When I woke up Sunday morning, I didn’t expect to be detained by police in a stranger’s backyard later that day.
I was called in to cover the third straight day of George Floyd protests in San Jose for San José Spotlight, but this time there was a citywide curfew starting at 8:30 p.m. until 5 a.m.
Demonstrators continued to march through downtown past the curfew, but I knew journalists were exempt from the curfew, so I followed them to continue my reporting.
Police officers also followed demonstrators and announced over loud speakers that they would be “subject to arrest” if they did not go home.
Around 9:30 p.m., the group of protesters had shrunk from hundreds to about 50 people. Police had them surrounded on Ninth Street, near San Jose State University. I stood alongside them, taking photos and notes.
Protesters dispersed into the neighborhood, jumping over backyard fences. I followed them into a driveway that led to a backyard parking lot for a couple housing units. However, once they started hopping fences into other backyards, that’s where I decided to draw the line and stop following them.
I stood there with another journalist, Maggie Angst of the Mercury News, as we waited for officers to arrive with my hands in the air. Seconds later, police entered the backyard with flashlights shining in our face and ordered us to get on the ground, face down and hands out.
One officer stood over me with a baton cocked back over his shoulder and yelled, “What are you doing here?”
Surprisingly, I felt calm and focused during the confrontation. I was confident that I knew my rights. I assured him that I was a reporter and explained that I was turning my body over slowly because I had an expensive camera hanging from my neck.
While I was facing down — drenched in sweat from keeping up with the protesters — it was unclear what officers wanted me to do. Some of them were saying to “go home” and some of them were saying “stay here.”
I remained on the ground for about two minutes but no longer heard officers talking behind me, so I turned my head around and the officers were gone. One officer came back to apparently look for his glasses, but he made no verbal contact with us.
A couple minutes later, a protester came out. She was hiding from police inside the stairs of a basement. She said she was a student at SJSU.
While we were in the backyard of strangers, they were extremely hospitable. They came outside and asked if we were OK, gave us soda and offered some food.
About 20 minutes after I was initially detained, police left the area without further instruction.
I didn’t mind getting on the ground. I didn’t mind the officer standing over me with a baton. It may have been the adrenaline rushing through me, but I wasn’t scared.
In the midst of chaos, it’s hard for officers to identify who I am in real time, so I have empathy for them. However, what bothered me most is how I wasn’t free to go after I clarified that I was a reporter.
My editor, Ramona Giwargis, and I spoke on the phone with San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia on Monday. He apologized for what happened and said I should have been freed after I identified myself.
Garcia added that it wasn’t police protocol to leave me on the ground without coming back. He said he’s never witnessed a citywide curfew while being with the department, so many officers are doing things for the first time.
I hope my experience can serve as a learning opportunity for the officers when it comes to constitutional freedoms afforded to members of the press.
Contact Luke Johnson at [email protected] and follow @Scoop_Johnson on Twitter.