protests, reporter arrested

A woman later identified as a reporter working for the USA TODAY Network is escorted by a police officer after her arrest covering a protest over Andrew Brown Jr.’s shooting death in the city’s downtown, Wednesday night. Police arrested two USA TODAY reporters and eight protesters during the protest Wednesday night.

Elizabeth City police arrested 10 people during protests related to Andrew Brown Jr.’s fatal shooting Wednesday night, two of whom were reporters covering the protest.

City Manager Montre Freeman said seven of those arrested were charged with failure to disperse. One protester was charged with assault on a government official and damage to property. Freeman didn’t have details why the protester faces those charges.

Freeman confirmed the two members of the media arrested work for USA TODAY. It did not appear from a list he provided of those arrested that the two reporters were charged.

A story on the USA TODAY website Wednesday night identified the two reporters as Ayano Nagaishi and Alison Cutler, government watchdog reporters for The News Leader, a newspaper based in Staunton, Virginia, that is part of the Gannett newspaper chain.

According to Freeman, those arrested and charged with failure to disperse included:

• Deshawn Javon Morris, 21, of the 700 block of Roanoke Ave.;

• Kerwin Pittman, 34, of the 3200 block of Burntwood Circle, Raleigh;

• Jessica Kelly, 48, of the 200 block of E Burgess St., Elizabeth City;

• Vernishia Marla Mason, 29, of the 800 block of Hunter St., Elizabeth City;

• Valerie Lindsey, 42, of the 1000 block of Walker Ave., Apartment 903, Elizabeth City;

• Lydia Maria Sturges, who, according to police, also goes by Lydia Maria Robinson, 32, of the 100 block of Shady Bluff Drive, Gastonia; and

• Kristie Puckett Williams, 41, of the 11100 block of Damson Plum Lane, Charlotte.

Robert Baldwin, 28, of the 400 block of Semel Ave., Iselin Middlesex, New Jersey, was charged with assault on a government official and damage to property, according to Freeman.

Of those arrested Wednesday night, it appears only Robinson had been arrested during a previous protest connected to Brown’s shooting death. According to city police records, Robinson was arrested April 29 and charged with disorderly conduct. She was released after posting a $250 secured bond.

The arrests Wednesday night were the first connected to the ongoing Brown protests in more than two weeks.

About 30 protesters marched through downtown late Wednesday evening. The arrests occurred around 9 p.m. in the area of Martin Luther King Drive and Main Street, where protesters had gathered outside the Elizabeth City Police Department.

Freeman defended officers’ decision to arrest the two reporters and the eight protesters, noting the city has been “extremely flexible” up to now accommodating the protests — in their 29th day as of Thursday — while also “trying to ensure the safety of everyone.”

Freeman said each time a protest has resulted in arrests — Wednesday’s 10 arrests increased the total number to approximately 32 since Brown’s death — he’s reviewed the circumstances to ensure police applied consistent procedures. Thus far, he’s “comfortable with the procedures we’ve followed,” he said.

“We’ve been extremely consistent and clear about our directives” throughout the protests, he said, noting, “You’ve got to do a lot out there to get arrested.”

Freeman said the two members of the media were apart from the main group of protesters when they were arrested. He said the reporters were taken into custody after officers “requested them to move along and they refused.” He said it’s also his understanding the reporters went beyond their role documenting the protest and were not following officers’ directives.

“Reporters have to decide if they’re going to be a protester or a reporter,” he said. “They can be both, but they have to follow the directives of the officers out there.”

Eyewitnesses, however, said the reporters were just doing their jobs and did not disobey officers’ directives. According to The Associated Press, William Ramsey, executive editor for USA TODAY Network’s Southeast Central region, tweeted that the journalists “were doing a public service” and that being taken into custody “will not stop them from doing their jobs for readers.”

Freeman said Wednesday’s protest was organized by Kirk Rivers, a former city councilor who has led a daily protest in the city since Brown’s death. Rivers, who was not among those arrested, previously has said the protests he leads are focused on getting the full body camera footage of Brown’s fatal shooting released to Brown’s family and then to the public.

Under the permitting system the city is using for the protests, protest organizers are supposed to state the day, time and location of their protest as well as an approximate number of those taking part.

While protests that include marches are supposed to proceed peacefully from one point to another, Freeman noted city police have been “extremely flexible” with the requirement.

“There hasn’t been a protest since they started that hasn’t allowed protesters to stop along the way,” he said. He noted a large protest march on a Sunday several weeks ago that allowed protesters to stop at several sites, including Brown’s house on Perry Street.

“We have been extremely flexible and will continue to be, giving people an opportunity to exercise their 1st Amendment rights,” he said. “But we have to do it in a fashion that doesn’t impede the rights of others.”

Freeman said there’s “no blueprint” for how city police respond to the protests, noting “we’re learning as we go along through this process.” He added that sometimes “people, as part of a protest, decide to get arrested, and that’s part of the process, too.”

Freeman said the “unfortunate thing is my police department is having to deal with all of this,” a reference to the fact it was another law enforcement agency — the Pasquotank Sheriff’s Office — responsible for Brown’s fatal shooting. He said city officers faced the ire of protesters Wednesday night, but police responded as they have since the protests began: professionally.

“We’re not going to waiver from that at all,” he said.

Freeman said he is appreciative that other law enforcement agencies like the N.C. Highway Patrol are in town to help block off streets for the daily protests. That helps keep motorists away from the protests and traffic flowing, he said.

Wednesday’s protesters started their march at the intersection of Water and Elizabeth streets, but after being warned by police they could be arrested for blocking the roadway they left and began marching toward downtown. They followed Poindexter Street south and turned right at Fearing Street. At MLK Drive, they turned right toward Main Street and the police station. Two buses used by police to transport special response officers were parked on MLK Drive and facing north.

When the stoplight at MLK and Main turned red the protesters marched in a circle in the middle of Main Street. When the light turned green they got out of the roadway and began to march south on MLK back toward Fearing Street.

Several police officers that had been observing from the sidewalk on MLK suddenly approached the protesters, many of whom ran in the opposite direction to avoid being arrested.

One woman was seen being taken into custody in the crosswalk on the west side of Main and MLK Drive. Police chased after several others and took at least three people into custody in the vicinity of McMorrine and Main streets.

One of the three appeared to be a member of the press; she was wearing a yellow reflective vest that identified her as a member of the media.

The protesters appeared to disperse for the night after the arrests.