Last May, VICE video journalist Dave Mayers went to Minneapolis to cover protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in police custody. A day later, he was arrested with his entire crew for violating a curfew order that specifically exempted reporters.
All over the United States, journalists like Mayers were impeded from doing their jobs as they documented the story of the national movement to protect Black lives and end police violence. The Committee to Protect Journalists responded to an unprecedented number of arrests and assaults of journalists, most of them at the hands of law enforcement.
In CPJ’s first audio feature, U.S. researcher Katherine Jacobsen looks at the factors that led authorities in the United States, traditionally a beacon of press freedom, to violate so many reporters’ rights. She speaks with Mayers and Andy Mannix, a reporter with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who was injured while reporting. She also talks with press freedom advocates with ideas about how to reshape law enforcement’s relationship with the media.
Katherine Jacobsen: reporter, writer
Naomi Zeveloff: writer, editor
Elana Beiser: editor
Bruce Wallace: producer, engineer
Special thanks to VICE News’ Dave Mayers, Ellis Rua, Jika González, and Alzo Slade, and to the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Andy Mannix for sharing their stories.
This report was based on a CPJ article about the militarization of police by Katherine Jacobsen, Lucy Westcott, and Coral Negrón Almodóvar.
Katherine Jacobsen, CPJ U.S. Researcher:
Hello, and welcome to this report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent nonprofit organization promoting press freedom worldwide.
I’m Katherine Jacobsen, CPJ’s U.S. researcher.
Over the past year, CPJ responded to an unprecedented number of assaults and arrests of journalists covering protests around the United States in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
The murder set off a critical movement to protect the lives of Black people and to stop police violence. The attacks on the press also warrant attention because they violated journalists’ rights and obligation to bring you the news. In CPJ’s first ever audio feature, we’ll talk about what happened during these attacks, how we got here, and what can be done so it doesn’t happen again.
Thank you for listening.
Dave Mayers was sitting in his Brooklyn apartment when he first heard about George Floyd. The video of police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck as Floyd begged for his life had gone viral and people were starting to protest at the scene of Floyd’s death.
[Protest sounds: “What’s his name? George Floyd!”]
Mayers is a video journalist at VICE. He called another VICE colleague, Ellis Rua, and played the video of Floyd’s murder over the phone. They both knew this was the start of something important, a major news story. The next day they told their boss they needed to go to Minneapolis to cover the protests.
Dave Mayers, VICE News video journalist:
We didn’t know who we were going to talk to, but it was more a matter of, we need to get out there as quickly as possible.
They got into a rental minivan with another VICE reporter. A fourth journalist would meet them there. On the drive out of New York City, they contacted sources in Minneapolis and kept an eye on how things were evolving there.
By the time we got to central Pennsylvania, we were seeing that, um, protestors had burned down a police station and it was like, oh, this is going to be something different.
It was different. Unlike any U.S. protest the reporters had seen before. When Mayers and the VICE crew arrived in Minneapolis on May 29, four days after George Floyd’s death, the crowds were huge and diverse. The atmosphere was heated. There was a feeling in the air — what was happening in Minneapolis could catalyze a national movement. And in fact, protests were springing up in other cities.
[Protest sounds: “I can’t breathe!”]
There was an overwhelming police presence. Police in riot gear, their faces covered from view, stood in formation with plastic shields. They shot round after round of rubber bullets into crowds.
There was a pungent, slightly mustardy smell of teargas and pepper spray in the air. The crew set up to film. Mayers said his eyes were stinging. It was painful, but it was nothing compared to what happened the next day.
On May 30, they spent hours following activists. Toward the evening, they set up outside a restaurant and VICE anchor Alzo Slade interviewed a community organizer.
[Slade: “This operation that you have right here is pretty damn impressive.” Community organizer: “For this to happen in two days, it speaks for itself.”]
Then, they saw a big group marching by. They decided to follow. The marchers were shouting “Fight back!” but Mayers said the scene was peaceful. Then law enforcement arrived.
[Protest sounds: “Fight back!”]
A bunch of police cars kind of cut the protest off. Police officers with state trooper markings on both their cars and their vests, uh, in riot gear, just poured out of these cars, and blocked us from moving closer to downtown.
It was eight o’clock — the citywide curfew had just gone into effect. Most protesters started to leave. But a few stayed to confront the officers. Mayers and his team stayed too. According to city ordinance, journalists were exempt from the curfew.
Officers began to throw tear gas canisters at the crowd.
Mayers and his crew ducked down a side street to put on their gas masks. They were about to head out again when an officer stopped them.
He yells at us to stop and get down. And then a couple more police also yell at us to stop and get down.
[Law enforcement officer: “Get on the ground! Get on the ground!”]
The team dropped to the ground, cameras still rolling.
[Slade: “Right now, the state patrol of Minnesota has asked us to get on the ground. We are complying.”]
And they raised their weapons at us and not like tear gas — these were rifles. When they raised their rifles, that’s when I got scared.
Mayers immediately thought of the police killings of Black men in Minneapolis, and suddenly feared the worst for himself and the crew — all of whom were journalists of color.
It doesn’t fucking matter that I’m a journalist, like none of that matters right now. And I had, like, competing, um, I had these competing thoughts at the moment. It’s like, “Oh, this will all be worked out.” But also, “Oh shit. They could shoot us.”
The journalists started yelling: “We’re press!”
[Slade: “We’re press, we’re press!”]
Mayers wanted to reach for his press badge but he was afraid to move. He was worried the officers would misinterpret his action and think he was reaching for a weapon.
Finally, he held the badge up for the officers. The others showed theirs too. It didn’t make a difference.
The officers — they were with the Minnesota State Patrol — arrested all four journalists, zip tying their wrists and loading them one-by-one into a nearby van.
While we were in the back of this police wagon for a good hour or two. And then, um, and we were asking what we were being charged with. Uh, nobody had an answer for us.
They were driven to a local jail and eventually charged with violating curfew — the curfew that the city of Minneapolis had specifically said exempted reporters.
They were held for about five hours. Around two months later, the charges were dropped. But the impact of that night — for Mayers, for his crew, and for freedom of the press, remains.
One hundred twenty four journalists were arrested or detained covering the nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. As a researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists, I helped track these cases, as well as the stories of journalists who were injured on the job.
The violence against journalists was unprecedented — even though it had deep roots in the history of policing.
All summer long, reporters texted me photographs to document what was happening to them — pictures of bruised faces and limbs. I talked to one reporter who had experience in war zones — and he was shocked by what he saw.
Officers in Minneapolis charged at him and other journalists. They threw concussion grenades at them and pepper sprayed their faces. He sent me a photo of his injury that showed blood dripping down his forehead.
Another journalist, photographer Linda Tirado, lost an eye reporting in Minneapolis.
[Tirado: “I was lining up a photo, and then my world kind of exploded.”]
The protests also highlighted the risks faced by journalists of color — some, like Mayers, said they were singled out because of their race.
I definitely think race was a big part of why we were arrested. I mean, there was another crew out at the same spot at the same time, also filming, and they weren’t arrested. If they were arresting people for breaking curfew, they were also breaking curfew.
The violence against journalists would be easy to write off as a product of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Trump was president during the protests and he fanned the flames. He also never missed an opportunity to mock the press or call them “fake news.”
[Trump: “They are the fake, fake disgusting news.”]
But there were deeper reasons for the violence. One major factor was police militarization — a trend journalists have been witnessing for decades. Police show up at protests in military style gear and tensions flare. That creates a more hostile reporting environment — meaning journalists are more likely to get injured.
In Minneapolis and other cities last summer, it was impossible to miss this trend — law enforcement officers were dressed in riot gear and riding in armored vehicles.
Sometimes this equipment comes from the military itself. The Defense Department has transferred billions of dollars worth of excess military equipment to law enforcement agencies around the country — and there are other funds for this kind of gear.
Mickey Osterreicher, National Press Photographers Association general counsel:
Over the years there has been surplus military equipment that has been made available to police organizations from types of uniforms, types of riot gear. In many instances they’re called “turtle suits” because people dressed in them look like Ninja Turtles. There’s been other types of equipment such as armored vehicles.
That’s Mickey Osterreicher, a lawyer with the National Press Photographers Association. Osterreicher often shows up at protests as an observer, making sure that police respect the right to report. He believes that when police are dressed in military gear, they are more likely to act aggressively at protests.
I think unfortunately, many times when we see people who are dressed for a battle, oftentimes they’re looking for one.
Some groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union, have called for an end to the federal program to transfer military gear. There are several bills right now in the House that would rein the program in.
On the local level, Osterreicher is trying to change things too. He trains police on press rights, and sometimes talks to them about militarized gear. He tells officers that wearing “soft uniforms” — instead of the hardcore stuff — can deescalate things at protests.
He also emphasizes to police that journalists have a right to report — it’s enshrined in the First Amendment.
I’m trying to inform them as to what the law is and what they should be doing. So that, as I always say, so that journalists can do their jobs, so police officers don’t get sued and most importantly, so the public can be informed.
He said officers sometimes bristle at his advice.
It’s the glare. It’s the, “Why am I here? Who is this guy?” And I will watch throughout the course of the hour and a half, two hours, that we’re doing the training. The body language changes.
By the end, Osterreicher usually gets through to them. The officers are curious, more engaged, they ask questions. He said his training is “like chicken soup.”
It may not help, but it doesn’t hurt.
But in the heat of the moment at protests, the training doesn’t always hold up. Osterreicher said he offered to train law enforcement officers in Minneapolis, and he hopes the city takes him up on it.
I called and emailed the Minneapolis Police Department multiple times to ask if police received media training and to get them to respond to claims of harassment of the press. I also called the Minnesota State Patrol, the Brooklyn Center Police Department, and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, agencies in the area with reported press freedom violations.
I never got a response.
It’s no surprise that no one got back to me. Reporters that live and work in the Minneapolis area have told me that the police are notoriously hard to get for interviews.
Andy Mannix, a federal courts reporter with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, covered the protests last summer. He was tear gassed and hit in his upper thigh with a rubber bullet.
Andy Mannix, Minneapolis Star Tribune federal courts reporter:
It was like a hard black plastic with a blue, kind of rubbery end to it. I still have it in my kitchen.
Mannix said there was a glaring lack of access during last summer’s protests. Police weren’t responding to criticisms, and they also wouldn’t tell journalists their side of the story — what it was like to patrol some of the most intense protests the city had ever seen, where police got injured too.
On May 28, protesters burned down the 3rd Police Precinct — that’s the news that the VICE reporters saw on their way out to Minneapolis.
[Police scanner: “The 3rd Precinct is up in flames.”]
Mannix wanted to know what it felt like to be a police officer that night.
We tried so hard last summer to, like, get people who were Minneapolis police officers in the 3rd Precinct to talk to us about what that was like and, like, no dice. Either they were told not to — I mean, they’re all told not to. But even, like, getting someone who would speak to us anonymously, they wouldn’t even do that because either they were afraid that they’d get caught and they’d get reprimanded, or they just really strongly believe that we are their enemy and they don’t want to talk to us.
Journalists couldn’t talk to officers and they couldn’t even get close to them. Mannix said that journalists weren’t allowed behind police lines during protests, so they had to stand near protesters to get the story. He thinks police assumed the journalists’ were on the protesters’ side, that they agreed with them.
And he thinks the police didn’t distinguish reporters from the rest of the crowd. At CPJ, we found that, in some cases, police targeted reporters on purpose.
I definitely don’t think that there’s a lot of love for the media from Minneapolis police or other, like, state police or national guard, but I also think that maybe they kind of see reporters and agitators as one and the same.
Mannix believes that part of the solution is better access — reporters need to be able to talk to police officers, not just spokespeople doing image control for the department.
This matters, because if you can’t interview police, it’s hard to hold them to account. And it’s also harder to tell the public what police are experiencing.
We don’t get to talk to, we don’t get to hear what’s important from them. I just think that, like, it really makes this hard. It makes them think that we’re out to get them when we’re not. It makes it just, like, harder for us to understand each other. And I think that that, like the rise of sort of this PR system for cops, it’s the thing that is that is like driving a wedge between, not just journalists and cops, but, citizens and cops because we’re kind of the conduit for the public and we’re asking questions on their behalf.
He believes that if journalists had a direct line to individual police, it could go a long way to smoothing out relations between law enforcement and the media. Maybe this could even help journalists report more safely the next time.
But next time is already here. This April, almost a year after George Floyd was killed, Derek Chauvin was on trial for murder. While that trial was going on, a police officer in a Minneapolis suburb, Brooklyn Center, killed another Black man, Daunte Wright. Protests erupted again, with the same police tactics — tear gas, flash bangs, and rubber bullets.
Once again, I was keeping my eye on the protests, speaking with journalists about whether they could report safely.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota was also watching. Last year, that branch of the ACLU sued local and state law enforcement agencies over their treatment of the press. The case is ongoing.
When protests started again this year, the ACLU rushed to get a legal order to prevent police from harming reporters. But before it went into effect, reporters were mistreated again.
After police dispersed protesters in the Minneapolis suburb, Brooklyn Center, journalists stayed on to report. Then police forced journalists into the same area and made them lie on the ground.
They photographed each reporter, along with their ID cards, and then let them leave. Teresa Nelson, the head legal counsel at the ACLU’s Minnesota office, said the scene had disturbing implications.
Teresa Nelson, ACLU of Minnesota legal director:
I will say that evening was shocking, um, and terrifying to see that. That is the kind of thing that you would expect in a country that does not have constitutional rights for its citizens.
After that event, legal and press freedom groups arranged a call with Minnesota Governor Tim Walz to complain about what happened. Mickey Osterreicher, the lawyer with the National Press Photographers Association, said he was on the call and that the governor was “contrite.”
But it wasn’t the governor’s first apology for what happened to journalists. Last year, CNN reporter Omar Jimenez was arrested on live TV.
[Law enforcement officer: “You’re under arrest.” Jiminez: “OK. Do you mind telling me why I’m under arrest, sir?” CNN anchor: “If you are just tuning in, you are watching our correspondent Omar Jimenez being arrested by state police in Minnesota.”]
As Osterreicher pointed out, the governor had said he was sorry then, too.
So, it’s unfortunate that it doesn’t seem we learned very much in that year.
Osterreicher continues to hope that the lesson will eventually sink in: law enforcement have to respect freedom of the press. There’s just too much at stake.
Being an informed public is part of our democracy. It’s what hopefully, or is supposed to, set this country apart as a shining example to the rest of the world, that we had a constitution with a Bill of Rights and a First Amendment. And the real beauty of the First Amendment, and the real guarantee provided by the First Amendment, is the right of the public to receive information so that they can be informed about what it is their government is and isn’t doing.
But Mayers, the reporter with VICE, is cynical that things will change. In April, he went back to Minneapolis to cover the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial.
One evening on that trip, Mayers and the crew finished reporting and were looking for a place to eat dinner. They found themselves driving near a familiar place — the spot where the VICE team was arrested last summer.
Without realizing it, we were headed down the same street. I’m like, oh, there’s that restaurant that we were at. And then it clicked. Oh, right. This is where we got arrested.
Seeing that spot, not through his camera lens but with his own eyes, brought him back to that moment — the fear and the risks he took to do his job. The crew kept driving and went to eat. The next day, they went out reporting again.
At the Committee to Protect Journalists, we continue to monitor police violations against journalists at U.S. protests like the ones in this piece. On our website, cpj.org, you can find the latest information about press freedom issues around the world, along with features and analysis. We also publish safety kits and advisories for journalists working in challenging environments.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which CPJ co-founded, has a database of U.S. press freedom violations, including those discussed in this show. A link to the Tracker’s website can be found in our show notes.
This story was reported by me, Katherine Jacobsen, and was based on a story I co-wrote with Lucy Westcott and Coral Negrón Almodóvar for cpj.org. I wrote the script with Naomi Zeveloff, and Naomi and Elana Beiser edited it. Bruce Wallace was our producer and engineer.
Thanks again for listening, and if you’re a journalist in need of assistance, please find information about how we can help at cpj.org.