November: Journalists harassed, threatened while covering election and social justice protests
George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, ignited a sweeping assembly of protesters across the United States — and the globe — a staggering, monthslong outcry for police reform and racial justice. In many moments peaceful, in many others bracingly violent, journalists of all stripes took to documenting these demonstrations. At times, to do the job meant to expose oneself to the effects of riot-control agents, to face harassment from individuals or law enforcement officials, to fear for your safety or have your reporting interrupted. Below is a geographically organized roundup of such examples from around the U.S. during November 2020, a notably fraught month backdropped by an election, rising COVID-19 cases, and an increasingly encumbered economy and workforce.
A full accounting of incidents in which members of the press were assaulted, arrested or had their equipment damaged while covering these protests can be found here. To learn more about how the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents and categorizes violations of press freedom, visit pressfreedomtracker.us.
Nov. 2, 2020
In Portland, Oregon
- On the eve of the 2020 election, protesters marched on Portland State University, with some smashing windows and throwing rocks according to press accounts. Oregon State Police and Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office deputies formed a “unified command” to address the potential unrest and, at 9:15 p.m., declared an unlawful assembly, according to KGW8, a local NBC affiliate station. Independent journalist Brian Conley told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he’d arrived at the South Park Blocks area, a 12-block-long green space that runs through the university, after the unlawful assembly had been declared. He said he was trying to catch up to the main group of protesters when he ran into a line of law enforcement officers in riot gear. He said he was about 20 feet from the line of officers, taking pictures and “trying to figure out what was going on,” when an officer approached him and told him to leave the area. Conley said he did not comply, telling the officer he was a member of the press. “He kind of went back to his line,” Conley told the Tracker. “I took maybe another step forward and maybe a little to the right to see around the block, what was going on over there. He turned around again and said, ‘If you come any closer you’re going to be arrested.’ I was a little bit shaken, not really sure what to do, so I sort of stepped back a little bit at that point.” Conley said he was wearing body armor that marked him as press and had verbally told the officer he was a member of the media. He estimates that somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the people in the park were either press or street medics at the time the officer made the threat of arrest. Conley believes the officer was from the Oregon State Police. Contacted by the Tracker, the OSP declined to comment.
Nov. 4, 2020
In Portland, Oregon
- Cory Elia, an editor at Village Portland and host of a KBOO podcast, was threatened with arrest by police while covering a reactionary protest to the elections, he told the Tracker. A video Elia posted to Twitter shows dozens of police officers and state troopers following behind protesters. In the video, police threaten to arrest Elia and other reporters because he “stepped back to film from behind the police line instead of getting stuck in front of it,” Elia wrote in his tweet. He added that police were “still pushing the crowd around” at the time. After being told he was at risk of being arrested, he shouted back at police: “You’re not allowed to tell the press where to go. Court order,” referring to an injunction that exempts journalists from dispersal orders announced by police officers.
- A man harassed and told Fox 12 Oregon journalist Brenna Kelly to cease filming as she covered escalating unrest downtown. At around 5:35 p.m., Kelly tweeted, “Protesters just tried to break windows of Starbucks then began vandalizing ATM. We’re here to document this event but it’s clear they don’t want to be filmed.” In an accompanying video, a man can be heard shouting, “No, get your fucking camera…” before another, a security guard working with Kelly’s news station, tells him to get back. The same man can then be heard shouting, “Get your camera off of these protesters.”
Supporters of President Donald Trump gather in front of the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in Phoenix, Arizona, to protest about the early results of the 2020 presidential election on Nov. 4, 2020. (REUTERS/Edgard Garrido)
In Phoenix, Arizona
- Kim Powell, a reporter with Phoenix’s 3TV and CBS 5, was covering the scene at the Maricopa County Elections Department. In a tweet posted around 8 p.m., she noted that Trump supporters had gathered outside, “demanding to be let inside as ballots are being counted.” At 9:55 she tweeted that she and her photographer had left the scene “after one protester threatened us and said he would find where we live.” Powell added that she would be filing a police report. Briana Whitney, a fellow reporter with 3TV and CBS 5, tweeted that the group outside the election center had been yelling “‘you are fake news’ and profanities to press behind the caution tape who [have] been inside reporting on the Arizona election results.”
In Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Freelance photographer Ben Hovland, who has reported on 2020 protests for Minnesota Public Radio and Agence France-Presse, captured video of a mounted police officer charging at him as he covered a post-election demonstration in Minneapolis. Just after 7 p.m., hundreds of protesters — marching from two separate locations in the city — converged on the eastbound traffic lanes of Interstate 94, closing off the roadway to motor vehicle traffic, Minneapolis-based CBS affiliate WCCO reported. Hovland told the Tracker that he was embedded with the group as it moved along the interstate and eventually faced Minnesota State Patrol troopers lined up just west of the Riverside Avenue exit. Other officers from the Minneapolis Police Department lined up along the sides of the roadway, and Hovland’s photos also show how police vehicles boxed the group in from the rear. “They weren’t letting anyone off,” Hovland said. The photographer said he scaled a chain-link fence along the south side of the freeway to access a bridge overlooking the scene in order to get aerial shots of the situation. “I was basically just trying to film down into the highway as long as I could,” Hovland said. At about 8, while Hovland was on the street abutting I-94 to the south, Minneapolis police officers — including several mounted police — ordered Hovland and other journalists to back up to one side of the street. Hovland said that he was standing next to a camera operator who turned on a bright light to film. The flash seemed to agitate the officers, Hovland said. “Get back. Get to the other side,” one officer can be heard ordering Hovland in his captured video. Hovland can be heard saying “I’m moving” several times as he moves back, but while he speaks, an officer mounted on a white horse approaches and continues walking directly at him for several seconds, turning away just as he reaches the photographer. Hovland was filming at the time and said he was displaying press credentials issued by the National Press Photographers Association. “I was disappointed with the amount of force and intimidation that they used to break the press up,” Hovland said. He said he did not file a complaint with police. State troopers and Minneapolis police cited 646 people at the Nov. 4 demonstration on I-94 for public nuisance and for being pedestrians on a freeway, according to a news release from the state police. The Tracker has documented the detainment that evening of several journalists here. The Minneapolis Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Nov. 6, 2020
In Los Angeles, California
- Vishal Singh, a videographer who works on Netflix documentaries and has been covering local demonstrations, noted on Twitter around 2 p.m.: “Tons of officers stationed near city hall. One asked ‘what network you work for, bro?’ to me, in a mocking fashion. Trump supporters plan to throw a ‘Stop the Count’ action here. Counter protesters are also planning on standing ground at city hall.” A little after 3 p.m., he shared a video of a group of LAPD officers passing in front of him. One officer can be heard telling another, who was carrying a camera, “I want you to zoom in and get as many faces of people who say they are press.” Singh can be heard responding that he did have press credentials. Singh tweeted that he repeatedly offered to provide his USPRESSCORPS.ORG verification number, which acts as his press credentials, but that officers responded that they did not want it. In the same tweet, Singh also alleged that officers threatened to arrest him.
LAPD told video officer to zoom in on faces with cameras, including me, who they called “alleged press.” I offered to give them my @USPRESSCORPSORG verification number multiple times. They said they didn’t want it and threatened to arrest me. #eleccion2020 #FreedomOfThePress pic.twitter.com/jF3FbF2Fmz— Vishal P Singh (@VPS_Reports) November 6, 2020
In Phoenix, Arizona
- Telemundo journalists Diego Santiago and Maria Paula Ochoa were harassed during their live broadcasts outside the Maricopa County Elections Department. Santiago, an investigative reporter for the Spanish-language network, shared a snippet of footage on Twitter around 10:15 p.m., writing: “Sympathizer of @realDonaldTrump aggressively disrupts our live broadcast from downtown #Phoenix. The protests were peaceful until now.” In the video, a man holding a Trump flag can be heard repeatedly shouting, “Biden is a rapist. He raped his daughter,” as Santiago and his cameraman attempt to go live from the scene. Another man, presumably a security guard for the network, can then be seen stepping between the man holding the flag and the journalists. The man’s shouting escalated. In a separate incident, Ochoa, a correspondent, was interrupted by two screaming men while broadcasting live from outside the election center. A video posted on Twitter by reporter Zach Crenshaw, of Phoenix’s ABC affiliate, shows the same man who’d shouted about Joe Biden to Santiago getting very close to Ochoa’s face while not wearing a mask. The video also shows a security agent preventing another protester from getting close to Ochoa. When this protester is blocked, he starts to repeatedly shout, “Assault.” The National Association of Hispanic Journalists released a statement about the incidents. “The harassment and disrespect inflicted on Maria Paula Ochoa, Diego Santiago, and their news team is deplorable,” Nora López, president of the organization, said. “It is important for journalists at large to have their First Amendment right protected.”
Nov. 7, 2020
In Salem, Oregon
In the shadow of the presidential election being called for Joe Biden that morning, about 200 people gathered at the Oregon Capitol in the afternoon for a “Stop the Steal” rally. Several journalists documented harassing, threatening interactions with pro-Trump supporters, which included members of the Proud Boys, among others, whose disdain and mistrust of the press was evident throughout the day.
- Robert Evans, a reporter for investigative news site Bellingcat and host of a podcast for iHeartMedia, tweeted a video around 12:50 p.m. in which a man can be heard shouting at Evans and other assembled members of the press. The man was part of a group of people who were antagonistic to both the institution and idea of media throughout the protest, as well as individual journalists. At one point he can be heard saying: “Your fucking days are numbered.”
- Garrison Davis, an independent Portland-based reporter, tweeted similar footage of Trump supporters that afternoon. In one video, a man walks across the street saying, “Fake press,” and then approaches Davis unmasked and asks to see his credentials. Several others nearby can also be heard repeatedly saying, “Fake press,” and “Fuck the media.”
- Beth Nakamura, a photojournalist with the Oregonian, tweeted a video in which a man with a megaphone says, “The press is the problem. You are the problem. You are the one who caused the division.” As she continued to film, walking backward, the group, many unmasked, follows her, getting ever closer and asking to see her press credentials.
- Alissa Azar, an independent Portland-based journalist, was standing on a sidewalk when a protester approached her and talked about a “fake ass press badge.” She was verbally harassed and threatened by several male protesters, and filmed much of their verbal abuse.
In Austin, Texas
- Molly Hennessy-Fiske, the Houston bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, tweeted the morning of Nov. 8 that she had been “harassed yesterday for being a reporter.” Hennessy-Fiske had spent the previous afternoon in downtown Austin reporting on what she called “dueling” protests between Trump and Biden supporters. In a video Hennessy-Fiske shared of the incident, a pro-Trump supporter can be heard saying: “You’re destroying the United States,” before stating a number of conspiracy theories about president-elect Biden. “I’ve covered @realDonaldTrump rallies and this has never happened to me before,” Hennessy-Fiske wrote.
Demonstrators in support of Trump pass in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 14, 2020. (REUTERS/Leah Millis)
Nov. 14, 2020
In Washington, D.C.
Thousands gathered in the nation’s capital for an event dubbed the “Million MAGA March,” a rally and protest in support of Trump, who’d been disputing the election results and lobbing unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. Far-right groups such as the Proud Boys, the militia group the Oath Keepers, and radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones all attended the rally, according to reports. Violence would break out that evening, with some 20 people arrested on charges that included assault and weapons possession.
- Errol Barnett, CBS News anchor and national correspondent, was threatened and harassed by protesters. In a Twitter thread, Barnett explained how many at the march were distrustful of the press. In separate videos, the crowd can be heard chanting, “Fake news,” and “You are the enemy,” at Barnett. The crowd eventually cornered Barnett and his crew, and were so antagonistic that the team had to be escorted out of the area by police. “I’ve never experienced this level of direct and instant vitriol from people before. Distrust of the press turned into anger toward us. They continued to hurl insults as we waited for them to move on,” Barnett wrote.
- Zach Roberts, a freelance photojournalist tweeted on Saturday night: “I was threatened by them [Proud Boys] twice but that’s standard for my line of work—this is what scares me—and should scare you. We need real change in this country.” When contacted by the Tracker via Twitter DM, Roberts said the Proud Boys threatened him, told him to stop filming and wanted him to leave the area. He also said that he received three threats from “random people” while covering the march.
I’ve never experienced this level of direct and instant vitriol from people before.— errol barnett (@errolbarnett) November 14, 2020
Distrust of the press turned into anger toward us.
They continued to hurl insults as we waited for them to move on.
They did not, so the police extracted us.@CBSNews #MillionMAGAMarch pic.twitter.com/FPi0vJ3JPC
Lot more to edit from today but I wanted to get this photo out from my coverage of the Proud Boys.— Zach D Roberts (@zdroberts) November 15, 2020
I was threatened by them twice but that's standard for my line of work - this is what scares me - and should scare you. We need real change in this country. pic.twitter.com/pUhPdnu1u5
- Howard Altman, managing editor of the Military Times, tweeted around 6:40 p.m. that he’d been “hit w pepper spray by MPD [Metropolitan Police Department]. My eyes are killing me.” In an accompanying video, recorded outside the Capital Hilton hotel, Altman reported, “Protesters were there, some Trump folks were inside. Police came out and all of a sudden they just hit [everyone] with pepper spray and I have not been able to see for the last half-hour or so.” Altman said that members of the public gave him saline solution for his eyes and helped him walk around. Altman said he didn’t know if he was targeted for being a journalist, or if he was just caught in the indiscriminate use of pepper spray by police.
Nov. 28, 2020
In Portland, Oregon
- Justin Yau, a Portland-based freelance journalist, was caught up in the spraying of bear mace while covering a protest in downtown Portland late in the evening. A Twitter account belonging to a self-described photographer, @Chriswithacame1, tweeted, “@PDocumentarians flees a cloud of bear mace after a fight breaks out between #PatriotPrayer and #antifa in downtown #Portland tonight.” A photo accompanying the tweet shows a person dressed in black spraying a can of orange mace, as people crouch to escape the spray. Yau is seen with his camera equipment walking away from the man. Yau told the Tracker that he was “briefly irritated” by a light mist of the mace, and that he wasn’t directly targeted. Yau told the Tracker that the protest that day saw Black Lives Matter supporters being confronted by right-wing counter protesters.
Information in this roundup was gathered from published social media and news reports as well as interviews where noted. To read about additional incidents of aggression against the press during the election, go here.