U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Police tear gas, fire projectiles at journalist on assignment for New York Times

Incident Details

Date of Incident
May 30, 2020
Case number
0:20-cv-01302
Case Status
Ongoing, Settled
Type of case
Class Action

Assault

Was the journalist targeted?
Yes
Courtesy Katie G. Nelson

Nelson told the Tracker this Minneapolis police officer pointed a projectile launcher directly at her and her reporting partner, Mike Shum, on May 30, 2020.

— Courtesy Katie G. Nelson
February 8, 2022 - Update

Journalists reach settlement agreement with Minnesota State Patrol, rest of suit ongoing

Journalists represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota reached a settlement with the Minnesota State Patrol on Feb. 8, 2022. In addition to an award of $825,000, the agreement includes a permanent injunction barring MSP troopers from arresting or assaulting journalists.

The ACLU filed the class-action lawsuit in June 2020 on behalf of freelance journalist Jared Goyette. The Communications Workers of America — the largest journalist union in the country — and eight other journalists, including freelance journalist Katie Nelson, were added as plaintiffs over the next year and a half.

According to the ACLU, the settlement agreement includes a 6-year injunction prohibiting:

  • Arresting, threatening to arrest, and/or using physical force or chemical agents against journalists;
  • Ordering journalists to stop photographing, recording or observing a protest;
  • Making journalists disperse; and
  • Seizing or intentionally damaging equipment such as photo, audio or video gear.

The settlement also includes amending MSP policy so that allegations of aggressions against the press are considered “serious misconduct,” triggering an Internal Affairs investigation, and that independent experts review all complaints alleging mistreatment of journalists during Black Lives Matter protests from 2020 to 2021.

“The Court’s ground-breaking injunction will hold state law enforcement accountable and require them to respect the First Amendment, rather than use violence and threats that deter the media from covering protests and police conduct,” ACLU-MN Legal Director Teresa Nelson said in a statement released by the organization. “We need a free press to help us hold the police and government accountable. Without a free press, we don’t have a free society, and we can’t have justice.”

The settlement resolved the complaints against MSP; the allegations against the City of Minneapolis, former Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, former Minneapolis Police union head Robert Kroll and the Hennepin County Sheriff are still ongoing.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documented 97 assaults and 41 arrests of journalists in Minnesota while covering protests sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and Daunte Wright. At least 12 journalists also had their equipment damaged. Find all of these cases here.

May 30, 2020

Police officers shoved, threatened and shot projectiles at two freelance journalists while they reported for the New York Times on protests in Minneapolis on May 30, 2020, according to interviews with the journalists and videos of the incidents.

The protests were held in response to a video showing a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest in Minneapolis on May 25. Floyd was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Protests against police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have been held across the U.S. since the end of May.

Journalists Katie G. Nelson and Mike Shum told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that they were reporting in the Fifth Precinct of Minneapolis for the Times as an 8 p.m. curfew came into effect.

As seen in a video from local ABC affiliate KSTP, a line of state police formed to the south of the station on Nicollet Avenue. “Please disperse or you will be arrested,” a loudspeaker blares. Within seconds of the warning, the police appear to use flash bang grenades and tear gas. They then begin to advance.

The video shows a line of State Patrol troopers, in maroon pants and helmets, and what appear to be Department of Natural Resources conservation officers in green pants and helmets approaching a group of journalists huddled on the side of the street. As previously reported by the Tracker, State Patrol troopers pepper sprayed the group at close range as the journalists identified themselves as press.

Nelson and Shum had gas masks, but a third person working with them didn’t, Nelson said, so she escorted this person to safety as Shum stayed to film.

Shum reunited with Nelson and they continued to report on the dispersal of protesters near the Fifth Precinct police station. About an hour later, the team was filming a couple of people approaching a police line with their hands up near a Kmart a few blocks from where Shum was shoved, Nelson said. A Minneapolis Police officer about fifty feet away pointed a projectile launcher at them, Nelson said.

Nelson said she yelled that they were press, adding there was no question they looked like journalists given their large cameras, ballistic helmets and protective vests.

In a video filmed shortly after that Nelson provided to the Tracker, Minneapolis police officers in a line start ordering people to move. Nelson can be heard warning Shum, “Mike, Mike, Mike, they’re gonna push us. Keep shooting Mike.”

Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder told the Tracker he couldn’t comment on the incident. He added that “every use of force by the MPD is under investigation internally.”

Late into the night, Nelson and Shum were driving a couple of blocks off Lake Street on their way to 38th and Chicago, where protesters had created a memorial on the site of Floyd’s killing.

Nelson turned the car onto a road blocked by a police checkpoint, the journalists told the Tracker. Nelson said the police shined a bright light at them. Blinded, she slowed the car down. Nelson said she yelled that they were press through the open windows of the car.

Nelson said the police yelled “Go home” and “We don’t care” in response.

Nelson pulled a U-turn and drove away as the journalists heard the pinging of projectiles hitting her car. They said they believe the car was hit with pepper balls.

“I start coughing and it’s really hard to see. My eyes are watering. It felt very close to tear gas,” Nelson said. “I was just like, we gotta get out of here.”

At around the same time, unidentified law-enforcement officers fired projectiles at the car of a television crew for France’s TF1 and arrested them, the Tracker previously reported.

It isn’t clear which law enforcement agency fired the projectiles at Nelson’s car. Protesters, journalists and even law-enforcement officials have had difficulty at times identifying specific officers during the protests. More than a dozen different agencies joined the law-enforcement effort in Minnesota, often wearing similar looking uniforms.

Nelson’s car wasn’t damaged and the journalists were uninjured. However, Nelson told the Tracker on Aug. 13 that a doctor diagnosed recurring eye inflammation as a result of tear gas exposure.

DNR spokesman Chris Niskanen said the department respects the freedom of the press but “disagrees with [the Tracker’s] characterization of events.” He didn’t specify why. Niskanen added he couldn’t comment further on the incident because it “may be subject to ongoing litigation initiated against the State of Minnesota by multiple media members.”

Nelson and Shum have joined a lawsuit seeking class-action status filed by the ACLU of Minnesota against Minneapolis and state officials concerning the treatment of journalists covering the Floyd protests.

The Department of Public Safety, which oversees the State Patrol, didn’t respond to the Tracker’s emailed list of questions. In a May 31 press conference, the Chief of the State Patrol, Col. Matt Langer, praised the law-enforcement effort during a dangerous and unpredictable night while also saying: “We are never perfect.”

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.

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