Agence France-Presse video correspondent Eléonore Sens and two colleagues were pepper-sprayed by law enforcement while reporting on a protest in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on April 16, 2021.
Several hundred protesters marched to the Brooklyn Center Police Department in response to the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, a Black man, by a white police officer during a traffic stop. Wright’s death, on April 11, occurred as a former police officer in nearby Minneapolis was on trial in the death of George Floyd, rekindling a wave of protests against racial injustice and police brutality that had started nearly a year earlier.
According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the protest had been peaceful until around 9 p.m. Some time after that, authorities told the outlet, some in the crowd began to throw objects and attempt to break through a barrier around the police station, prompting the declaration of an unlawful assembly and orders for dispersal. At around 10 p.m., Minnesota Public Radio reported that police moved swiftly to corral the protesters and members of the press, deploying flash-bang grenades and pepper spray.
Sens told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that when lines of law enforcement officers moved in quickly to form a perimeter around the crowd of protesters, she and her AFP colleagues were blocked on a corner of the street.
Khanna said officers rushed toward them. He said one officer sprayed a nearby photographer, Tim Evans, then saw the three AFP journalists and began spraying each of them with the chemical irritant. They continued to shout to identify themselves as journalists, according to Khanna.
“I can say with all confidence that he knew that we were press, and he made sure that he sprayed all of us, not just like one person,” Khanna said.
Sens said she was less certain about whether they were targeted because they were journalists. “I cannot know that,” she said, though she noted that they were clearly marked as press, repeatedly identified themselves verbally to law enforcement, and were not in the officers’ way. Sens said she was displaying a large press credential issued by the New York Police Department and carried a professional video camera, which has “AFP” written on it.
As the officer was spraying them, Khanna said, the dispenser briefly got stuck. The officer shook it and then resumed spraying them, Khanna said.
A photograph, taken and posted on Twitter by photojournalist Alex Kent, shows the officer spraying the three AFP journalists, one of whom was wearing a bright yellow vest marked “PRESS.”
Once the officer stopped spraying, Sens said, he shouted at them to “get the fuck out.” She said the journalists tried to stay to continue to document, but officers were yelling at them to leave.
One officer escorted them away from the area where law enforcement was arresting all of the protesters. She said officers wouldn’t let them film and threatened to arrest them if they didn’t leave.
After the AFP journalists left the first perimeter of officers, Sens said they came upon another line of officers. She said the officers took photographs of their faces, state IDs, and press credentials.
“To me, that was a very shocking part, is that they took photos, and have a record of who were the journalists that night on site to cover the events,” she said.
Sens said she was wearing goggles, a helmet and a mask, which protected her from the effects of the pepper spray. Some of the chemical got on the back of her hand, which caused a burning feeling so intense that she needed to sleep with her hand in a bag of ice, she said.
Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell told the Tracker that it had been determined that the officer who sprayed the AFP journalists was a member of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. A spokesperson for Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment because the incident was under investigation.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents incidents of journalists being assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas, or who had their equipment damaged in the course of reporting. Find all incidents related to Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality protests here.