WWNO's Ryan Kailath was arrested Saturday while covering a protest near Baton Rouge police headquarters. The event drew members of the New Black Panther Party. Police in riot gear engaged in a standoff with the group, during which Kailath was one of many arrested and charged with simple obstruction of a highway. WWNO's Eve Troeh spoke with him about what happened.
Set the scene for us. What was it like when you arrived around 5 p.m. Saturday?
There were several protests planned around Baton Rouge and the one I got to was at the Cortana mall. When I got there it was honestly kinda falling apart. It was a little bit disorganized. Protesters didn’t seem to know where they were going. They were going back and forth between the mall and the police department, which is a few blocks away.
About half an hour or 45 minutes later the New Black Panther Party arrived on the scene and that really electrified everybody and gave them a group to follow. They marched from a gas station at the corner to police headquarters, probably about 30 people that seemed to be identifying themselves with the group. And a few of them were open-carrying shotguns, rifles, smaller guns. The New Black Panthers shut down traffic on one lane of (I believe) a three or four lane road.
Just marching up and down it in formation, with a crowd on the grass on the side watching them. That’s the point that the police got involved. The protest was happening right in front of the police station, so they [police] came out in full riot gear. They had this big kind of tank-looking vehicle out there. And it came to a face off with ranks of the Black Panthers on one side, and ranks of cops on the other.
You were in the crowd on the side, what happened then?
While this face off was happening in the road in front of probably a couple hundred of us standing on the grass on the side of the road, unbeknownst to us cops were lining up behind us. Once the riot police pushed into the group of Black Panthers and wrestling some of them to the ground and taking their guns, and whatnot, a bunch of us instinctively stepped back and started to back away from the situation. And you can see this in my video which I’ll post to my Twitter account. When we turned around to walk away from the situation, the cops who had lined up behind us kept us from retreating, and actually pushed us back toward the action and back toward the violence.
That’s when several people started getting arrested, all at once. You actually captured that on your phone and your audio gear. You can hear in the video you repeatedly say, “I’m a journalist. I’m a journalist.” Did that seem to make any difference?
None whatsoever. So I repeated not just in that moment, but for the next several hours in the process of getting book and processed, “Look, maybe this doesn’t even matter at this point, but I’m a journalist, here’s my press badge." And they said, “Not my problem, take it to the judge.” So it seemed once you were in the system, you were in the system. And being a journalist didn’t matter whatsoever.
Did it seem journalists were getting targeted? You saw other reporters there who were not arrested.
I was standing about eight feet away from a reporter for the Baton Rouge Advocate who was not arrested. I learned the next day that there were other journalists arrested, one from Breitbart and one from WAFB, but I didn’t see that in that first instance.
Was there seemingly any logic to who was arrested and who was not?
It seemed like black people were being arrested. There were a few white people in the crowd, not too many. Through the whole about six hours of processing I was with the same group I got arrested with, and there were no white people in that group.
And you were booked incorrectly in terms of race in this process.
Yeah, nobody asked. I’m not black, but I’m not white. My parents are from India. I have light brown skin and sort of black nappy hair. And interestingly enough, I was checked into prison as black. They just speculated that I was black.
Who else was in there with you? Did you feel any tension or division between outsiders and locals?
No, not at all. When I woke up in the morning in prison there were about 30 of us together in this one cell block. I talked to everyone. And only two people said they were from Houston. And they were with the Panthers and they had come in for it. Everybody else was from Louisiana.
What were you charged with?
I was charged with simple obstruction of a roadway. Which is what I think the majority of protesters got, and they got set the same bail as me, $250, for being in the road. Now, as my video I’m posting online clearly shows, I was never in the road.
By the end of the night we learned more than 100 people were arrested. That included a prominent leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, DeRay McKesson. Did you have any idea of the scope of this?
No. When I woke up in the morning we had the paper delivered, The Advocate, and one of the other prisoners said, “Hey man, you’re in here.” And that was buried like 20 paragraphs down into a story. No I didn’t know that DeRay was there, or that things were going down that way.