May 30: While reporting from protests across the nation, journalists tear gassed, threatened

May 30, 2020

George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, ignited a sweeping assembly of protesters across the United States — and the globe — in 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. on May 30, 2020, the date with the highest single-day number of aggressions against journalists reported to the Tracker since the start of the recent Black Lives Matter protests.

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.

MAY 30, 2020

Journalists caught in tear gas and other chemical irritants

In Seattle, Washington

  • Nathalie Graham, a staff writer at the Stranger, a biweekly alternative newspaper in Seattle, had been covering protests in the city late in the afternoon. A little after 4 p.m., she noted on Twitter: “Plumes of tear gas on Pine near Westlake #SeattleProtest.” The ACLU announced on June 9 that it had filed an emergency lawsuit against the city on behalf of Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County and several individuals, arguing that “the use of chemical agents and projectiles for crowd control violate the First and Fourth Amendments.” Graham was among the plaintiffs. In her declaration, she relayed the following: “The scene when I arrived [at Westlake Park in downtown Seattle] was clouded by gas, with protesters scattering and sprinting away. The atmosphere was tense and frightening. I immediately felt the effects of the gas and began coughing. My eyes stung and watered. Although there did not appear to be any risk of violence from the crowd, law enforcement continued to fire flash bangs and tear gas, increasing the chaos. I took video footage of these protests and the violence that ensued. I was determined to continue reporting, so I began roving around the Westlake area, observing the scene. As I approached the corner of 6th and Stewart, I saw a group of protesters peacefully kneeling in the intersection as a speaker addressed them. I stood on the sidewalk nearby and listened to the speaker for a while, but then I heard an explosion from down the street. I turned and moved partway down the block to see what was happening, and then watched as a police line advanced down the street towards me, with other demonstrators fleeing in front of them. They deployed tear gas, which filled the street like plumes of smoke. It was not clear to me that the people fleeing the approaching police line and tear gas had done anything to provoke such an aggressive response. The protesters kneeling in the intersection, who were also impacted by the tear gas, had been completely peaceful. I did not see what happened next, but given the amount of gas in the air, I imagine that the kneeling protesters would have been forced to scatter. I wanted to continue to document the situation, but the gas reached me seconds later, and I had to leave. Its effects were so powerful, so painful, and so alarming that I was physically unable to remain in the intersection. As a result, I was unable to continue reporting on that incident. Shortly afterward, on E. Pine St, I saw a truck playing music, as protesters danced around it. It was an uplifting, joyful scene that contrasted with the warlike chaos of the panicked demonstrators and tear gas in other areas of the neighborhood. I paused to observe and record a video, when law enforcement threw a flash bang grenade into the crowd without warning. They deployed tear gas seconds later. The dancing protesters at first scattered, but then coalesced back into a group. Law enforcement pushed them back and continued to deploy tear gas and flash bangs. I was shocked and frightened by the consistently unprovoked, aggressive use of force by law enforcement officers on multiple different groups of peaceful protesters. I saw no evidence that any of these severe crowd-dispersal tactics were warranted, and there was never any warning before they were deployed. At this point, I decided to leave the area, because I feared for my safety. There was tear gas everywhere, flash bang grenades exploding in the street, and I was anxious that the police would further escalate their tactics. I decided that reporting on the situation was no longer worth the pain of enduring tear gas and the risk of suffering violence at the hands of law enforcement.”

In Reno, Nevada

  • This Is Reno, an online news site, reported in a multi-bylined piece that, while covering protests in downtown Reno, “multiple members of the news media, including News 4, KTVN, This Is Reno, KUNR Reno Public Radio and The Nevada Sagebrush were tear gassed.” Lucia Starbuck, a reporter for KUNR and one of the journalists bylined on the This Is Reno piece, noted the presence of tear gas in a tweet sent around 7:20 that evening.

Don Dike-Anukam, a political reporter for This Is Reno, was also assaulted by individuals while reporting that day, a case the Tracker has documented here.

In Las Vegas, Nevada

  • Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Rio Lacanlale and photographer Kevin Cannon had been covering demonstrations downtown, and as the evening wore on, documenting protesters as they moved within blocks of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department headquarters. Cannon told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he’d set up on a balcony adjacent to Fremont Street East and across the street from the Downtown Container Park to livestream. The location, he said, had placed him away from the crowd for much of the evening. At around 9:35 p.m., Lacanlale, who wouldn’t pair up with Cannon for another couple of hours, tweeted that the crowd had reached between 800 and 1,000 people at its peak. Just after 10, she reported that SWAT had arrived, and that she was “hearing what sounds like flash bangs from a distance” and “seeing a lot of protestors helping one another, spraying water into each other’s eyes, after tear gas was deployed near 6th St.”

Cannon, who’d continued to livestream from his balcony perch during this time, told the Tracker: “I wasn't targeted with tear gas. Law enforcement didn’t know I was up there. I didn’t even look like a journalist because all I had was my phone.” At around 11:15, Lacanlale, who’d joined up with Cannon at this point, tweeted, “While standing on the sidewalk, Metro officers began shooting pepper bullets at us.” (She later noted that she’d not been hit.) “Nearly all the protesters had left,” Cannon told the Tracker. “There was no tear gas. We were nearly a block away. I don’t think they knew we were journalists. Rio has no gear. I only had my phone. I did have my credentials on my belt, but there was no way they could see that far in the dark.” The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, Lacanlale and the Las Vegas Review-Journal did not respond to the Tracker’s requests for comment.

In Minneapolis, Minnesota

  • Minneapolis police officers deployed flash-bangs in the direction of NBC News correspondent Morgan Chesky and his crew, who were reporting live on MSNBC at 8:45 p.m., according to an MSNBC video of the incident. According to a video posted to Chesky’s Facebook page, city and state police pushed protesters away from the Fifth Precinct police headquarters to enforce an 8 p.m curfew. In the MSNBC video, Chesky reports in a gas mask a block away from Nicollet Avenue as state police continue to advance through clouds of smoke and tear gas. Minneapolis police appear from the other side of the block and yell, “Move!” Chesky and crew begin to retreat north through a bank parking lot. “We’re moving back,” Chesky says in the video. “We’re gonna give them all the space they need right now.” The video shows Chesky with what appears to be a group of other journalists and scattered protesters moving northwest through the parking lot as Minneapolis police trail behind. Someone yells, “Don’t shoot!” shortly before an officer fires a projectile launcher at an unseen target. Several loud bangs can be heard, including from a flash-bang that appears to go off just feet away from Chesky. “Let’s go. Let’s go,” Chesky says in the video as the group reaches a barrier at the far end of the parking lot. Someone repeatedly says, “Press, press,” to the police, who are now standing a few feet away. The journalists climb over the barrier and continue to report while retreating from the advancing police. “They are not hesitating to use tear gas, flash-bangs, whatever they need to do, to keep these crowds moving,” Chesky reports in the video. Minneapolis Police Department spokesperson John Elder declined to comment, citing unspecified pending litigation. The incident involving Chesky and his crew is mentioned in a lawsuit seeking class-action status filed by the ACLU of Minnesota on June 2 against Minneapolis and state officials concerning the treatment of journalists covering the Floyd protests. Chesky is not a listed plaintiff in the case. “Our crew was shaken, but safe,” Chesky posted on Facebook after the incident. “And now, it’s back to work.”
  • Hossein Fatemi, a freelance photojournalist, shared a video on Twitter around 9:30 p.m. in which munitions fire can be heard and a smoky haze can be seen in the background.

In an interview with BBC Persian the following day, Fatemi shared another video, of individuals helping to rinse out his eyes following the release of a chemical irritant.

  • Raphaël Grand, a journalist with Radio Télévision Suisse, had spent the afternoon documenting the scene in Minneapolis, at one point tweeting: “# Minneapolis One city, two atmospheres. Riots VS Contemplation.” At around 9 p.m. he tweeted in French “Tear gas for @RadioCanadaInfo.”
  • Anthony Soufflé, a staff photographer for the Star Tribune, tweeted images the following morning showing the journalist looking to catch his breath and having water poured in his eyes. “One of these groups came to my and several other journalists aid when we were tear gassed yesterday,” he wrote. In early June, Soufflé was among several journalists cited in a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU against city and state officials, alleging violations of the journalists’ First and Fourth Amendment rights.

In Columbus, Ohio

  • Amy Harris had started her workday in Columbus around 10 a.m. at a demonstration at the Capitol. She told the Tracker that the protest had been going on for about an hour and a half when police, who’d had a large presence at the scene, became agitated and made a wall of bicycles in front of thousands of peaceful protesters. Harris said she didn’t see this incident transpire explicitly, but it seemed apparent that a demonstrator had thrown an object at the officers, who then pepper-sprayed the crowd. Later, she said, more officers arrived and tear-gassed the crowd. Harris said she was assisted by protesters when the tear gas blocked her airways. They poured milk and saline solution on her face, until she was able to breathe again. She said that people from the back of the crowd began to throw bottles at the police, who then fired on the crowd with tear gas canons. Harris said she began to have serious trouble breathing and started to throw up. Some demonstrators helped to get her out of the area. “The protesters immediately came and sprayed my eye and offered milk and saline,” she said. “I took the spray of water and baking soda and started to be able to breathe. I recovered and went back to the area to shoot the arrests that were taking place.”

Harris was struck by a projectile fired by police the following day while covering protests in Louisville, Kentucky, a case the Tracker has documented here.

  • Kyle Robertson, a staff photographer for the Columbus Dispatch, told the Tracker that he was pepper-sprayed by law enforcement while covering a protest adjacent to the Capitol. Robertson said that as the size of the protest grew, groups of police officers on bicycles had moved to create a barricade and contain protesters to the sidewalk area and keep them off the street. Robertson said that a protester either tripped or was pushed into the street and that police officers immediately jumped on this person. Robertson said that local government officials who had been standing between the police and the protesters tried to intervene to deescalate the situation. He said he moved to photograph the altercation among the protesters, the officers and the government officials when the police began to use pepper spray on the crowd. Robertson said he took pepper spray on one side of his face and arm and on his camera gear. Unable to see in the moments after the attack, he said an individual grabbed him and pulled him aside and led him back to a local business along South High Street, where the man soaked his bandana in saline and helped him to clean himself and his camera. Robertson said the individual told him, “They were aiming for you,” but as he was focusing on photographing when the attack occurred, he said he hadn't seen what had happened and that he couldn't say if he’d been targeted. Noting his height — Robertson is 6-foot-4 — he said it was possible he stood out in the crowd and was clearly visible to the officers shooting the pepper spray. After a short break, Robertson said he soon went back to work. “I kept shooting with one eye and didn’t stop for several hours,” he said.
  • Another Dispatch journalist, Lucas Sullivan, tweeted around 11:15 that morning, noting that both he and Robertson had been pepper-sprayed. Sullivan could not be reached for additional comment.

In Raleigh, North Carolina

  • Charlie McGee, currently a reporter with Bloomberg News but a freelancer on May 30, said he’d spent several hours covering protests downtown that afternoon and evening. He said that at around 8:45 p.m., police officers started to fire tear gas toward protesters who’d congregated near the Wake County Courthouse. Protesters, he said, then began to shoot off fireworks and shatter windows. McGee said that at around 9:30 he went to inspect and film some damage near the intersection of South Salisbury and West Davie streets, in front of the courthouse. Ten minutes earlier, protesters had smashed windows and thrown trash cans, but there were now only a few scattered people on the sidewalks and in the street, including a medic and another photographer, and no one within 10 feet of him, he said. “Out of nowhere, from the other side of the intersection, a tear gas canister flew in and landed by the right side of my feet,” McGee told the Tracker. “Then another lands and spikes to the ground by the left side of my feet and bounced a few feet behind me.” McGee said he moved fast enough to evade most of the gas, but he felt some irritation on his face. He didn’t capture the incident on video but afterward posted a message to Twitter about his experience. McGee said he believes he was clearly identifiable as a member of the press because he was wearing a laminated press badge around his neck and had been filming in the vicinity of police officers all evening. “It was either a misfire and mistaken strategy, or maybe someone decided intentionally to do that with a couple journalists in the street. But all of that is speculation,” McGee told the Tracker. A spokesperson for the Raleigh Police Department said the department and an independent contractor for the city were reviewing the response to the incident. She declined to comment further.

Journalists threatened, other harassment while reporting

In Seattle, Washington

  • Brandi Kruse, who hosts a weekly politics show called the Divide on Q13Fox, was live-tweeting protests in the city throughout the afternoon. At around 4:15, she tweeted: “Rioter took A-15 out of @SeattlePD SUV and started firing it into vehicles. No one hurt that we know of.” Around 5:30, she reported: “As I explained on air, our security guard felt that the public was in danger. He took the AR 15 from the rioter and disabled it. We called 911 and waited to hand it over and continue our reporting. Protesters surrounded us, calling us police. I repeated over and over I was press. One protester told me to leave the area because I would not be safe there. That’s behind us, reporting continues on Q13FOX.” Fox News reported on the security guard’s actions and threats faced by the journalists.

On June 18, the Seattle Police Department issued subpoenas to five area news outlets, requesting all video footage and photographs taken on May 30 from 3:30 to 5 p.m. within a four-block radius. The Tracker has documented that case, and its evolution, here.

In Fort Wayne, Indiana

  • A WPTA ABC 21 television news crew was threatened with arrest by an Indiana State Police trooper while covering protests in the city. WPTA news director Jonathan Shelley told the Tracker that he and other staff members had been caught in tear gas as they reported on the protests that day, but to his knowledge, it was never directed at the journalists. He said that shortly before 10 p.m., the police went through the streets with loudspeakers, announcing that an “unlawful assembly” had been declared and directing people to get off the streets. The news crew continued to stay on the scene, documenting arrests that were happening in the area. As they filmed a group of Fort Wayne Police Department officers handcuffing an individual, an Indiana State Police trooper not involved with the arrest noticed the journalists and “made a beeline toward us” from across the street, Shelley said. Video that Shelley took of the interaction shows the officer walking briskly toward the journalists. From a distance, he appeared to shout “walk” and “you’re next” at Shelley and his colleagues. The officer walked up close behind the news crew as they moved away from the area. “If I catch you, you’re going to jail,” the officer can be heard saying on the video. “I’m going to jail?” Shelley responded, then saying, “I’m press,” and “I’m moving out of the way.” “Then walk,” the officer can be heard saying. Shelley said the members of his group were clearly marked as journalists, wearing bright red jackets with the ABC 21 WPTA logo and press badges with their names and station affiliate visible. Sergeant Brian Walker of the Indiana State Police said in an emailed statement that Shelley alerted him to the situation and he shared the information with his superiors. He said he and Shelley discussed the situation and “the matter has been satisfactorily addressed” for both the news organization and the police. Shelley said in a follow-up email that his meeting with the Indiana State Police representative was productive and the matter was being addressed with the trooper. He said he was told that the Indiana State Police plans to use the video for training purposes in the future “in hopes of reducing the likelihood of future occurrences,” Shelley said. According to Shelley, there have also been broader discussions between local media and police, including the Fort Wayne Police Department, which took the lead on enforcement during the protest, and involving Indiana State Police. They discussed how the decision to declare “unlawful assembly” is reached and the rights journalists have to operate once such a declaration has been made, he said. In a separate incident later that day, Indiana State Police helped a WPTA journalist who’d sustained minor injuries when she fell while covering the protest. “Our experience as a team involved…examples of assistance to the press by law enforcement officers, as well as hindrance to the press in some cases. And so we kind of saw a little bit of both,” Shelley said.

In Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota

  • Chao Xiong, a Star Tribune reporter who’d been covering protests near the Minneapolis Police Department’s Fifth Precinct that evening, tweeted a little after midnight: “I’m with @ByLizSawyer and 2 Kurdish journalists and 1 Japanese journalist near 5th precinct. Cops told us to go home. When we said we were press one said ‘Your cards are bullshit’ #GeorgeFloyd.”
  • Mara Klecker, a fellow Star Tribune reporter, shared a similar experience on Twitter about 20 minutes later: “St. Paul Police also told media to go home tonight. I showed my press badge and was told ‘doesn’t matter.’” She added in a thread a few minutes later: “Let me add that all my interactions with St. Paul police tonight were civil. Clear directions, polite tone. I also wasn’t in any tense situations once the protesters were diverted from crossing the Lake St. bridge.” Later that morning, around 9:30, Klecker shared a direct message sent by the St. Paul Police Department: “Hi Mara. We saw your tweet about the police officer you say told you to go home. That doesn’t sound like something we see from a SPPD officer because we work hard to protect freedom of the press. But in the throes of such a dynamic situation, it’s possible one of our officers had a momentary lapse. It also may be possible that the officer was from another agency. There were a lot of agencies involved last night. Either way, we’d love to learn more so we can see if there’s a gap in our training or at the very least talk to the officer so we can remind him about our values and protocols. Would you mind giving one of our PIOs a call this week?” Klecker’s reaction to the message, which she shared on Twitter, was, “Very nice to wake up to this message this morning. Saint Paul police PIOs (public information officers) also helped media get permission to get through road blocks to get where we needed to be last night.”

In Nashville, Tennessee

  • Reporter AJ Abell, of Fox 17 News in Nashville was doing a live shot amid unrest at the Metropolitan Courthouse when a group of protesters interrupted his broadcast, forcing his team to go off-air. Law enforcement had been trying to disperse protesters from the area after some had lit fires at the courthouse—which is also home to City Hall—and vandalized the grounds. At about 9:05 p.m., just before Abell went on air, officers could be heard over loudspeakers ordering the crowd to disperse. The sound of flash-bangs soon followed, and a large group of protesters was sent running in Abell’s direction. Some of them moved into Abell’s shot, getting in front of the camera while yelling protest slogans and expletives and giving the middle finger. One person picked up the crew’s tripod and threw it, though it sustained no damage. Abell told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that they had to cut their broadcast because “you couldn’t understand or hear what I was saying.” Aside from the incident with the tripod, Abell told the Tracker that no one assaulted him or his crew. In the minutes following the incident, after moving away from the courthouse, Abell appeared to be experiencing the effects of tear gas. “My whole face is burning, literally my entire face,” he can be heard saying on a livestream broadcast by Fox 17.

In New York, New York

  • Jon Farina, a freelance photojournalist, was threatened by a Strategic Response Group officer with the New York City Police Department while documenting protests in the Lower West Side neighborhood of Manhattan. In an Instagram post with a video and description of the incident, Farina said that he was walking with two other photojournalists when they found a group walking past the Lenox Health Greenwich Village hospital on Seventh Avenue. “We noticed they vandalized an NYPD vehicle that was parked in front of the hospital,” Farina wrote. “As the group was leaving heading uptown, someone came back and threw something that was lit on fire into the vehicle.” Farina told the Tracker that the three photojournalists stayed in the area to document the scene. Shortly after the group left, Farina said, an NYPD officer came out of the hospital, drew his weapon and pointed it at Farina as he was filming the scene from the street. “Get away from the fucking car,” the officer can be heard shouting in Farina’s video of the incident. The officer does not respond to Farina’s question of why the officer had drawn his weapon, but does appear to lower and holster the firearm. The officer then continues to shout for Farina to get away from the car and cross back to the other side of the street. “I immediately moved to the side and I just kept moving because I didn’t know if he would start shooting,” Farina told the Tracker. “I wasn’t even near the car, my [press] credentials were out, the other two journalists had credentials out, we had big cameras, so there was no threat to him, for him to do that.” At that point, Farina said he walked away and gave up asking the officer about his actions out of concern that he might be arrested or harmed.

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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