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RI ACLU sends letter to state officials defending the right “to peacefully record the activities of police in public”

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It is deeply disturbing to see Rhode Island police joining counterparts elsewhere in… attempting to intimidate and stymie reporters from doing their job. The role of the press in situations like these is critical to a functioning democracy, and any law enforcement efforts to stifle it should not be countenanced.


The Rhode Island ACLU sent a letter of concern this week to Rhode Island State Police Superintendent James Manni, Governor Gina Raimondo, Department of Health Director Dr Nicole Alexander-Scott, the Rhode Island Press Association and UpriseRI editor Steve Ahlquist concerning the events that took place in Providence at the close of a Breonna Taylor protest in Providence on the evening of Monday, September 28.

The letter defends “the constitutional right of journalists – and the public – to peacefully record the activities of police in public.”

On the night in question Rhode Island State Police officers arrived at Dexter Park and engaged with protesters, arresting some and spraying others with what appeared to be pepper spray. UpriseRI reporter Will James was on the scene, and was threatened with arrest as he recorded what was happening.

Director Brown’s letter also makes two other points. First, the letter calls into question police using pepper spray “rather indiscriminately,” noting that “in the midst of a pandemic involving a virus that primarily attacks the respiratory system, the unnecessary deployment of a chemical agent like OC spray by the police is troubling, to say the least.” Second, the letter takes issue with “virtually none of the troopers responding to the incident and interacting with protesters” wearing masks.

These two points were made by independent journalist Amanda “Brooklyn” Toussaint at Governor Raimondo’s September 30 press conference. At that press conference, Governor Raimondo said that she thought the “use of force procedures” used by the State Police were appropriate. As to the issue of State Police officers not wearing masks, Governor Raimondo said, “…we’ve had excellent compliance by the troopers for masks. If they’re not wearing mask, they need to.”


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Since asking her questions at that press conference, Toussaint has been denied access to future Governor Raimondo press conferences. The Governor’s communication staff maintains that Toussaint is an activist, not a journalist. UpriseRI considers her to be both, and we are working to have her journalistic access to future press conferences granted.

Here’s video of the arrests and the police harassment of reporter Will James:

Here’s the letter, from RI ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown:

“Dear Superintendent Manni:

Our office has received a number of complaints about actions taken by members of the Rhode Island State Police in responding to a demonstration that took place in Providence last Monday night, September 28th. I am writing to request your immediate attention to one of them, which involves the mistreatment of a local journalist.

Last Monday’s protest involved a march from, and back to, Dexter Park and was in response to the results of a Louisville, Kentucky’s grand jury investigation of the police killing of Breonna Tylor. A reporter for UpriseRI, Will James, was the only person from the media present for the demonstration and the response to it by police. As he was watching and recording the activity from a safe distance and in a manner that could not in any way be considered disruptive, Mr. James was ordered by a state trooper to “get out of here” and threatened with arrest even as the crowd was dispersing.

The colloquy between James and the trooper is transcribed below”

JAMES: Would you like to state your name? We’re on livestream. If you would not like to, you don’t have to.

OFFICER: It’s over, it’s over. Get out of here.

JAMES: I’m with the press.

OFFICER: I don’t care who you’re with. You’re done.

JAMES: I’m with the press.

OFFICER: You’re done. Beat it.

JAMES: I’m with the press. I’m going to do my job.

OFFICER: I don’t care. Get out of here.

JAMES: I’m with the press; I’ve told you. I need to do my job.

OFFICER: You go back this way and you’ll get locked up.

A review of the video from that night shows that there can be no excuse for the conduct of this trooper in threatening Mr James under the factual circumstances presented. The constitutional right of journalists – and the public – to peacefully record the activities of police in public has been well-established for years, and that is all that Mr James was doing.

It is no secret, unfortunately, that at protests across the country these past few months, journalists have been treated with contempt by some police, illegally ordered to stop monitoring protest actions, and even been the subject of physical assaults from law enforcement while attempting to witness and report on those demonstrations. It is deeply disturbing to see Rhode Island police joining counterparts elsewhere in similarly attempting to intimidate and stymie reporters from doing their job. The role of the press in situations like these is critical to a functioning democracy, and any law enforcement efforts to stifle it should not be countenanced.

We therefore ask you to investigate this particular incident; to reaffirm the First Amendment rights of the press and the public to witness, monitor and record the actions of police during public demonstrations, as long as it is done in a non-disorderly manner; and to remind all your troopers of these rights.

Finally, I wish to briefly mention two other serious concerns that have been prompted by our review of the recording of this incident. First, the video shows the same officer who harassed Mr. James also spraying protesters what with we assume to be Oleoresin Capsicum spray (pepper spray), and doing so rather indiscriminately and without any warning. In a separate letter being sent to your agency today, I write to request more information about this. I would only note here that, in the midst of a pandemic involving a virus that primarily attacks the respiratory system, the unnecessary deployment of a chemical agent like OC spray by the police is troubling, to say the least.

Secondly, the video also shows that virtually none of the troopers responding to the incident and interacting with protesters are wearing masks. More than seven months into this pandemic, we find the flouting of basic public health protocols by the state’s chief public safety officers extremely disconcerting. When your officers directly interact at close range with dozens of members of the public, it is incumbent upon you, as the state’s head of public safety, to ensure that they are following proper health protocols to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

I thank you in advance for your attention to these concerns, and I look forward to hearing back from you about them.”