by Joel Simon (CJR)
June 2, 2020
IN SIX DAYS AND NIGHTS OF PROTESTS across America in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, journalists have been assaulted, harassed, pepper sprayed, shot with rubber bullets, and arrested on live TV. The volume of incidents and their increasing severity have led some to suggest that President Trump’s anti-media rhetoric may have triggered the violence. The reality is that aggressive, militarized policing across much of the country, combined with a growing number of protesters who are hostile toward traditional media, has made covering protests an increasingly dangerous assignment. While we have not recently seen anything on the current scale, this is a reality that existed prior to Trump’s election.
At the Committee to Protect Journalists, we observed this dynamic in Ferguson, Missouri, after protests erupted in 2014 following the police killing of Michael Brown. In the course of a week of demonstrations, at least 11 journalists were detained. Reporters were harassed or pepper sprayed by the police; others were attacked by protesters. Journalists were also arrested while covering the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, which began in April 2016, and during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011.
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Over the last decade, police across the country have come to rely on military tactics and equipment, including Humvees, much of it repurposed after the Iraq War. In confronting protesters, police use highly aggressive methods, including kettling, a technique that involves channeling protesters (and sometimes journalists) into a confined area where they are detained and sometimes arrested.
Compounding the risk to reporters is the breakdown in their relationship with local law enforcement. Historically, police have had sustained interactions with beat reporters for local media who were provided with credentials they could use to cross police lines. But the decline in local media, along with the expansion of freelancers and bloggers, has made it more difficult for the police to identify who is a journalist and who is not. The response by the police is too often to arrest those who say they are journalists. In most cases, they are later released after their credentials are verified; still, a number faced prosecution.
CPJ and others have also documented a series of attacks by protesters against journalists covering demonstrations. The dynamics here are harder to parse, but journalists with whom CPJ has spoken describe hostility across the political spectrum. Physical attacks tended to come from the extremes: Antifa protesters assaulted journalists at a demonstration in Berkeley for taking photos, and white nationalists brandishing a shield assaulted a reporter covering a 2017 rally in Tennessee. The verbal harassment, however, emanates from a wider variety of protesters who often express deep-seated frustrations, including a sense that traditional journalists don’t understand their experience or represent their views fairly.