JJIE Reporter Joins Lawsuit Over Arrests During Alton Sterling Protest

A JJIE reporter who was arrested covering the protests in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana last summer is one of 15 people suing the city and several law enforcement agencies for what court documents call “massive violation of constitutional rights.”

Karen Savage, a reporter for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, was on assignment covering the role young people were playing in the protests when she was handcuffed, thrown into a police van and forced to spend the night in prison. She was arrested along with another reporter and protesters who were swept up in what court documents describe as a militaristic crackdown.

“Officers swept in en masse violently grabbing people and throwing them to the ground,” according to the court documents. “In their frenzy, the officers arrested a mix of protesters, reporters, and legal observers.”

“I went to cover a protest and it turned into a militarized police attack on peaceful protesters, some as young as 17,” Savage said. “This lawsuit is important because this police department has a long history of violating the rights of the citizens it’s supposed to protect. And they need to be held accountable, and this police violence needs to end.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana on behalf of 13 protesters and two reporters.

Karen Savage

“Armed officers in riot gear and gas masks, flanked by an armored vehicle and a military-grade acoustic weapon, descended on peaceful protestors who were standing on private property,” said William Most, an attorney for the plaintiffs, in a press release. “The police arresting you for speaking out against the police is the very thing the First Amendment is supposed to prevent.”

“Even though the peaceful protesters complied with law enforcement orders to clear the streets and sidewalks, officers crossed private property lines to tackle, ziptie, and wrongfully arrest them,” said John Adcock, another attorney for the plaintiffs. “This was an orchestrated attempt to suppress public speech through violence and misconduct.”

To Savage, the case is not about money, it’s about ending violent police tactics against Baton Rouge residents.

“For me as a reporter it was just one day. But the people of Baton Rouge shouldn’t have to live in fear of the police department that should be protecting them,” she said. “What is important is that the police are held accountable and never repeat the egregious display of violence that they unleashed on peaceful citizens. If money is the only way to do that, then fine. But this isn’t about money. It’s about no peaceful protester or journalist citizen have their rights violated like that again.”

Savage said the case is also an important challenge to an increased assault on the free press from the White House to local enforcement.

“The police were targeting people with cameras and people who were peacefully documenting what was happening,” she said. “During this era of Trump and the assault on a free press it is more important than ever that we stand up and protect our First Amendment rights. It is important that these officers are held accountable. They targeted people with cameras, and it is fundamental that they understand they can’t do this.”

Family Torn Apart By Police During Baton Rouge Protests

Alexus Cheney holding a sign before her arrest at a protest in Baton Rouge on July 10.

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — When she was a young mother of two, Tammy Cheney worked double shifts six days a week in order to survive. When her younger children, including Alexus, now 17, and A.J., now 5, came along, she vowed to spend more time with them.

For the past few months, they’ve been traveling across the country with their dog Kelso, exploring historic landmarks and natural sights. Tammy and A.J., the youngest of her eight children, are especially close.

“I made it a point to make sure this kid has me with him every second of every minute of every day,” she said.

After the police killing of Alton Sterling, Tammy made it a point to talk about it with Alexus and A.J., as they had after too many similar killings. So when they were near Baton Rouge and learned a protest was planned for July 10, she decided to take them.

She never expected that by the end of the day her family would be torn apart.

Tammy, 41, and her daughter Alexus were arrested at the protest calling for justice for Alton Sterling, a father of five who was killed by Baton Rouge police just after midnight on July 5.

After the Cheneys’ arrest, police took mother and daughter to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. With no family in the area, police took A.J. to child protective services and took the family dog, Kelso, to animal control.

In an account she gave during a lengthy interview, Cheney described the chaos that unfolded for her family that day.

Like many at the protest, she was shocked to see heavily armed police violently arresting peaceful protesters. Wanting to document the abuse, she told her children she’d be right back and left her car to take some video. Tammy had only been gone a minute when she heard her daughter scream.

She ran back to the car to find police arresting 17-year-old Alexus, who was watching 5-year-old A.J.

“They told me that I left my 5-year-old alone in the car with nobody there and that’s why they were arresting me and I was going to have a felony,” she said.

Tammy said police tried to make it appear as though she had left her son alone and unsupervised. In reality, she said, she was only steps away.

“I screamed as loud as I could when the police grabbed me,” Alexus said. She knew she needed to get her mom’s attention.

It worked.

“As I turned around to run back, the cops stopped me and wouldn’t let me go through,” Tammy said.

“They stopped me while they arrested her,” she said. “I was like, my 5-year-old little boy is in the car right now and you just took my 17-year-old away that is watching him.”

Alexus and Tammy both say police prevented Tammy from returning to the car, a claim confirmed through video Tammy took during the arrests.

On the video, an officer can be heard saying, “We’ve got your daughter and she’s going to be there quite a while.”

Tammy can be heard following police instructions and walking with them to her car.

She said she watched in horror while officers took video of A.J. and Kelso, making it appear as if they had been left alone in the car.

Alexus Cheney, A.J. and Tammy (left to right) and local attorney Adrian Ross, who helped them pro bono, shortly after their reunion.

As she explained to police that her daughter had been watching A.J., an officer on the video can be heard telling her to calm down, adding, “Now we’re watching him.”

[Related: JJIE Reporter Arrested in Baton Rouge While Covering Protest]

It got worse, she said.

“We’re going to have to arrest you too,” said another officer, who said that they would place A.J. in the care of Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services.

A few minutes later, Tammy sat with several other women on a curb under the blazing Louisiana sun, all waiting to be transported to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. With her hands cuffed behind her back, Tammy tried to console Alexus, who was sobbing.

Alexus later said she wasn’t worried about herself or her mother during the ordeal, but she was worried about A.J. and her puppy.

“We saved him from doggie jail,” said Alexus, adding that Kelso was a rescue dog and she didn’t want him to have nightmares.

According to a verified complaint filed in juvenile court, East Baton Rouge Parish Lt. Lapeyrouse reported to a state child welfare specialist that A.J. and the dog had been left alone in the car. There is no first name on the document, and according to a spokesman, two different Lt. Lapeyrouses are on the rolls.

At about 10:45 p.m., A.J. was placed into state custody. Kelso was turned over to animal control.

At about the same time, Tammy and Alexus were sitting on the floor of an overcrowded cell at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. Earlier, someone in the cell had called legal aid on behalf of them and the more than 20 other people in the cell.

They had no idea what would happen next. They were not told what police were charging them with and they didn’t know where officers had taken A.J. and Kelso, Tammy said.

Correction officers placed Alexus and Tammy in large dormitory-style cells in the prison’s general population at about 3:30 a.m. They refused to allow them to stay together, saying Tammy and Alexus “might start a riot or something.”

Alexus was released at about 5 p.m., but had to wait until nearly midnight — more than 24 hours after the arrest — for her mother’s release.

Adrian Ross, a local attorney, signed up to offer pro bono legal aid after seeing the way police brutally treated protesters. “It was really a surreal situation,” she said.

When she got the call about the Cheneys, she realized she had been standing across the street when they were arrested.

“I witnessed them holding Tammy back,” Ross said. “She wasn’t away from her car for more than a minute, minute and a half.”

Ross said she was appalled to learn police were using video taken while Tammy was being restrained as evidence in the case. She said Curtis Nelson, the head district attorney on the case, was also appalled.

“Once the district attorney saw Tammy’s video, he was like, ‘Oh God, we have nothing,’” Ross said. “That’s what’s so awesome about this trend of people capturing what happens with the police. In this case, everything she said happened is backed up by her video.”

Tammy said she remembers the DA slapping his hand on the table and saying the case would be thrown out.

The East Baton Rouge DA’s Office did not return calls for comment.

Once the DA decided not to pursue the case, Judge Pamela Taylor-Johnson instructed the state to immediately return A.J. to Tammy, Ross said.

“The judge asked me a few routine questions about abuse or neglect,” Tammy said. “But then I got my kid back right away — within 15 minutes.”

“As soon as he saw us he jumped into our arms and we just hugged,” she said. They were reunited with Kelso a short time later.

Although their family is back together, Tammy said she wants justice for what they’ve been through and wants Lt. Lapeyrous and other officers held accountable.

“I want all the officers who did this arrested and prosecuted,” she said. “This guy flat-out lied, videotaped his lie and everything, not realizing I also had video.”

Tammy said her family is still recovering from the ordeal. Kelso is skittish when strangers are around or when there’s a loud noise, she said.

A.J. told her he thought the cops were going to kill her and Alexus.

“The first thing I told him,” she said, her voice trailing off as she paused to fight back tears. “The first thing I said was, ‘I told you momma would never leave you, I would always be back to get you if something happened.’”

Ross said she was happy to help out in the Cheney case, but worries that many of the other stories that unfolded that day may be overlooked.

“It was nice shining light on the truth,” Ross said. “But what happened is an injustice and people need to know about it.”

More related articles:

Reporter Recounts Arrest, Prison Stay After Baton Rouge Protest

Officer Draws Weapon on Baton Rouge Protesters

Violence by Police, Against Police Risks Tearing Country Further Apart

Reporter Recounts Arrest, Prison Stay After Baton Rouge Protest

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana For a few seconds on July 10, the ear-splitting police noisemaker — referred to as an LRAD — and the chants demanding justice for Alton Sterling awkwardly paused at exactly the same moment. I closed my eyes in relief. As if on cue, a lone cicada cried out from the tree above, the insect’s call piercing the air, but not the tension.

With my eyes closed and the cicada's solo still echoing through the sweltering heat of a Sunday afternoon in Baton Rouge, I saw neat bungalows, crape myrtles and longleaf pine trees. I imagined a crawfish boil, kids on bikes, grandmothers with church hats.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logoBut when I opened my eyes, we were still surrounded on three sides by an army of militarized police.

Officers still gripped automatic weapons, still wore gas masks and bulletproof vests, still held tear gas cylinders ready to be fired. Gunmen peered out from quickly approaching armored vehicles, fingers still hovered only millimeters above triggers.

The protesters were still there, too, many of them young, teenagers or college students. They still had "Black Lives Matter" and "Stop the Killing" emblazoned on their shirts, fists of power and unity still rising into the air. Handmade signs still demanded justice for Alton Sterling, who was still dead.

It still looked like a war zone.

The early morning July 5th shooting death of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police officers is a tragedy that was caught on video by an activist and shared on social media for the world to see. What happened the following Sunday made me wonder what happens in Baton Rouge when the world isn’t watching.

In only a few hours I would go from covering a protest to being handcuffed, transported to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison and thrown into the general population. I was arrested while trying to cover the story of young people’s reaction to the stark footage of one of their neighbors getting killed by police on video.

I’ve worked for JJIE for nearly a year, covering juvenile justice and issues of police brutality, examining a system seen by many in it to be out of control and unpredictable. As a reporter, I have always been an outsider looking in. But getting arrested and thrown in the inside was edifying. Even if the arrest was illegal and the imprisonment disorienting, being on the inside gave me a profound insight into how it feels to be suddenly thrown into the system I had been covering.

The assignment

Marco Poggio and I were on assignment for JJIE, covering youth reactions to the killing of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II.

Since the killing, which was recorded and released on social media on July 5, some residents of Baton Rouge and the nation have called for the arrest of the two officers, who are now on paid administrative leave, and a rigorous investigation into the broader practices of the Baton Rouge police department.

The night before an officer had aimed a department-issue assault-style gun at protesters and journalists — including me. While Marco edited video, I spent the morning and early afternoon emailing back and forth with a police communications person.

Now, I found myself in a sea of chanting protesters at the corner of France Street and East Boulevard in the Beauregard Town neighborhood. I glanced down France Street and saw a military vehicle and dozens of heavily armed officers marching slowly up the street, batons banging against their shields.

Another sign caught my eye: “No Justice, No Peace — We Shouldn’t Fear the Police.”

As protesters of all races chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “Take Off Your Riot Gear,” I climbed up on a hilly yard overlooking the street to get a better view. I was excited, but not fearful. Not yet.

Instead of stopping, the military vehicle rolled into a young woman holding a sign with an image of the Statue of Liberty. At the same time, an officer in a gas mask dragged a woman in a gray tank top past me and down the street — she looked remarkably calm. Hundreds silently screamed, the sound of their shouts drowned out by the blaring LRAD.

An armored vehicle pushing into protesters in Baton Rouge on July 10, 2016. Protesters are calling for justice for Alton Sterling, who was killed by Baton Rouge police on July 4, 2016.

Then, just a few feet in front of me, at least eight white officers suddenly tackled a black man in a blue shirt, pushing him to the ground and handcuffing him as he tried in vain to protect his camera.

Police wrestle a young man with a camera to the ground during a protest in Baton Rouge on July 10, 2016. Protesters are calling for justice for Alton Sterling, who was killed by Baton Rouge police on July 4, 2016.
Police wrestle a young man with a camera to the ground during a protest in Baton Rouge on July 10, 2016.

Somewhere between the close call with the tank-like vehicle and the vicious takedown of the man with the camera, my excitement at covering a breaking news story started to turn into fear.

I’d been to protests in New York, Boston and elsewhere and have encountered heavily armed police. I’d seen armored vehicles and heard LRADs before. But never before had I witnessed officers risking the safety of so many, including themselves — not on the Mass Turnpike in Boston, not in Times Square and not more recently on Fifth Avenue in New York City, where I had covered anti-police brutality protests before being sent down to Louisiana.

In Baton Rouge, it seemed as if the police came ready for war.

Amid the mix of cops, protesters, guns and cameras I recognized a female officer with a ponytail and a purple T-shirt. It was the officer who’d pointed the long gun at me the night before.

A Baton Rouge police officer (purple shirt) was back on the street less than 24 hours after pointing a long gun at a JJIE reporter during a protest on Airline Highway the night before. Protesters are calling for justice for Alton Sterling, who was killed by Baton Rouge police on July 4, 2016.
A Baton Rouge police officer (purple shirt) was back on the street less than 24 hours after pointing a long gun at a JJIE reporter during a protest on Airline Highway the night before.

A weird part of me hoped she would recognize me. I wanted to ask where was her long gun now. Did her commanding officer take it away like I used to do my kids if they didn’t play nice with their toys?

If she recognized me, she didn’t let on, but an officer in a gas mask and a green T-shirt looked straight at me, almost as if posing for the camera. I got off a few good pictures before he barked at me to get down or I would be arrested, a threat I believed. Police had arrested at least two journalists the night before.

An officer demanding a JJIE reporter standing on private property move or be arrested during a protest in Baton Rouge on July 10, 2016. Protesters are calling for justice for Alton Sterling, who was killed by Baton Rouge police on July 4, 2016.
An officer demanded a JJIE reporter standing on private property move or be arrested during a protest in Baton Rouge on July 10, 2016.

So I jumped down and ran behind a different group of officers. I filmed as they chased an older black man wearing dress pants and a vest. I tried to keep the camera steady while officers tried to block me from filming their colleagues twisting back the elder’s arms and smashing him to the ground.

I looked up to get my bearings. I was on France Street, just west of East Boulevard.

The next 40 or so minutes was an uneasy calm, like finding yourself in the eye of a hurricane. Police lined up on three sides facing the protesters, who were cornered. While Marco took video, I charged my phone with a portable charger and shared a few uneasy laughs with the people around me.

A legal observer in a neon green hat used a Sharpie to write an emergency number for the National Lawyers’ Guild on the arms of protesters.

The sun sunk low in the sky. I shot a video of the two bungalows across the street drenched in evening sunlight, as protesters shouted, “Black Lives Matter” and the police stood nearby. I’d just published the video on Twitter when a voice crackled over a loudspeaker.

“Leave now or you will be arrested,” said the voice.

Protesters moved back. The voice said, “That’s not good enough.”

A minute later, an invitation from a nearby resident began to ripple Occupy-style through the crowd. The woman welcomed protesters to seek safety in her yard. Thinking they would be safe on private property, they poured onto her green grass at the southwest corner of the intersection.

I thought about following them into the yard, but decided to stick with the sidewalk. The yard was crowded and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to move around to get pictures. I was still wondering whether or not I’d made the right choice when the mostly white officers in full combat gear stormed the yard. From where I stood it was an unprovoked attack on peaceful protesters.

Everywhere I looked, officers chased down petrified young people, brutally dragging many into the street and arresting them. Protesters yelled, screamed, ran through yards and jumped over fences, trying not to trip over each other as they fled. Terror filled their faces as they dropped their signs and ran for their lives.

In the face of the assault, I witnessed only nonviolent reactions from the protesters. Most were easily overpowered during the violent attack by police. To my right, three white officers held a black man in a red shirt face down on the concrete. A black officer kept watch while others tried to block the scene from onlookers’ cameras.

With one of the officer’s knees pressed into the back of his neck, the man’s mouth formed as if to call out, but his scream was drowned out by sirens and yelling and sounds of other people screaming.

Officers make an arrest during a protest in Baton Rouge on July 10, 2016. Protesters are calling for justice for Alton Sterling, who was killed by Baton Rouge police on July 4, 2016.
Officers make an arrest during a protest in Baton Rouge on July 10, 2016.

After that it seemed like officers picked us off one at a time. As I ran with the crowd I worried about Marco, who I’d lost sight of in the chaos.

A woman in a dark T-shirt ran alongside me until she was tackled by two officers as a larger officer with a rifle stood watch. I felt helpless — there were three officers on her and they had guns, armor, tasers, gas and batons.

“Run!” she yelled.

Looking down from the tree, the now silent cicada must have been horrified.

Officers zip-tied and dragged people — sometimes on their feet, sometimes on their knees or back — down the street. I wondered for a minute where they went after they left the immediate area.

I peered behind the gas masks and face shields into the officers’ eyes. Many seemed vacant and prepped for battle. From their almost mechanical behavior, it felt as though they'd prepared to battle Iraqi insurgents or Taliban fighters.

A few looked scared. One looked sick to his stomach, perhaps wondering if his neighbor or barber or daughter was among the crowd.

The three large groups of police then joined together to form one larger force. An army of police stretched out across France Street, spilling over the sidewalk, up onto neatly cut grass and all the way to the sides of the houses on one side and into parking lots on the other.

They told us to get out of the street, but there was no way to get out. The protesters were surrounded. So was I.

The arrest

Since taking a picture of an earlier arrest, I felt like one of the officers was following me. I thought I might just be paranoid, but it seemed as if he was coming toward me when the commanders called officers back into formation at the intersection.

Those who seemed to be the police department’s main targets — a few young black men leading a now much smaller group — continued to walk peacefully down the street with their fists in the air.

A line of police follow a man as he marches down the street during a protest in Baton Rouge on July 10, 2016. Protesters are calling for justice for Alton Sterling, who was killed by Baton Rouge police on July 4, 2016.
A line of police follow a man as he marches down the street during a protest in Baton Rouge on July 10, 2016.

I tried to get good pictures and saw three armored vehicles following the line of officers down the street. From the kitchen windows of nearby houses, it must have given the impression of some sort of demented military parade.

Three armored vehicles following a line of police down a Baton Rouge street during the protest. Protesters are calling for justice for Alton Sterling, who was killed by Baton Rouge police on July 4, 2016.
Three armored vehicles following a line of police down a Baton Rouge street during the protest.

Then, again with no provocation, the police charged. The last protester I saw was a young white woman, fear etched on her face, running from seven or eight red-faced officers.

As I ran through a fast food restaurant’s parking lot, I heard heavy boots behind me hitting the pavement. The sound of the boots became more muffled as they followed me off the asphalt onto a landscaped area. I headed for the restaurant’s door, reminding myself that I had press credentials in my right pocket.

Police chase a protester during a protest in Baton Rouge on July 10, 2016. Protesters are calling for justice for Alton Sterling, who was killed by Baton Rouge police on July 4, 2016.
Police chase a protester during a protest in Baton Rouge on July 10, 2016.

I never made it to the door.

He grabbed my arm from behind and pulled me backwards, then shoved me forward again. I fell into the rocks and shrubs and dirt. Bizarrely, I worried more about breaking the camera’s lens, which I’d borrowed from my school’s equipment room, than about myself.

As he yanked me back again, I fell, then tried to get up.

“Are you resisting?” he asked.

“I'm a journalist, my credentials are in my right pocket, you can take them out,” I said, using the calmest voice I could muster.

“Fuck you, journalist,” he shouted from behind my ear. “You don’t listen.”

I felt hot breath on my neck.

He pulled my arms back, forced my hands together and pulled the plastic cord of the cuffs. Instantly it felt as if lightning bolts shot through my left wrist and hand. I tried not to wince as he dragged me out of the shrubbery, across the parking lot and into the street.

See story and slideshow in Bokeh: Violence by Police, Against Police Risks Tearing Country Further Apart

“Could you loosen it a little? Please,” I asked, trying to sound casual.

“Which one hurts?” he replied.

I nodded silently toward my left hand, now puffy and bluish red.

He grabbed the plastic cuff on my right hand, grunted and pulled it tighter.

“Motherfucker,” I thought to myself.

The pain made me dizzy and I tried not to fall.

I wished it didn’t hurt. Partially because it was painful as hell, but mostly because I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d hurt me.

“Take it off,” I demanded, still trying to act tough.

A grinning cop in the passenger seat of a white police van held up a military knife with serrated edges and a sharpened tip.

“Want me to use this?” he asked with a smirk.

“Fuck you,” I said.

I heard someone yell my name and I turned to see a friend up the block. I tried to shout my editor's email address to her, but it was hard to remember. The pain in my wrists was shooting up my arms.

“Shut up, or we'll arrest her, too," said the officer with the knife.

Then the officer who caught me dragged me back toward the yard on East Street.

About halfway there, he slowed down, leaned close to my face, pulled my arms down and yelled again, “Fuck you, journalist.”

Maybe his buddies were watching, maybe he thought it made him look tough. Or maybe he’s just an asshole, I thought.

After what seemed like an eternity, he handed me over to a slightly less pissed-off cop.

By then I couldn’t stand straight, the pain in my left wrist was unbearable. The less pissed-off cop looked at my hand.

"What the hell did they do to you?" he said.

He asked another officer for clippers to cut the ties and someone said to take me to female transport, which was a few blocks further.

At the female transport area, a different male officer struggled to wedge what looked like pruning shears between the ties and my left wrist. We were both dripping with sweat, and the clippers slid sideways on my skin, but wouldn’t go under the plastic band.

The officer told me I had to hold still and then rammed the tool under the plastic tie. The edges of my vision grew dim and I could hear myself scream. Finally, the left cuff popped off, then the right. I could breath again.

The officer quickly pulled back my hands and put on more ties. They were still painful, but not excruciating like the last pair.

He sat me down on the curb with about 20 other women. A female police officer said my earrings could be used as weapons and she put them in a clear bag. Then she took off my gold chain, the one with the  “#1 Mom” charm that my children had given me years ago.

I was still thinking about the necklace when I realized my phone was in my back pocket. They took my earrings and necklace, but they didn’t take my phone. I decided to keep doing my job as long as I could, taking pictures of the women next to me and of officers loading other women into the vans.

I expected that they’d take it at any moment. So I maneuvered the phone out of my pocket and called Daryl, my editor, to tell him what happened. I added Marco to the call and we talked for a few minutes, but then I lost them both.

I forwarded Daryl the pictures and videos I’d taken throughout the afternoon and returned a text to my daughter, Aiesha, to let her know I was ok. She had already learned through Facebook that I’d been arrested. For a minute it felt like the world really was watching.

I told Aiesha to make sure everyone knew what had happened, to let people know this was an attack on peaceful protesters. She told me she loved me. After a few minutes, an officer noticed and snatched my phone.

The woman to the left of me introduced herself as Tammy. She tried to comfort her daughter, who was crying. Tammy said they had been to the protest with her 5-year-old son, A.J., and their puppie, Kelso. Tammy and her daughter, Alexus, were taking turns staying with A.J. in the car when suddenly police swooped in, eventually arresting them both. She said officers pulled Alexus, 17, out of the car as her little brother watched.

Alexus Cheney holds a sign before her arrest at a peaceful protest in Baton Rouge on July 11, 2016. Protesters are demanding justice for Alton Sterling, who was killed by Baton Rouge police on July 4, 2016.
Alexus Cheney holds a sign before her arrest at a peaceful protest in Baton Rouge on July 11, 2016.

Tammy said police told her she would be charged with abandonment of her son, who would be turned over to Louisiana’s Department of Social Services. I turned my head to hide the tears I felt rolling down my face.

The woman to my right said she was standing with her husband when they were both tackled by a gang of officers. As we talked, I noticed the curb felt oddly smooth and cold in the sweltering heat. Then realized I wasn’t feeling the curb at all. My hand was numb.

The transport

After about an hour, an officer walked me to the transport van. Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” played on the radio and the air conditioning was running full blast. Both were a welcome relief and I felt relatively safe for the first time in a few hours. I sunk into the soft bench-style seat.

Officers eventually squeezed 14 of us into the back of the van. There were only 13 seatbelts, but it didn’t much matter, since we were still zip-tied. We couldn’t put them on and officers didn’t bother. I thought of Freddie Gray in the back of an unpadded police wagon and of rough rides as the women around me talked and laughed nervously.

The woman next to me, whose name was Sophie, still had her phone. I leaned forward to block the screen’s glow from lighting up the dark van while she twisted her still-cuffed hands and typed out messages for our families. She posted audio on Facebook as I interviewed Tammy and Alexus.

About 20 minutes later, the van’s female driver turned into a driveway at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, pulled through a set of security gates and up to a door.

A female officer took us out of the van and lined up against a barbed wire-topped fence. When a male officer came out of the heavy door, we were told to enter. Another male officer told us to sit down on the benches that lined the hallway.

One by one, sheriff’s officers asked for our date of birth and the correct spelling of our names. They cut off our zip-ties and took any remaining jewelry from us, including a small bracelet I still wore.

After a few minutes, the officer led us through more doors and a metal detector, then past two cells filled with at least 15 men. Officers lined us up on a dirty cinder block wall around the corner from the men. I smiled with relief when a friend called out to me from behind the pink bars of a women’s cell, which was on the end of a longer row of six or seven 8- by 12-foot cells.

All were empty except the pink cell, which was on the end, and the one next to it, which already held about 15 women each.

A male officer opened the pink cell door with a metal two-pronged key and told seven or eight women on the wall near me to go in. When there was no more room, he slammed the pink sliding metal door shut.

The officer told the rest of us to go into the cell next to the pink cell. He slammed the dirty tan barred door and smirked.

“Stay quiet,” he said.

Four of us sat uncomfortably on each of the two wooden benches that lined opposite sides of the cell while Ki, who had been in the van with us, figured out how to use the phone and called the number written on protesters' arms. In the back, a short partition provided little privacy for anyone who needed to use the dirty metal toilet. Ki patiently relayed our names and birthdays to the National Lawyers’ Guild volunteers on the other end of the line.

Formerly incarcerated people I’ve written about have almost all told me one of the worst parts about the experience is not knowing what will happen next. I have a fairly decent idea of how the legal system is supposed to work, but it was little help. I didn’t know what I’d been charged with or if it was a charge with a preset bail.

Once Ki hung up, the phone worked only sporadically. When I last spoke with my editor, I didn’t know where I would be taken. Now I had no way to tell him where I was.

It made no sense to me that we were in a prison, not a jail. I later learned from staff that it was because the system was utterly overwhelmed by the number of protesters arrested by police.

For the next five hours we stayed in the cell except when the guards pulled us out a few at a time for fingerprinting and mug shots. Both male and female guards seemed to enjoy slamming the door each time anyone came or went. Maybe they felt powerful because they could make a big noise.

Even with some of us sitting near the now-plugged-up toilet, there wasn’t even enough room on the floor for all of us to sit down. A woman standing near me said her name was Jordan. As we talked, she told me she had two young boys.

Jordan said she already worries about what the police might do to them when they’re teens. She brought them with her to the protest on Friday night because she wanted them to know adults cared about them. She said she was arrested on Saturday on Airline Highway while draped in a flag.

Jordan, a Baton Rouge resident and mother of two, was arrested Saturday night on Airline Highway. She said she is demanding justice for Alton Sterling and already worries about the safety of her two young boys.
Jordan, a Baton Rouge resident and mother of two, was arrested on Airline Highway. She said she is demanding justice for Alton Sterling and already worries about the safety of her two young boys.

Only a few of the young women with me had been in a cell before and at one point they started to sing to keep their minds off the deplorable conditions. Their song drew the attention of a fat white officer named McGraw. He sauntered over, pointed to a canister near his pocket and issued an ultimatum: Shut up or get maced.

Like the cicada, they stopped singing.

A while later, a pepper spray-like smell drifted into our cell. As we sneezed and coughed, someone said the men's cell had been gassed. They cheered the release of male protesters who were arrested the day before.

A few hours later, as I sat on the floor near the toilet, I looked at my knees. I noticed for the first time they were scraped and bleeding and realized they hurt. My pants were ripped and so was one of my shoes. Now that I was paying attention, I felt a pain in my right ankle. My left hand was still numb and my right hand tingled. I was exhausted.

And I was worried about Marco. I didn’t know where he was or if he’d been arrested after we talked.

Throughout the night we rotated, taking turns sitting and standing in the tiny cage and I tried to remember to count whenever anyone was put in or taken out. The most I counted was 24 and the pink cell next door was just as crowded. Tammy and Alexus curled up next to each other between a bench and the toilet. A few of us tried to sleep, but the light, the noise, the cold and not knowing what would happen next kept us awake.

At about 3:30 a.m. I was sitting on a corner of the bench leaning on the tan metal bars when a female officer opened the door. She called five or six of us to line up on the wall outside the cell and led us down the hall, past two or three empty cells.

At the end of the hallway, we stood against another wall and she threw us each a clear bag filled with dark green prison garb. Three at a time she directed us into a small closet-like room and told us to take off everything but our panties and put on the clothes in the bag.

My shirt was enormous — the arm holes extended down to my waist — but at least my pants stayed up. When I put on the tan slip-on house shoes, I noticed my sock was stained with blood.

As soon as we all changed, the officer lined us up on the wall again and led us through a door to a covered walkway. Sharp razor wire glistened menacingly above, but the warm, humid South Louisiana air wrapped itself around my tired body and I relaxed a little. The guard told us to stop and we waited for a dark metal door to open.

The inside

A female guard opened the door from the inside and icy cold air poured out. She told us to walk through the door and line up against a wall. I could feel condensation on the cold cinder block wall.

Another female guard told six of us to go through another door. The tiny room had stacks of VHS tapes and a few books. A small handmade sign on a rickety bookcase said, “Law Library,” but looked more like a junk closet, with chairs, boxes and bags thrown haphazardly around the room.

The guard pushed a few boxes out of the way so we’d all fit in the room. She closed the door.

She told the six of us — including 17-year-old Alexus — to take off all our clothes, squat and cough. There was absolutely no privacy, everything had to come off. I looked down at the floor and felt cold air hit my skin.

When everyone was done, the officer told us to put our clothes back on. She led us out of the room and again lined us up on the wall.

I was surprised when another guard appeared from around a corner and passed out blankets that were still warm from the dryer. I wrapped myself in the thin blanket and closed my eyes, relieved to be fully covered.

The guard who did the strip search told us to walk to the next door, where another female guard assigned us to our cell lines. I was assigned to line S-01. I wondered what the “S” stands for.

The dormitory-style cell’s 20 bunk beds were mostly filled and cots lined an outer common area. Guards directed a few of the women with me to fill the rest of the bunk beds and sent the rest of us to the cots.

I laid down and pulled the thin blanket over my head. I was exhausted, but couldn’t sleep. I worried about my friend back in the pink cell. I wanted to know where Marco was. I thought about my four children, who can now boast that both of their parents have done time in prison.

I thought about how absurd it was that prisoners in Louisiana’s Angola prison had to sue the state because temperatures in their cells often soared into the triple digits while the same state was freezing my ass off with this air conditioning.

About an hour later bright lights came on and a guard told us to line up for breakfast. It was 4:15 a.m. Breakfast was pancakes and something that looked like sausage. To drink we could choose two: water, orange-colored water or coffee-colored water. After breakfast, we came back to the line and did absolutely nothing.

The majority of the women had been there since before the protests and the increase in arrests began. A woman said the guards placed the cell on lockdown because they’re short-staffed and can’t handle the influx of protesters. She said she didn’t like lockdown, but respected the protesters.

I’d spent most of the spring working on a story on parole and wishing I had access to incarcerated women. Here I was, suddenly inside, surrounded by incarcerated women, most of whom were there for crimes other than protesting, all with a story to tell.

Somehow the regulars knew when the morning inspection started. An older lady told me to hurry and make my bed. I spread the thin blanket over the moldy, stained mattress and tucked it in.

Later in the afternoon, we were lined up and taken to “see” the judge, which was really a Skype-like call to Judge Bonnie Jackson. For the first time, we were read our rights and she informed us of the charges against us. Like all the women arrested with me, I was charged with obstructing a highway and resisting arrest.

A few minutes after we left “court,” I was told my bail had been posted. I was processed out and released about an hour later.

The aftermath  

Louisiana State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson justified the enormous response by saying protesters were “throwing some pretty large chunks of concrete, much larger than both of my hands they were throwing at police and hit several of them on the head.”

The officers were wearing helmets, he said, so they weren’t injured.

As a journalist, I wish I'd witnessed the concrete Superintendent Edmonson said was thrown by protesters. I would have tried to get a picture or, with a little luck, caught it on video.

When asked if any of the at least three police photographers on duty captured the incident, a spokesman for the Baton Rouge Police Department said via email he is not aware of any such images.

A police official justified the extraordinary use of force by saying protesters threw chunks of concrete. Despite the presence of at least three police photographers, a police spokesperson later said he is unaware of the existence of any images showing concrete being thrown.
A police official justified the extraordinary use of force by saying protesters threw chunks of concrete. Despite the presence of at least three police photographers, a police spokesperson later said he is unaware of the existence of any images showing concrete being thrown.

An FBI alert warned of possible general threats to law enforcement, but if authorities knew of a specific threat during this protest, they did not share it with the public or the media.

In an attempt to be fair, I watched dozens — maybe hundreds — of videos while writing this article, hoping to link to the “concrete” throwing Edmonson spoke of. I found only two videos showing thrown objects. One was a water bottle. In the other, an object soared high into the air and did not appear to be a chunk of heavy concrete.

After Sunday’s chaos, Edmonson said, “I was certainly pleased with what I saw here.”

I was not. I saw absolutely nothing to warrant the militarized, violent and utterly terrifying police response I experienced on this Sunday afternoon. What I saw made me wonder how many more Baton Rouge residents have been subjected to police brutality. I wonder how many have gone unreported and uninvestigated.

I saw nothing to alleviate Jordan’s fear for her children’s safety, in fact just the opposite.

When I told one of the regulars in my cell I was a journalist, she went back to her bunk and returned with a piece of paper and a pencil.

“Write,” she said. “Please write about us.”

This story has been updated.

Karen Savage is a correspondent for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and is completing her master’s degree at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. She reports on juvenile justice and social justice issues in New York and on the Gulf Coast.

In New Orleans, a Call for Justice for Eric Harris, Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile

NEW ORLEANSCarrying a bright purple “Black Lives Matter” banner, marchers — a mix of youth and adults — streamed down St. Charles Avenue in the stifling late afternoon heat Friday before converging with a larger crowd gathered at Lee Circle. Using the base of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as a stage, the protesters called for solidarity with communities across the nation and an end to the police killings.

"As we stand here by this racist Lee statue they will tell us, ‘Don’t be concerned by monuments,’" said activist Angela Kinlaw.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logo“But we know that symbols are designed to bond people culturally around values, beliefs and political ideals,” she said.

She pointed to the existence of the Lee statue, and other similar tributes, as symbols of the acceptance of the racist killing of black and brown people by the police.

"The silence is a condoning of state-sanctioned violence," Kinlaw said.

Led by the family of Eric Harris, who was killed last March by Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Officers, the march and rally was organized to show unity with the families of Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile and others who have been killed by police. Their stories have been splashed on the covers of newspapers, featured on social media feeds and broadcast on news channels across the country.

On Tuesday, video showing Baton Rouge police officers killing Sterling was released on social media by a community activist. On Wednesday in Minnesota, Castile’s girlfriend livestreamed the aftermath of a police shooting that killed Castile.

The rally in New Orleans was in sharp contrast to events in Baton Rouge, Atlanta and across the nation, where protests have led to dozens of arrests. New Orleans Police Department officers kept a watchful eye on protesters, but remained about a block away from the group. Officers peering at the scene with binoculars could be seen stationed on top of a nearby hotel. NOPD refused to comment on the rally, but no arrests or altercations were observed during the peaceful event.

“At first I was a little fearful to come out with my daughter, but I just felt like it was time,” said New Orleans resident Keesha Broussard, who was there with her 13-year-old daughter, Kennedy.

“It was time for her to come out and see how you can incite some change and how we can have some positive solidarity among all this negativity,” she said, adding that she was energized by the diversity of the crowd.

In the wake of the brutal killing of five police officers in Dallas, law enforcement officials have been closely monitoring protests across the country. Also in contrast to heated interactions between police and protesters in Baton Rouge, Atlanta, New York and other cities, no uniformed officers were observed interacting with the New Orleans crowd.

The size of the group impressed experienced activists.

"I was inspired by the turnout — it was by far the largest crowd I've ever seen for any protest or action in New Orleans," said Jayeesha Dutta, who has been organizing for six years in New Orleans and is the co-founder of the Radical Arts and Healing Collective. “I believe art has the power to heal and to change hearts,” she added.

Domonic Stewart-Guido, 11, who attended the rally with his mother, also hopes for a change.

“I’m here to protest the police killing those people in Minnesota and Baton Rouge,” he said. “We hope they’ll change their minds and arrest the cops,” he said. “Hopefully the government will take notice that we all don’t like this — we hate this.”

Students, Community Members Gather in Atlanta to Protest Trayvon Martin Shooting

Trayvon Martin Rally Atlanta March 26 2012

ATLANTA -- Hundreds of Trayvon Martin supporters gathered to chants of “I am Trayvon” in Downtown Atlanta on Monday, exactly one month after the Florida teen was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in an Orlando suburb.

Bands of student demonstrators, mainly organized by student groups from nearby universities, joined activists, community members and a long list of organizers on the steps of the state capital to call for the arrest of George Zimmerman – the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who claimed to have shot the 17-year-old in self-defense.

“It’s a general issue of justice,” said Richard Hunter, 42, who attended the rally with his nine-year-old son, Matt.

“I think we’ve seen that when we get involved things can change,” Hunter said about the importance of getting young people involved in justice issues. “A lot of people sit back and act like nothing is going to happen instead of showing up. So I decided to show up.”

The hodge-podge of protestors also challenged Georgia’s own “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows the use of deadly-force if you fear your life is in danger.

Zimmerman admitted to shooting the teen, but claimed self-defense under a similar Florida law and has not been arrested.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Morehouse student Jonathon Howard said to a cheering crowd, delivering a still powerful quote more than half a century after it was first penned by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Trayvon Martin Rally Atlanta March 26 2012 KIPP Atlanta Collegiate
Students from KIPP Atlanta Collegiate, a local school, join the protests at the Ga. State Capital. March 26, 2012.

Many protestors carried bags of Skittles and wore hooded sweatshirts adorned with the “I am Trayvon” slogan despite temperatures in the 80s. Martin was wearing a hoody and carrying a bag of Skittles when he was shot and killed returning from a local 7-Eleven in Sanford, Fla. He was unarmed.

Demonstrations in more than half a dozen major cities around the country marked the anniversary. Seventy-three percent of Americans said they felt Zimmerman should be arrested and face charges for the death, according to a recent CNN poll.

In Florida, a special prosecutor has been assigned to investigate the case. A grand jury is scheduled to begin deliberation on the case April 10.

Earlier in the day, Sanford officials confirmed an altercation ensued between Martin and Zimmerman prior to the fatal shot. Signs of the scuffle appeared in the original police reports, but had not been confirmed by law enforcement. City officials also announced a replacement for the Sanford Police Chief who stepped down, at least temporarily, last week amid community outrage over the department’s handling of the case.

Longtime civil rights activists Rev Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson joined Martin’s parents and supporters for a rally in Sanford.

“It’s justice for someone who hasn’t gotten any,” Joanna Carter, 23, said back in Atlanta. “If you let it continue this just ain’t right, no matter the color.”

Photo credit: Clay Duda/JJIE

Trayvon Martin Rally Georgia State Capital March 26 2012

Occupy Movement Camps in New York and Oakland Emptied by Police

Encampments of protestors in New York and Oakland, both part of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, were raided by police Monday and cleared of demonstrators, tents and garbage. Officials in both cities said the camps posed health and safety concerns for the protestors and nearby residents.

Police cleared the Occupy Wall Street camp in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, birthplace of the Occupy movement, Monday. About 180 to 190 demonstrators in the park were arrested, according to The New York Times.

At a news conference Tuesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the park needed to be cleared because “health and safety concerns had become intolerable.” Protestors have been camped out in the park for two months. The mayor said the protestors were welcome to return to the park after it had been cleaned, but they could no longer camp out.

The park reopened Tuesday morning and about 50 protestors had returned to the park before police closed it a second time because of a temporary restraining order pending a hearing later in the day.

The Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York inspired similar protests in cities across the nation and internationally, including in Oakland, the scene of another raid Monday.

The police raid in Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza was peaceful with few arrests, unlike a similar raid on Oct. 25 that culminated with police in riot gear firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protestors. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the raid yesterday was publicized in advance and many protestors voluntarily left the park ahead of the 5 a.m. deadline.

By midafternoon, according to The Mercury News, protestors had erected 40 tents and a kitchen area at nearby Snow Park.

In a move similar to New York, Interim Oakland police Chief Howard Jordan said protestors were welcome to return peacefully to the plaza but could not remain overnight.

Photo by Soozarty1 |

Cutting Access to Social Media is Not the Answer in U.K. Riots


It was 5:34am when the hideous screech of the alarm finally woke me up. My wife was already in the kitchen on her second cup of coffee, clutching her iPad with determined eyes fixed to the screen. I kissed her on the head before pouring myself a cup as she glanced up at me quickly and without a word. Something wasn't right.

"Whatcha reading," I asked casually in an effort to seem unaware of her obvious discomfort.

"Have you seen the news," she countered.

I looked over her shoulder at the article she was reading. The headline jumped off the…paper, stabbing my eye as the roof above me crumbled.


I stood speechless as she put her head in her hands. We had spent our entire adult lives running a rock quarry, and in an instant our livelihood was stripped from us because some thugs used an otherwise valuable resource for evil. But I couldn't be upset with the decision of the president. I mean, I value life. No one should die that way.


Does this story seem ridiculous to you? It should. But it isn't far from what is currently happening in the United Kingdom. Prime Minister David Cameron gave police the authority to shut down the Blackberry, Twitter and Facebook networks in order to keep rioters -- apparently the overwhelmingly majority of them young people -- from organizing. My question, and I think the question we should be asking of leaders who insist on condemning social media without understanding it, is: what exactly are we condemning?

Martin Luther started a revolution that exposed exploitative practices of the Catholic church in the 16th Century that depended greatly on new technology, namely the printing press. His movement was propagated by pamphlets printed in several languages that informed citizens and debunked myth. Similarly, many would argue that the French Revolution wouldn't have happened without the printing press. Do we ban all forms of printing in an effort to avoid dissent? Do we ban gravel roads because rocks are easy weapons?

Books, radio, television and landline telephones have all been used as tools for communication that allowed individuals to share ideas, good and bad. And with each technological advance there has been an effort to suppress the lay citizen's access to the medium. Remember when churches used to burn books because they were seen as evil for challenging deeply held ideologies? Oh yeah, that is still happening.

Despite our best efforts, marginalized citizens will eventually find a way to organize. It has happened in almost every society in history. And what have we learned? Not to understand the usually legitimate complaints of the protestors, not to address the social issues that lead to disenfranchisement, but to react instinctively and strip dissenters of their rights.

I do not condone the violence that has taken place in the U.K., and I forcefully condemn those who are causing damage. But I also condemn leaders around the world and the media for not thoughtfully exploring the possible causes of agitation that led to this unfortunate display of anger and desperation.

And I'll give a warning to anyone that thinks a temporary ban on communication services and a violation of a person's freedom of speech is warranted in these situations: just because someone can't access Twitter doesn't mean she/he is going to give up. As we have seen in Libya, it is likely to cause even more anger. An all-out ban on something that may or may not have been used for "evil" is not only an assault on basic freedoms, but also a simplistic (non)solution to a much deeper problem.