UT Austin journalist assaulted while covering protest

A protest at the University of Texas at Austin against a bill banning sanctuary cities in the state turned violent Sept. 1 when a protester hit a Daily Texan reporter, sending him to the hospital.

Chase Karacostas, a city/state reporter for the student newspaper, was conducting a routine interview with a bystander when, he says, a protester approached him, aggressively hitting Karacostas’ phone into his head, where it cut him near his eyebrow.

The phone was still recording, you can hear the assault take place:

"It was really random," he told the SPLC, noting that he was surprised, given that the protest was otherwise peaceful. "I’ve been at protests that were a lot more violent and a lot angrier and where lots of people had been arrested, but this one was pretty small by comparison," he said. The Daily Texan’s article on the incident reported that about 25 protesters were present.

Karacostas said he identified his assailant to police using videos he had recorded earlier and then headed to the University Health Services’ Urgent Care Clinic, where he received six stitches.

"I actually for a time thought that I had a bloody nose, too, because there was so much blood," he said.

Police shortly thereafter arrested Eric Nava-Perez, a graduate student and organizer with Sanctuary UT (the group that held the protest), and charged him with assault and bodily injury.

He was taken to the Travis County Jail, where he remained for approximately 12 hours; he was released a little after midnight.

Nava-Perez told the SPLC in an email Monday that he was waiting to hear from the Dean of Students office on their proposed punishment, but did not offer further comment.

In the meantime, he has been prohibited from setting foot on campus without prior written approval from the Dean of Students, according to a previously unpublished petition sent to the SPLC by Sanctuary UT organizer Charles Holm which criticized the measure.

Holm, who has written about the incident for socialistworker.org and said he has spoken with Nava-Perez, argued that it is inappropriate to blame Nava-Perez for what transpired.

Instead, he and the petition blamed the UT Austin police department and the Austin Police Department for generating tension by deploying an "unnecessary and intimidating" number of officers, which he said at times outnumbered the protesters.

"They clearly were not there to keep anybody safe," he said. "This is a militarization of campus."

He also argued that Karacostas should have more clearly identified himself as a reporter so that he would not be mistaken for a right-wing agitator. Karacostas responded he did not yet have a press badge because it’s so early in the semester.

Karacostas said he had asked protesters who Nava-Perez was a few minutes earlier so he could identify him in a video he had taken. Holm said Nava-Perez may have interpreted this as an attempt to dox him.

At the time he was hit, Karacostas was interviewing a conservative bystander in what Holm said he had heard was "a friendly manner" which may have led Nava-Perez to assume he was a counter-protester.

Holm argued that, given this "confusing situation," Nava-Perez’s actions were justified as self-defense. "[He was] trying to protect people who were there, including himself, from what he thought to be a threat. But he didn't intend to physically harm anybody. He went after a cell phone."

A fundraiser for Nava-Perez’s legal defense has raised nearly $1,700 as of this writing.

Karacostas described several takeaways from his experience.

"The biggest thing in the aftermath was just realizing that anything can happen, and even small protests could turn violent, and even ones that say they’re peaceful," he said.

He noted that many reporters often feel they’re invincible early on.

"We’re so convinced that … people will understand we’re reporters and that we don’t have opinions or whatever, and that because of that we can go wherever and be fine. But that’s not the case," he said.

London Gibson, the other The Daily Texan reporter covering the protest, said she thought the incident was "more than anything, kind of a fluke."

"I have a pretty clear understanding that this is not something that happens regularly, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the kind of thing that should be accepted or ignored," she said.

On Twitter, some protesters criticized The Daily Texan’s coverage of the incident or denied that the assault took place:

Holm criticized the paper’s decision to use Nava-Perez’s mug shot, which he said "played into a tradition of racializing criminals on a day that we were organizing against a racial profiling law."

Others denounced the assault:

Several conservative media outlets picked up the story. Dawgonnit Dawg’s Blog used the incident for its recurring "Dipshidiot of the Day" feature. "Attacking a reporter? Isn’t a reporter what they want for publicity for their cause?," it asked.

Karacostas connected the incident to the broader national climate.

"I think one of the issues right now is how much ill will that is being held toward the media," he said. "It's scary knowing I'm going to be interacting with people who think that I'm the enemy. … I just want people to remember that members of the media are also human beings, too."

Americans’ trust in the media recently hit a record low, according to a Gallup Poll published last year which reported that only 32 percent have "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in the mass media.

Last November, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that several journalists had been attacked at protests in the wake of the election.

SPLC staff writer Samuel Breslow can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318.

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Police arrested Sanctuary UT organizer Eric Nava-Perez Sept. 1 on charges of assault and bodily injury. 

Photo by: The Daily Texan / London Gibson