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It’s Not a Coincidence That Journalists Covering Protests Are Being Attacked by Police

Journalists have recorded footage of police attacking them with rubber bullets and pepper spray as they cover the nationwide protests.

America Protests

Police prepare to shoot gas as demonstrators march in Atlanta on Sunday, May 31.

Brynn Anderson/AP/Shutterstock

“We put our hands up and yelled, ‘We’re media!’”

That’s what MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi said on the network in a broadcast after police shot a rubber bullet at him while he was reporting on a protest in Minneapolis, MN on Saturday. “They responded, ‘We don’t care!’ and they opened fire a second time.”

Elsewhere in Minneapolis, Vice News correspondent Michael Anthony Adams reported as police threw him to the ground and pepper sprayed him in the face while he was covering protests on Saturday. Adams recorded the incident in a video, where he repeatedly told law enforcement that he was press. An officer responded that he did not care. Adams was screamed at to get up and get in a car several seconds later.

Velshi and Adams are among at least several dozen journalists who have been attacked or arrested by police since Friday as protests over the killing of George Floyd continue to spread throughout the nation.

In Louiseville, KY WAVE 3 news reporter Kaitlin Rust was reporting live on Friday when police wordlessly began firing pepper balls at her and her film crew.

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“I’m getting shot,” Rust said on air as police opened fire. “(They’re shooting) at us. Directly at us. I don’t know why. We were behind their line.”

In Philadelphia, a reporter with independent news outlet Unicorn Riot reported on Saturday as four police pinned down a young black man. Police then attacked the reporter, who identified himself as press, with a baton.

“I don’t care what you are. Beat it,” the police officer said while attacking the reporter.

Though the exact number of journalists who have been attacked or arrested by authorities is unclear, Harvard’s Niemen Foundation for Journalism reported that police have attacked journalists over 100 times since last Thursday. Reporters throughout the United States have been covering the nation’s ongoing protests, which center on the killing of Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota. And the attacks on them raise troubling questions about First Amendment rights, the difficulty of documenting the truth of what’s happening amid turmoil, and impediments to holding police departments accountable. Not to mention that the pressure on journalists has been amplified by repeated messages from the oval office that they are “the enemy of the people.”

Gordon Stables, the director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, argued that the police’s widespread attacks on and arrests of journalists was not a coincidence.

“It is inescapable that in a number of communities, especially on Saturday evening, the police seem to regard journalists as part of the problem and not a constitutionally protected part of the community, which is really disturbing,” Stables said in an interview. “I appreciate how difficult this is for law enforcement, but it’s not just one police officer in one city…We are in a very worrying place where we see people who have been international correspondents saying that this feels like their experiences in nondemocratic regimes.”

CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez and his camera crew were the first group of journalists covering the protests whose arrests made headlines. Jimenez and his crew, who were covering the protests on-air and cooperating with police, were arrested on Friday morning for refusing to move from the area, despite receiving no instruction to do so. Huffington Post reporter Chris Mathias was arrested the following day while covering protests in New York City. CNN political commentator Keith Boykin wrote on Twitter that he was arrested by the NYPD in New York while he was reporting. Boykin told police that he was press and said that the police turned around and arrested him. Boykin was locked in tight zip ties that bruised his wrists and was held in two separate cars for two hours before being taken to a jail cell with 35 others, breaking social distancing guidelines. Boykin said he was never read his Miranda rights and was in custody for six hours.

In other cases, the law enforcement responses were violent. Minneapolis Police opened fire on a CBS News crew with rubber bullets without giving any verbal commands, while Detroit Free Press reporter JC Reindl said police pepper sprayed his face despite clearly displaying a media badge. In Washington DC, a riot police officer slammed a BBC cameraman with his shield on Sunday evening. The BBC team had been following all directions from police and the attack occurred without warning and before a curfew had been imposed, BBC News North America bureau chief Paul Danaher reported. Photojournalist Linda Tirado, who was covering the protests in Minneapolis, tweeted that she took a tracer round to the face, which she said left her permanently blind in her left eye.

While Jimenez and Mathias were released from custody shortly after their arrests, the number of police attacks on and arrests of journalists covering the ongoing protests have created a disturbing challenge to the concept of a free press, according to Tom Jones, a senior media writer at Poynter.

“Reporters are identifying themselves as the media and are still being attacked in very troubling ways.” Jones said in an interview. “If the police are going to be so blatant to attack the media, imagine how they’ll treat everyday citizens when media aren’t there to tell the stories. The media needs to publicize and show what is happening — not to be a part of the story, but to show that this is how the police are treating everybody.”

The Floyd protests, which have led to violence and looting in many cities, do not mark the first time that law enforcement’s arrests of journalists covering social issues has scored controversy. CNN reported that 11 journalists who covered the Ferguson, Missouri protests were taken into custody in 2014, and the arrests were not limited to specific publications. A Breitbart writer was arrested in 2014, as were journalists from the Huffington Post and the Washington Post.

George Floyd Protests

People throw a United States flag on a fire during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd on Sunday, May 31.

SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Issues between law enforcement and journalists stretch back decades, according to Poynter’s Al Tompkins, who noted that it was common for reporters to be beaten by police and have their possessions stolen during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. That said, Tompkins added that the size and scale of the current protests were unusual in comparison to those during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, as those protests were mostly concentrated in single geographic areas and did not boast as many violent reactions as have been seen in the last few days.

Although the large number of police attacks on and arrests of journalists covering the recent protests is unusual, Tompkins said that he was encouraged by city and state officials’ responses to those issues over the weekend.

“When I see the Minnesota governor almost immediately respond and say ‘I took responsibility for (the CNN crew’s arrest),’ it’s a really big deal to see an elected official at that level when a reporter gets arrested,” Tompkins said in an interview. “In Phoenix, the city police had said that the press were not going to be allowed to document the uprising there, journalists loudly complained, and the police chief apologized and changed course. I understand the notion that police want to clear the street, but ultimately it will work to their disfavor to have no witnesses. Rumors start where there are no eyes.”

Tompkins stressed that allowing journalists to cover protests benefited law enforcement as it gives the press an opportunity to highlight the good work of the police who have responded to the recent nationwide protests.

“We’ve seen demonstrators get right up in the faces of police, screaming at them, and police not reacting,” Tompkins said. “Over and over, we see videos of people throwing rocks, bottles at police. We’ve documented the restraint of officers as well as the overreaction of officers. We document the good and bad so the public can have a full understanding.”

Though journalists regularly work with law enforcement to report live on the scene of dangerous or controversial events, a large number of journalists covering the recent nationwide protests have noted that police have disregarded the freedom of the press and reporters’ First Amendment rights throughout the last several days. In some cases, police have appeared more hostile to reporters who identify themselves as members of the press.

“I think what’s most significant right now is that the number of altercations involving reporters is partly due to the number of protests and violent incidents,” CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter said in an interview. “There have always been scattered altercations and protests and arrests of reporters amid protests. Those have been denounced and in some cases police have apologized. Reporters sued the police in Ferguson and changed the result. But there’s a real fear about the amount of attacks and arrests and the severity of them. There are signs of increasing hostility towards journalists at protests. It’s getting worse than it was in the past.”

America Protests

National Guardsman watches over Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles on Sunday, May 31.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

As the journalism industry continues to change, so has public perception of the field. President Donald Trump has verbally attacked journalism organizations and individual reporters on innumerable occasions since he began running for president in 2015 and a Gallup poll from September 2019 stated that less than half of American citizens trust mass media outlets. Trump tweeted four attacks on the press over the weekend.

The president’s long-running attacks on the press are undeniably contributing to the public’s eroding trust in the news media, according to Jones, who warned that Trump’s hostility towards journalists could be influencing some of law enforcement’s recent attacks on and arrests of reporters.

“For years we’ve listened to this president talk about the media being ‘lamestream media, fake news, and the true enemy of the people,’” Jones said in an interview. “When you say that enough, it tears down the foundation of the free press and at some point that message gets to the American people, including people in law enforcement. This is a day where we’re talking about police brutality, racial injustice, 100,000 dead from coronavirus, and unemployment being through the roof, and his concern is the media?”

Some journalists, such as NPR’s Ari Shapiro, have noted that though journalists who cover international conflicts, warzones, and nondemocratic regimes understand that they might be targeted by foreign law enforcement agents, it is unprecedented for reporters to be targeted by American police. Given the events of the last few days, those American reporters are drawing on their experiences operating in potentially hostile regions while reporting on the nation’s ongoing protests, according to Stelter.

“American journalists who have had experiences in warzones say that some of these protests look distressingly familiar,” Stelter said. “There are countless reporters who have experience in warzones, at domestic protests, and handling hairy situations, and they are drawing on those experiences today. In some cases they have security teams and evacuation routes because those are the tactics that we unfortunately need to use right now.”

Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske was among the journalists who was fired upon and hit in the leg by tear gas from law enforcement in Minnesota over the weekend. Hennessy-Fiske recalled the experience in an article for the publication, where she noted that police officers fired “tear gas indiscriminately into the street” before backing her and Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole against the wall and repeatedly firing tear gas at them at point-blank range.

“I’ve covered protests involving police in Ferguson, Mo., Baton Rouge, La., Dallas and Los Angeles. I’ve also covered the U.S. military in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan. I have never been fired at by police until tonight,” Hennessy-Fiske said in the Los Angeles Times article.

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