U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

NBC journalist pepper-sprayed, detained at Minneapolis protest

Incident Details

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

State patrol officers stand guard in Minneapolis on May 31, 2020.

— REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
May 31, 2020

NBC News journalist Simon Moya-Smith was pepper-sprayed and detained while covering protests in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the early hours of May 31, 2020.

Multiple days of protests in Minneapolis and across the nation were sparked by a video showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest on May 25. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a hospital. Thousands gathered around the convenience store where Floyd had been detained and at the police department’s Third Precinct building in the days that followed.

Moya-Smith told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he was following along with a group of about a dozen Native American and black protesters as they walked through the south side of Minneapolis shortly after 1 a.m. An 8 p.m. curfew order was in place that night, though members of the media were explicitly exempt.

Four or five Minneapolis police cruisers suddenly came upon the group and encircled them, Moya-Smith said. An officer in one of the vehicles shouted, “Go home! Go home!” to which one of the protesters responded, “We are! We are going home!”

An officer then jumped out of one of the cruisers and began pepper-spraying the protesters indiscriminately and ordering them to get on the ground.

“As we’re all lying down, she comes around and just begins to spray as if she were in her backyard garden — individually, as if she were just spraying her plants,” Moya-Smith said.

He added that he, too, was sprayed while facedown, much of it hitting his back.

“It was a completely unnecessary use of force on the group. Everyone was complying,” Moya-Smith said.

Officers then came around to each of the protesters and asked for their IDs. When they came around to Moya-Smith, he told them that he had an ID in his wallet and that he was a reporter with NBC News. When they told him to wait as he was, Moya-Smith said he thought, “OK, so this is how this is going to go.”

“I’m sure one, two or maybe all of them knew that if they allowed me to exercise my First Amendment right as a reporter that I would immediately begin documenting the situation, and I think that is what they were trying to prevent,” Moya-Smith said.

Moya-Smith told the Tracker that multiple officers checked his press badge: One referred to him as “Mr. Journalist” when ordering him to roll over; another simply shrugged.

Moya-Smith was loaded into one of the cruisers and transported to the Minneapolis Police Department’s Fifth Precinct along with the demonstrators. When they arrived at the station, he said, it was chaotic and overwhelmed by the number of arrests that night.

While their arresting officer had decided to issue them citations outside the station and release them, another officer convinced him that there was still space to book them in the jail, Moya-Smith said.

When the officer came around to him to ask for his ID again, Moya-Smith said, “Yupp, and here’s my press badge.”

Moya-Smith said the officer seemed surprised and called over a commanding officer, who immediately said that he needed to be released. Officers dropped him off about half a block from where the National Guard was operating.

“And as they were letting me go [the officer] said, ‘You’re going to tell everybody that we treated you nicely, right?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’” Moya-Smith told the Tracker.

Moya-Smith said that he was in police custody for a little over an hour and that he suffered no serious effects from the pepper spray other than a few coughing attacks.

He noted that while covering the protests in Minneapolis he found that being a member of the press did not protect him from police tactics.

“They still come directly toward you. They still charge you. It’s not a situation where you can even be a fly on the wall and cover it,” Moya-Smith said. “It feels like more of a target than a badge.”

When asked for comment, a representative from the Minneapolis Police Department’s Records Information Unit told the Tracker that the MPD was not the arresting authority for Moya-Smith. The Minneapolis State Patrol did not respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred total 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 all of these cases here.

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