April: Journalists ordered to disperse, threatened with arrest while reporting on racial justice protests
The fatal police shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota on April 11, 2021 rekindled a wave of racial justice protests that began almost a year earlier. Wright’s death, on April 11, occurred as a former police officer in nearby Minneapolis was on trial in the death of George Floyd. Protests began outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department the day Wright was killed, and continued daily through mid-April. Journalists covering the protests in Brooklyn Center say they have been hit with crowd-control devices, ordered by police to disperse and detained at media credential checkpoints. During the same period, racial justice demonstrations have also been held in other cities around the United States.
Below is a round-up of incidents involving individual journalists and news crews who faced harassment and threats in the course of their reporting on racial justice protests in Brooklyn Center and across the country. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents journalists 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. To learn more about how the Tracker documents and categorizes violations of press freedom, visit pressfreedomtracker.us.
April 11, 2021
In Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
- Journalists were ordered to disperse by the Brooklyn Center Police Department, according to Niko Georgiades of Unicorn Riot, an independent news site and social media outlet. At 11:27 p.m., Unicorn Riot tweeted that police issued a dispersal order, specifying that it included the media. Video posted by Unicorn Riot shows a line of police officers and a large vehicle in front of the city’s police department. About 17 minutes and 30 seconds into the video, a voice can be heard ordering people to leave the area, including members of the media; shortly after, police announce that those who do not disperse will be subject to arrest: “If you do not cease your unlawful behavior and disperse immediately, you will be arrested. This includes the media.” Georgiades told the Tracker the orders were “startling.” Even though he thought it was unlikely that members of the press would be arrested, he felt it had a chilling effect because it caused journalists to question whether they should stay. “Everybody was looking at each other like, what should we do? Should we leave?” He said he did not leave immediately, and later when he was leaving with two protest medics, he showed his press pass and believes that was why police allowed them to proceed. Brooklyn Center Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
- Georgiades said he was also nearly hit with tear gas canisters deployed by police, which he believes were directed at protesters near him. He said chemical agents were strong. “It made me question, should I continue to stay up here to record this,” he said. He said he moved back from where he was reporting because of the gas, but later returned.
April 13, 2021
Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
- Multiple journalists — including CNN correspondent Sara Sidner, independent photojournalist Christopher Juhn and Jon Farina of the online news outlet Status Coup — posted on social media that they heard police order journalists to disperse. Juhn, whose work has been published by outlets including the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and Minnesota Public Radio, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker he heard police direct members of the press to leave a particular area while law enforcement used rubber bullets and tear gas to try to clear protesters. He said that police sometimes directed bright light toward him and told him to stop taking photographs. Video posted on Status Coup’s Twitter account credited to Farina shows a protester sitting in the street in front of a line of police vehicles. A voice heard over a loudspeaker announces that the gathering has been declared an unlawful assembly. The voice then announces: “Media leave the area. Media and press, leave the area.”
"If you do not cease your unlawful behavior & disperse peaceably, you will be arrested...Media and press, leave the area."–Minnesota cops just announced over a loudspeaker. A protester responded, "Media's not leaving! Media's gonna stay!"– @JonFarinaPhoto reports #DaunteWright pic.twitter.com/9RqaIEwSnN— Status Coup News (@StatusCoup) April 14, 2021
- Sidner posted on Twitter on April 14 that on the previous night she heard police announce “journalists will be arrested” while she was in Brooklyn Center. “In my 25 years as a reporter I have NEVER heard police in America actually say “journalists will be arrested” during a protests,” she wrote. “We stayed. The citizens are why we stay.”
In my 25 years as a reporter I have NEVER heard police in America actually say “journalists will be arrested” during a protests. But that happened in #BrooklynCenter last night. We stayed. The citizens are why we stay. I took this moments aft the announcement #DaunteWright pic.twitter.com/rMU0fEyJKU— Sara Sidner (@sarasidnerCNN) April 14, 2021
- Following these incidents, on April 16 a federal judge in Minnesota issued a temporary restraining order, requested by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, that bars Minnesota State Patrol from threatening journalists with arrest and clarifies that journalists are not required to leave when there is a dispersal order. MSP announced April 17 that the law enforcement agency would “no longer include messaging at the scene advising media where they can go to safely cover events.”
April 16, 2021
Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
- Journalists from the Mac Weekly, the student news site of Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, were ordered to stand on a street corner and not move, and also were threatened with arrest, while covering protests at Brooklyn Center. Photographer Kori Suzuki posted on Twitter that he was with news editor Estelle Timar-Wilcox when police officers started kettling the protesters, then he reported that he and Timar-Wilcox were with a small group of media who were told to stand on a street corner or face arrest. The Mac Weekly’s Twitter feed featured photographs of the protests and lines of police officers with riot shields, it reported through the night. While covering the event, Timar-Wilcox posted on Twitter: “Tons of arrests tonight. Looks like just law enforcement left - a hundred at least - at this intersection, blocking street and taking apart leftover umbrellas.”
April 20, 2021
Los Angeles, California
- Freelance journalist Joey Scott said he and other journalists were ordered to disperse by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department during a protest near the Hall of Justice in the city’s downtown. Scott told the Tracker that tensions escalated between a group of protesters and the sheriffs’ deputies, and he could hear law enforcement make an announcement over a loudspeaker, but wasn’t able to hear what it said. A short time later, officers advanced on protesters with riot shields, pushing them down the street. Then, he said, officers told him and a team of CNN journalists that they also had to leave. In a video Scott posted on Twitter, an officer can be heard saying, “Didn’t you guys hear the dispersal order? That pertains to you, too.” When Scott asks if that applies to press, an officer responds “yes.” “You have to leave, right along with everybody else. You’re part of the problem,” one officer says in another video. Scott told the Tracker he asked if there was a media viewing area, but was told to leave. “The implication was that we were going to be arrested if we didn't leave,” he told the Tracker. Scott said he was wearing credentials issued by the National Press Photographers Association and the International Workers of the World Freelancers Union, as well as multiple “PRESS” markings on his helmet and backpack. LASD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
April 27, 2021
Elizabeth City, North Carolina
- Mayor Bettie Parker declared a state of emergency in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on the morning of April 26, after protests over the shooting and killing of a Black man, Andrew Brown, by police deputies earlier in the month. On April 27, city officials updated the emergency declaration to include a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m, with no media exemption, according to local TV station 13newsnow. “The only exceptions are for people who have to commute to travel to work or if there's an emergency,” it reported.
April 29, 2021
Elizabeth City, North Carolina
- Multiple journalists — including photographer Jon Farina for Status Coup, USA Today’s Dean P.E. Stephens and Rachel Berry, plus Travis Long and Josh Shaffer of The News & Observer and Ford Fischer of News2Share — were threatened with arrest while covering a peaceful protest in Elizabeth City, despite previous assurances from city leaders that they were allowed to continue working. Casey Blake, USA Today’s news editor for North Carolina, said in a tweet: “Police in #ElizabethCity have instructed media to leave, claiming falsely that media are not exempt from tonight's curfew. This is absolutely unacceptable. Journalists must never choose between doing their jobs and facing arrest, and communities deserve witnesses.” Blake said that reporters were moving to safety after police in riot gear threatened to arrest journalists for carrying out their work. This came after media had asked for confirmation the day before, and had received a statement from the city attorney that working journalists did not have to abide by the curfew, and that the police chief had acknowledged that, said Blake. Berry posted a video on Twitter and Facebook of police in riot gear, and Long posted a video of media being told to leave.
The First Amendment is only a string of words if officers with weapons in riot gear refuse to respect it in the streets. Operating in illegal darkness has never made a community safer, and we will not accept it.— Casey Blake (@CaseyBlakeAVL) April 29, 2021
- Farina was also threatened with arrest for asking a police officer a question, capturing the incident on video. He asked: "This is your community, can I ask you how you feel about this?" The police officer responded by telling Farina he was about to be arrested.
Last night, a North Carolina cop threatened to arrest photojournalist @JonFarinaPhoto while he was covering #AndrewBrownJr protests for @StatusCoup.— Status Coup News (@StatusCoup) April 30, 2021
His crime...asking the police officer "this is your community, can I ask you how you feel about this?" pic.twitter.com/E8SsbRzqgX