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September: Journalists tear-gassed, harassed and threatened with arrest while covering national protests

September 1, 2020

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 September 2020. Protests in Portland, Oregon, were particularly acute in the summer of 2020. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented incidents that occurred there in a separate roundup.

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 Tracker documents and categorizes violations of press freedom, visit pressfreedomtracker.us.

Sept. 3, 2020 - Sept. 4, 2020

In Rochester, New York

  • Will Cleveland, a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle, a Rochester-based daily, tweeted just after 11 p.m. that he was a block from the Public Safety Building and that “the air is filled with pepper ball spray residue.” Demonstrators had marched by PSB in protest a day after details were released surrounding the March death of Daniel Prude while in police custody, including police body camera footage. In a phone interview with the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, Cleveland described how a cloud of pepper spray seemingly stretched for half a block and was all but unavoidable around the PSB. Cleveland told the Tracker that he, while wearing his press badge, had removed himself from the crowd of protesters and stood “on the side by myself getting footage [with] a better vantage point.” At 11:50 p.m., he tweeted that police had fired pepper balls directly at him. He told the Tracker that he did not know whether he was targeted, but that he was standing removed from the crowd of protesters with his press badge visible. Around 12:30 a.m., Cleveland tweeted that officers had begun to advance on the demonstrators. Cleveland told the Tracker that he tried to maintain open communication with the officers so that he and other journalists from the Democrat and Chronicle — including executive editor Michael Kilian and reporters Adria Walker and Natalia Rodríguez Medina — would not be in the way of the advance. At one point an officer yelled at the group of journalists, saying that if they didn’t get out of the way, they would be arrested. Cleveland tried to “stand [his] ground” and explain that he was acting as a reporter, protected by the First Amendment. He said he was not worried about actually being arrested, and continued to report until 1:30 a.m., when the area had cleared of police and protesters.
  • Walker and Medina were also caught in chemical irritants while reporting on the protests and a vigil for Prude. Around 10:20 p.m. on Sept. 3, Walker noted on Twitter that tear gas had been fired into the crowd, which she soon followed with “My eyes are burning. People are coughing and removing masks” and “Cops are advancing using hose with pepper spray?” A little before 10:30 p.m., she wrote: “They’re firing again. Still windy. Medics are treating people. I and @nataliarodmed [Medina] are coughing. She also got some in her eyes.” Around 12:45 a.m., Walker tweeted, “Tear gassed again. I got hit badly. My eyes, my nose, my throat. Whew. This is awful.” A minute later, she noted that she’d taken “a direct hit” and was “better now.” Later that morning, she made a correction that it was not tear gas, but either pepper balls or mace that had been fired at the crowd.
  • On Sept. 4, independent photojournalist Chris Baker says he was unlawfully ordered to disperse by police while covering the third day of protests following Prude’s death. Baker was with other members of the press, situated off the Court Street Bridge. He later posted a video of police officers approaching the group, telling them to disperse. One officer asks for press credentials, but seconds later another officer can be heard saying, “It doesn’t matter, you’re all leaving.” As an independent journalist, Baker didn’t have press credentials, but he explained in a Facebook post that he understood that “officers are nervous and jumpy, but that doesn't negate the First Amendment, or give them the authority to try and intimidate members of the media.”

Sept. 7, 2020

In Salem, Oregon

  • New York Times Seattle bureau chief Mike Baker was verbally threatened with violence while covering a pro-Donald Trump rally in the Oregon capital. Trump supporters, including members of the far-right groups Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, had driven to the Capitol that afternoon after having gathered in Oregon City, a suburb of Portland, some 40 miles to the north. Some in the crowd had guns and other weapons. A smaller group of counterprotesters had gathered to oppose them. Baker had been following the rally throughout the day. He told the Tracker that at one point, as he was filming among the far-right protesters, he was confronted by men wearing black and yellow — colors often associated with and worn by members of the Proud Boys — who demanded to see credentials. As they remained unconvinced by a business card and the press markings on his body armor, Baker said he took out his phone to try to show them he really was a Times reporter. “One of them, they said something along the lines of ‘Put that away or I’ll make you wear it,’” he said. Baker said another man told him to leave and pointed across the street. Baker told the Tracker that at least one of the men confronting him was carrying a baseball bat. Later that afternoon, Baker said another person came up to him and “said something along the lines of ‘When the conflict gets to the point where gunshots are going to be fired, journalists are going to be the first ones targeted,’ or something like that.” At that same rally, independent journalist Brian Conley was shot with paint balls by one of the participants, an incident the Tracker has documented here.

Sept. 23, 2020

In Louisville, Kentucky

  • Louisville was facing renewed protests after a grand jury announcement that only one of three officers involved in the March 13 killing of Breonna Taylor would face any kind of charges. In an attempt to guard against civil unrest, access to much of downtown was blocked off with barricades and a 9 p.m. curfew was set. At one point, Louisville Metro Police Department officers manning checkpoints entering downtown stopped Ryan Van Velzer, a reporter for WFPL, the city’s NPR affiliate, as he was driving three other journalists to the station’s offices. Van Velzer told the Tracker that an officer asked where they were going and Van Velzer explained that they were press and were headed to WFPL’s offices just down the street. Van Velzer said the officers asked for his press ID, as well as those of the other reporters in the car. “He basically said to me: ‘If you come back here with more people, we’re going to impound your car.’ And we were all pretty taken aback by that,” Van Velzer told the Tracker. “The first thing I told him was that I’m a reporter, I’m here with other journalists, I’m dropping them off at the station. So it was unequivocal that I was a journalist. I believe that his concern appeared to be, if I had to speculate, was that I was bringing down protesters who were not journalists downtown.” Freelance journalist Maggie Jones, who was in the car at the time, had only a business card and a non-press photo ID on her and told the Tracker the officer “definitely” did not like that. She did not recall the officer saying the car would be impounded — she said she was busy fishing out credentials during the conversation — but said she does remember them telling the journalists that they would not be allowed to pass into downtown again. The LMPD did not respond to a request for comment.
  • USA Today national political correspondent Phillip Bailey was threatened with arrest around 11 p.m. as he took photographs of police officers arresting a protester downtown. Bailey told the Tracker he had been at a hotel that evening filming an interview about Taylor’s death for a documentary before checking in on the protests. He said that as he was leaving the area to go to the offices of the Courier Journal — which is part of the USA Today Network and had been Bailey’s paper up until July — he was confronted by officers who were “screaming” at him, asking who he was and where he was going. Bailey said he identified himself as a reporter and showed his credentials before continuing on his way. Bailey said he quickly turned back after seeing officers arresting protesters. He said that as he was taking photos of an arrest, an officer shined a light on him. Bailey said the officer then said to him: “Move along or we’re going to arrest you, too.” At 11 p.m., Bailey tweeted: “@LMPD arrested this group of protesters at 5th & Liberty, and threatened me with arrest if I continued to take pictures even after I informed them I was a member of the press. #BreonnaTaylor.” Earlier in the day, interim police chief Robert Schroeder had said that members of the press were exempt from the curfew, a fact Bailey said he brought up with the officers who ordered him to disperse. Bailey said one officer told him to “take that up with Chief Schroeder.” “It’s one of those things where whatever the mayor or the police command say at press conferences doesn’t always apply to the officers on the ground. That seems to be the dangerous part: They either seem to not know or totally disregard what the rules are,” Bailey said. He said he believes officers were using a “bullying intimidation tactic” in ordering him to disperse and threatening him with arrest. “I certainly didn’t think I was immune from arrest,” he said. Two reporters from the Daily Caller — George Ventura and Shelby Talcott — were arrested in Louisville during the unrest, as was independent reporter Ian Kennedy; all three cases have been documented by the Tracker. The LMPD did not respond to a request for comment.

Sept. 24, 2020

In Minneapolis, Minnesota

  • While Minneapolis had seen regular protests since the death of George Floyd in May, on Sept. 24, demonstrators took to the streets over the clearing of one of the city’s homeless encampments and the announcement the previous day of what they viewed as inadequate charges in the police killing of Breonna Taylor. Minneapolis Star Tribune photojournalist Aaron Lavinsky told the Tracker that early in the protest organizers approached him requesting that he verbally commit to blurring out the faces in his photos, a practice he declined to comply with. Later that evening, as the protesters marched past U.S. Bank Stadium, they chanted “no more pictures,” according to Lavinsky’s Twitter feed. The journalist also noted: “An organizer just came up to me demanding I turn my cameras off. She threatened to snatch my camera me if I didn’t comply.” Lavinsky told the Tracker that an organizer again came up to him and asked him to stop taking photos and leave, telling him that she’d take his camera and smash it if he did not. “After that, a couple antifa types came up to me and they were, like, physically threatening me and said, ‘If you come any further, we’re going to put our hands on you, we’re going to break your gear,’” he told the Tracker. “They just kind of got really aggressive with me and I realized at that point it’s not worth it and I backed off.” Lavinsky told the Tracker he appeared to be the only mainstream media outlet following the protesters at that time and felt that some in the crowd were trying to exert control over how they were portrayed. “I was not there to necessarily advocate on their behalf. I was there to document and they knew that. So I don’t know exactly why they targeted me, but I get the impression that I’m not one of them and they know it,” he said. Lavinsky said he has been harassed at protests before but the situation he found himself in on Sept. 24 felt dangerous. “This time felt a little different,” he said. “Probably because I was alone at that point, it wasn’t a good situation. They really could have done some damage and there wasn’t much I could have done about it.”

Information in this roundup was gathered from published social media and news reports as well as interviews where noted. To read similar incidents from other days of national protests also in this category, go here.

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

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