On the steps of City Hall Sunday morning — following a frightening night of tear gas, fisticuffs, arrests, and arson — Duluth Mayor Emily Larson offered a few words of advice for media members: “If you can keep your (media) credentials on you, if you can show it somehow. … If there’s a way that you can just very quickly pull up your credential or something (for) police.”
Yeah, that’d be great. Unfortunately, in the unrest and mayhem of late last week and this weekend, following the tragic death of Geroge Floyd while in police custody, journalists clearly identifying themselves as working were hit with tear gas, rubber bullets, and handcuffs nonetheless. In some instances reporters and photographers were targeted. There were a disturbing number of such incidents, so many that the Society of Professional Journalists felt the need to issue an open letter to officers and protesters Saturday.
“Please let us do our jobs,” the letter pleaded. “Treat us with the same respect and dignity that you would want. These are very volatile situations and we do our best to cover these stories under the same conditions (as law enforcement). The attacks of journalists by police or protesters … should have never happened. … These actions only reflect badly on officers and people claiming to keep the peace. Let us not forget, reporters, producers, videographers and photographers are humans too. Trying to make a living. Trying to flesh out the truth. We should not be put in any danger for doing our jobs.”
In St. Paul, after two young women were sprayed by officers, Des Moines Register reporter Tyler Davis used his camera to record. “The officer redirected his chemical spray from the fleeing duo toward me,” Davis wrote this weekend. “He laid on the trigger for a few seconds as I told him I was a member of the media."
In Detroit, a newspaper reporter “was withdrawing from a confrontational protest in his city Saturday night when police began chasing him and several demonstrators with pepper spray. He lifted up his media badge but still got hit fully in the face,” a USA Today opinion piece reported. “Police slapped a phone from a hand of a (Detroit) Free Press photographer as she streamed the scene live.”
In Louisville, an NBC affiliate reporter and photographer were shot intentionally with pepper balls — despite being behind a police line so as not to interfere with law enforcement.
In Minneapolis, a photojournalist from WCCO-TV was stuck by a rubber bullet, forced to the ground, and taken into custody Saturday night — after identifying himself as a member of the local media, according to his station.
This came on the heels of a clearly credentialed and clearly working crew from CNN being arrested in Minneapolis — while live on the air. The cable network’s camera was left on the ground, still broadcasting.
The troubling list goes on. At least eight journalists were arrested in Minneapolis Saturday night and held for up to four hours apiece, the USA Today said. Other journalists were arrested in New York City and Las Vegas. Journalists were left with concussions and other injuries when turned on by looters, too.
As the USA Today column repeated about all of it, “This is unacceptable.”
“Reporters and photographers are there to record the truth, as peaceful or as violent as it may be. We are considered public servants in this role, not part of the protests but there to document it for the American people,” the column read. “When police target us as we stand off to the side or back from the action, reporting, recording, interviewing, that is not an accident. In many cases this weekend, we had to fight for our right to even cover the actions.”
Mayor Larson acknowledged that journalists in Duluth this weekend were “documenting and being our eyes and ears, and that’s important.” The First Amendment protects the media’s right to perform that role.
Even in stressful situations, even in volatile and chaotic moments, reporters, photojournalists, and other members of the working press shouldn’t be attacked for carrying out the important work we do on behalf of our communities and country.