist and has been documenting the Black Lives Matter movement and local community groups a few months after the killing of George Floyd.
He also photographs a group called Project Coffee Cup, which drives around Santa Ana on a weekly basis to pass out homemade food and clothes.
Gomez said he remembered using the crosswalk but briefly stepping in the middle of the intersection to take a picture of protestors kneeling.
“I got three shots then returned to the sidewalk. About 5-7 minute later I was arrested,” reads a text from Gomez.
Sgt. Scott Steinle, a spokesman for the OC Sheriff’s department, said Gomez and Rogers were arrested and charged under a California Penal Code 148 (A)(1) – law making it illegal to ignore police orders, more commonly known as resisting arrest.
Steinle said in a Tuesday interview that the two were detained in the county’s intake release center in Santa Ana, cited and released and will have to appear in court.
“We had some individuals continually enter the roadway. Mr. Gomez and Miss Rogers, were told multiple times by multiple individuals, including the use of a motorcycle public address system, (not to go in the street),” he said, adding that it was a 45-mile per hour speed zone.
Steinle said based on police reports that he saw, the two were in the middle of the roadway blocking traffic.
“They decided to not follow those directives that were given and then they were arrested for impeding and for not following the directives that were given to them by a lawful officer,” Steinle said.
But Gomez and Rogers argue they were targeted because they are members of the press corps.
Rogers said it is crucial to protect people’s First Amendment right to document protests and law enforcement actions to hold people and institutions accountable.
As an example, she pointed to a video taken by a resident of the deputy shooting Reinhold and others like it to show the importance of being able to document freely and bring attention to issues.
“We have footage of Kurt Reinhold, Patrick Lyoya, Anthony McClain, Dijon Kizzee so many people getting murdered in the street by law enforcement and there’s no charges against any of these cops,” she said.
“Imagine if there was no ability to release these videos, or if they arrested anyone recording, whether it’s the official press or just a civilian, what’s the chance of holding them accountable if we don’t have footage of it happening?”
David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, said in a Tuesday interview the First Amendment press protections extend to everyone – not just traditional journalists.
“That being said, the government certainly can’t target the press and retaliate against the press or going after the press in some way,” he said.
E’Layjiah Wooley, who organized the April 23 demonstration and is founder of the group Free My People, said police officers usually don’t interact with protestors – but this time was different.
She said it felt like they were being harassed.
“That was my first time ever having the police interact with us and I think that they were trying to not only attack us because just for being Black and being there, but they didn’t want any evidence of it. So that’s why (Gomez) and Jessica were targeted,” Wooley said in a Friday interview.
Steinle said there were a total of 66 deputies including himself at the protest, as well as 26 reserves. By his own estimate, he said there were about 35-40 protestors.
Organizers told the Voice of OC there were around 80 people who showed up to the demonstration and according to their estimates at least 200 cops.
“It felt like each protester had like three, four deputies assigned to them,” said Lulu Hammad, Co-Founder of Yalla Indivisible who helped organize the event, in a Friday interview.
Hammad said there were police in unmarked vehicles, officers on motorcycles and even a helicopter watching them.
She said protestors wanted to send a message to the Sheriff’s department that the shooting death of Reinhold isn’t a “closed case.”
“There are people who are very concerned about what happened and we want justice for Kurt,” she said.
The demonstration took place two months after OC District Attorney Spitzer decided not to criminally charge Sheriff deputy Eduardo Duran for shooting and killing Reinhold.
Spitzer, who is up for reelection, has not only come under fire for clearing the deputy who shot and killed Reinhold, but has also been embroiled in various scandals and lawsuits.
He’s also faced recent pressure to resign from the local NAACP chapter.
Hammad also accused Spitzer of being anti-Black in a February Voice of OC community opinion piece.
Police Response to the Demonstration
Wooley, one of the organizers, said the day was supposed to start with a vigil, followed by speeches, and then a march through the streets of San Clemente to city hall.
But during the march, organizers said police threatened people with arrest if they didn’t stay out of the street. The protestors complied, according to both the organizers and Gomez and Rogers.
The two also said residents came out and started taunting the marchers.
Justice Crudup, founder of the OC Justice Initiative, called the police presence an intimidation tactic in a Friday interview.
“I’ve never witnessed a police force be so aggressive with us being on the streets,” he said. “It was very alarming to see that if anybody walked outside of the sidewalk, they would want to arrest them.”
He said when the marchers got to city hall, the organizers had everyone take a knee and raise a fist.
“After that powerful moment – that they took pictures of when we were being nonviolent, we took a knee and we shouted Kurt Reinhold’s name – is when they came in. They got the two photographers, and they started to pull their batons out,” he said.
Crudup also said it was the first time Reinhold’s family came to a protest since he was killed, including his young daughter, Savannah.
“When (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) youth get together, especially when a 10 year old is out there, America is intimidated, especially San Clemente,” he said.
Steinle said the Sheriff’s department was trying to ensure the safety of the people exercising their First Amendment rights.
“We’ve had incidents in the past, where groups have come out to voice their opinions and we’ve also had opposite groups come out and voice their opposing views and which have escalated to situations where additional resources were needed,” he said.
Steinle said the department didn’t know how many people were going to attend the protest or if there was going to be a counter protest.
“We brought out the resources that we deemed necessary,” he said.
Hammad said it was a waste of taxpayer money and nothing the protestors did warranted the deputies to take out their batons.
“This is not free and it was totally unwarranted. There wasn’t even a counter (protest),” she said. “All I could think of is that they’re showing off to the locals how they will not allow any Black presence in the city.”
When asked how much money was spent to police the demonstration, Steinle said he did not have a total cost yet.
“The reason is because we’re dealing with a contract city, so we’re dealing with not only the county finance, but we’re also dealing with the city finance,” he said. “Sometimes it can take a couple of weeks to a couple of months for a supplemental bill to be produced.”
Wooley, the organizer, also said the incident won’t deter efforts to highlight the shooting death of Reinhold and support his family.
“At the end of the day, they can try to intimidate us, they can try to surround us, arrest us – but our voice is our voice and as long as you have one, use it.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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