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Members of the press allege abuse following arrests made by Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies

In the past week, at least three journalists have been arrested for misdemeanor crimes while covering protests throughout Los Angeles, according to LA County Inmate information.

Of those, two were placed under arrest Tuesday, Sept. 8, as sheriffs and demonstrators clashed during a protest calling for justice for Dijon Kizzee, who was killed by members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies.

Pablo Unzueta, a third-year journalism major at Long Beach State, was covering the event as a freelance journalist and was carrying credentials from his community college, Mt. San Antonio College. 

He said tensions were running high between demonstrators and deputies, but nothing could have prepared him for what was about to happen.

As deputies began to advance, Unzueta and others began to retreat. The student journalist said he ran to his car to vacate the area but quickly realized there was no way out; he was boxed in.

Moments later, he was apprehended by a deputy. According to Unzueta, he was stripped of his backpack and camera and was placed into handcuffs. He said the deputy was rough with him and verbally berated him, using profanity and slurs.

Pablo Unzueta, left, and Julianna Lacoste, middle, stand handcuffed outside the booking station after their arrest while covering a demonstration Sept. 8. Credit: Julianna Lacoste

On multiple occasions, Unzeuta identified himself as a member of the press. He was ignored.

Unzueta was then placed into a van where, he said, pepper bullets were strewn across the floor and seats. Once he, along with others being placed under arrest, stepped or sat on the bullets, they burst, releasing the capsaicin powder into the air and creating difficult breathing conditions. 

“I thought I was going to suffocate in there,” Unzueta said.

Upon arrival at the processing facility, Unzueta said his hands had turned white from a lack of blood circulation and had a loss of feeling well into the next day.

Unzueta was then held for nearly 24 hours before being released, charged with only a misdemeanor for violating an unlawful assembly order.  

Typically, members of the press are exempt from unlawful assembly disbursement orders. As of Sept. 14, Senate Bill 629, which would grant journalists protections while covering demonstrations like the one Unzueta did, is awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.

Appearing in court on Sept. 11, Unzueta was represented by a pro bono lawyer with the Student Press Law Center, a group that works with student journalists. Neither he nor his lawyer have been able to get confirmation from the LASD regarding the whereabouts of his equipment nor if, or when, he will be getting it back.

Another journalist, Julianna Lacoste, was also at the demonstration the night Unzueta was arrested. She was photographing for the National Press Photographers Association, a national organization of visual journalists, when she was arrested.

Lacoste arrived at the block between Imperial Street and Normandie Avenue around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday night and said things were already tense between demonstrators and the police.

“People were definitely holding their ground,” Lacoste said.

Deputies had deployed a barricade, which is a flexible, yellow, mesh-like fence that is referred to as “the sacred slinky” by those who interact with LASD often, Lacoste said. Foot by foot, deputies began moving forward, pushing the crowd back.

As a photojournalist, this was not the first time Lacoste had been involved in this type of encounter with deputies, but like Unzueta, the night was about to become unlike anything she’d never experienced.

“I wasn’t holding a sign, I wasn’t holding a shield,” Lacoste said. “I’m identifiably press.”

Demonstrators began to disperse as deputies made a push forward and began deploying munitions such as rubber and foam bullets, tear gas, M-80 grenades and pepper bullets. Lacoste said she’d never seen so many munitions deployed at one time.

“They were putting it all out there,” she said.

Lacoste and several demonstrators made their way down a side street, blocks away from the initial site where deputies had called for a dispersal, when she heard someone call for a medic. In response, Lacoste said she threw her arms up in an “X,” the symbol for a medic, and called out for someone to help.

She was met with a barrage of rubber bullets.

As others ran past her, Lacoste was hit in the hand, causing her to drop her phone. She was then shot two more times, once in the head and once in the shoulder. She was wearing a helmet that read “PRESS.”

“To be honest I think that’s why they aimed for my head,” Lacoste said.

Lacoste then ran behind a car, seeking refuge. She said she couldn’t see where the bullets were coming from until a deputy confronted her behind the vehicle. She knew she was stuck.

“I just threw my hands up and said ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot,’” Lacoste said.

Another deputy came up from behind, she said, and pushed her to the ground, placing his knee on her upper back.

“I was thinking ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’” Lacoste said.

The deputy continued to “wrestle her into handcuffs,” as Lacoste described, and she began to cry out “I can’t breathe” as she struggled to get air from her position.

“I really thought I was going to die,” Lacoste said. “I kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe my last words are going to be ‘I can’t breathe.’”

During her apprehension, Lacoste continued to identify herself as a photographer with NPPA.

Like Unzueta, she was ignored.

Lacoste was then placed into a sheriff’s department van alongside Unzueta. Rigid with fear, she was unable to sit upright on the seats, so deputies told her to lay on her back. It was at this point she realized her hand, which had been struck with a rubber bullet minutes earlier, was oozing blood.

When she begged deputies to uncuff her, she, too, was met with verbal abuses and slurs. Even Unzueta tried to plead on her behalf with deputies to, if not render aid, at least loosen the cuffs. Their requests were ignored, again.

“I just kept saying ‘My hand, my hand,’” Lacoste said.

Once at the booking station, Lacoste and the others were lined up against a wall and photographed. Unzueta was standing beside her, still cuffed nearly two hours after their initial apprehension. Lacoste’s hands were red with blood.

Deputies were unwilling to fingerprint Lacoste because of the amount of blood on her hands and instead ushered her into a restroom, where she said she was left for over an hour, alone. Given just one towel, Lacoste said she hung her hand out of the window as it continued to bleed.

One deputy opened the door to the bathroom and asked if Lacoste had “anything to say,” to which she responded that she wanted a lawyer. The deputy then slammed the door shut.

Neither Unzueta or Lacoste were allowed a phone call while being held.

Just five days later on Sept. 13 , KPPC correspondent Josie Huang was also arrested by sheriff’s deputies.

As her credentials swung from her neck, Huang was placed on the ground in a manner very similar to Lacoste’s experience, handcuffed and placed under arrest. The LASD claims she was “not properly credentialed” and was “obstructing justice.” She was charged with crimes against public justice under California penal code 148.

According to Huang, her cell phone was damaged by a deputy, but has since been recovered. It does not appear from the video of her arrest, nor has she stated publicly, that she experienced similar physical altercations with deputies as Unzueta and Lacoste did.

The sheriff’s department said they are currently investigating the cases involving Unzueta, Lacoste and Huang but had no further comment at this time.

For now, all three journalists have said they plan on continuing their work, despite this set back.

“Let’s keep going and documenting,” Unzueta said.

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