A Cal State Long Beach photojournalist is alleging he was wrongfully arrested and his camera equipment confiscated while covering a protest in the South Los Angeles area, Tuesday night.
Pablo Unzueta, a 26-year-old student at CSULB, has been documenting protests since he was 17, first documenting civil unrest after the killing of Treyvon Martin in 2013. More recently, Unzueta has photographed protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and some of his recent work has been published in CSULB’s newspaper the Daily 49er, where he is an editor.
However, he said he’s never been more disturbed after covering a protest than the one he photographed in Los Angeles on Sept. 8, which unfolded after the recent fatal shooting by sheriff deputies of 29-year-old Dijon Kizzee.
Unzueta said he was following a group of protesters marching, taking photographs of them on what was the fourth consecutive night of demonstrations. He posted some of the images from the protests on his Instagram page.
At about 8 p.m., LA County Sheriffs’ deputies declared the protest unlawful and ordered the protesters to disperse. Sheriff Alex Villanueva later stated during a Facebook live update that “disruptive groups” had incited violence during the protests, and that instigators reportedly threw fireworks, mortars and frozen water bottles at deputies.
Sheriff’s deputy Trina Schrader told City News Service that Tuesday night’s demonstration was declared an unlawful assembly at about 8:15 p.m. Seventeen people were arrested and will likely face charges under California Penal Code section 409, which relates to remaining present at the scene of an unlawful assembly after being lawfully warned to disperse, sheriff’s officials told City News Service.
Following the disperse order, Unzueta said he saw deputies shooting pepper-spray balls and tear gas at demonstrators, and he began taking photographs of the scene. He said deputies were quickly advancing toward his position and he was unable to get to his car. As he looked for an alternative route, Unzueta said he was trapped in a long, narrow street as deputies approached him, and arrested him along with nearby protesters.
Unzueta said he held his hands up and identified himself as a photojournalist and a student at CSULB. He was wearing press credentials on his backpack strap from Mt. San Antonio College, issued to him when he was a student there. He was also carrying a College Media Association badge with him.
“I told them they can call my advisers,” he said. “They didn’t allow me to make a call.”
He said he was handcuffed for two hours and transported to the South Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station. From there, he was transferred to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles. Booking data shows that Unzueta was charged on suspicion of a misdemeanor and was released the next day.
Unzueta said he was never given back his equipment, which included his camera and cell phone, and has still not received his items. The Long Beach Post reached out to sheriffs officials who were not able to immediately clarify why Unzueta was arrested and why his items are still being withheld.
Unzueta said he recognized his turquoise camera bag among items displayed by deputies as weapons taken from protesters, in a video segment on FOX 11 News.
Unzueta said he’s received help through the Student Press Law Center, which assigned him a lawyer who is also working to get his equipment back to him.
In the meantime, a GoFundMe page has been made to raise money to buy new camera equipment. Unzueta said his father is a photojournalist in Chile and has always had a passion for photography, but the incident has left him feeling disillusioned.
“I don’t feel safe going out anymore,” he said. “This is the last thing I want to do.”
City News Service contributed to this report.