Denver Post reporter Alex Burness and a second reporter were aimed at with a crowd-control weapon by law enforcement while covering protests in Denver, Colorado, on the evening of May 31, 2020.
The protests were sparked by a video showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, for 7 minutes and 46 seconds during an arrest in Minneapolis on May 25. Floyd was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Earlier in the night, Burness was struck multiple times with crowd-control munitions. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documented that case here. Burness later ran into Denverite and Colorado Public Radio reporter Esteban Hernandez near the state capitol building, he said.
The lights around the capitol were off, creating an “uneasy” atmosphere, Burness said. A large crowd of protesters had amassed on the north side of the building. Police moved toward protesters, firing tear gas. Burness and Hernandez decided to leave the area, heading away from the tear gas toward the capitol’s south side.
There, they encountered a line of officers standing across a two-lane street. Burness saw an opening that would have allowed them to leave the area without crossing the police line. “We shouted to them ‘Press!’ several times,” Burness said. Both had press credentials around their necks and Hernandez wore a neon yellow vest with ‘PRESS’ written on it in large letters. “One of the officers points that we have to head the other way, back towards where the tear gas is coming from.”
Burness and Hernandez continued to shout “Press! Press! Press!” to get the officers to allow them to pass through the open area, but police refused. In a show of force, one lifted what Burness described as a rifle used to shoot less-lethal projectiles, and pointed it directly at the journalists.
“There is no doubt in my mind that those officers knew we were press. We were 40 feet away from the guy, we’re shouting press, he’s looking directly at us, he knows what’s up, he still did that,” Burness said, calling the incident “a flagrant disregard for our press rights.”
The two retreated back toward the capitol lawn, where they were engulfed in a cloud of tear gas. Burness, wearing ski goggles and an N95 mask, said he couldn’t see at more than five percent for several minutes. “It was very intense, extremely unpleasant, and crucially, totally unnecessary,” he said. Reached via direct message on Twitter, Hernandez declined to comment.
Multiple law enforcement agencies were operating in the area at the time, Burness said, including the Colorado Army National Guard, Denver Police, the Colorado State Patrol and sheriffs’ departments from various counties across the state. Burness said he believes the officer who trained his gun at them was with the Colorado State Patrol.
The Tracker reached out to the Colorado State Patrol, which declined to comment on the incidents, saying they involved the Denver Police Department. A request for comment to the Denver Police Department was not immediately returned.
Burness said that while he has lingering bruises from being hit, “I’m much more shaken up by how our rights were disregarded.”
“Even though there certainly has been much more interest on Twitter and from people who care about me about me being shot at with these foam bullets, the other incident to me, from a press freedom perspective, is significantly more troubling,” Burness said.
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.