U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Minnesota photographer retrieves camera from fire after looters burn his equipment

Incident Details

REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi

Onlookers watch as an Arby's fast food restaurant burns near the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct on May 28, 2020.

— REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi
May 28, 2020

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, a photographer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, was taking photos of looters inside an Arby’s fast food restaurant when they took his camera and threw it into a fire, he told the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Tsong-Taatarii was photographing protests following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020. Protests against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement are continuing to take place across the country.

Tsong-Tataarii was covering protests in St. Paul, Minnesota, on May 28 when he was sent to the Third Precinct in Minneapolis. In the days prior, the Third Precinct and the surrounding area had been the site of major protests and multiple incidents of violence perpetrated against the press by police and members of the public.

When Tsong-Tataarii arrived, he said he covered the main scene of protests before he spotted a group of people plotting to loot and burn the Arby’s restaurant across the street from the Third Precinct police station. He described this group as “violent anarchists” in a phone interview with CPJ.

“One of the efforts I tried to make was to cover the diversity of violence,” Tsong-Taatarii said. “There’s a stereotypical perception of, ‘why are these people ‘burning down their own community?’ I saw that the group was diverse; majority white, but a couple of black gentlemen, a couple of people of mixed backgrounds. I photographed them outside the Arby’s and followed them into the Arby’s hoping to mix in there and document it.”

He later uploaded his images to Facebook.

Tsong-Taatarii was taking photos of a man tagging a wall with “BLM,” short for Black Lives Matter, when the man turned and asked Tsong-Taatarii, “Why are you photographing a crime?”

Tsong-Taatarii said he started negotiating with the man and offered to give him one of his two cameras — the camera he did not use to photograph him. Instead, the man wanted his small Leica, the camera Tsong-Taatarii used to take his photo. While they were talking, Tsong-Taatarii slipped the Leica lens and card into his pocket, preserving his photos.

Tsong-Taatarii said that he was wearing his press badge but refrained from identifying himself as press.

“I just said, ‘I love photography and I love documenting history and this is history,’ which is all true,” he said. “I knew that if I said I was a member of the press, that would be the end of the negotiating. I felt like I had the right not to tell him.”

“At some point the negotiating stopped and one of the fellas said, ‘It’s not worth losing your life over your gear,’” Tsong-Taatarii continued. “I understood what they meant, because they were going to burn this place down and if they knocked me unconscious, I’d be laying down there. People might never find me.”

Tsong-Taatarii gave the man his Leica, which the man threw into a fire next to a street barricade. Shortly after, Tsong-Taatarii ran into the fire and retrieved his camera. While the camera was damaged, the leather case it was stored in took most of the heat, he said.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd-control ammunition or tear gas, or had their equipment damaged while covering protests across the country. Find these incidents here.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].