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A Free Press Finds Itself At Odds With Police

The 1992 words of Rodney King, ‘Can we all get along,’ resonate today.

Wikimedia Commons/ Lorie Shaull
George Floyd Protest, Minneapolis
Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Lorie Shaull

Watching recent civil unrest, which has been a mix of riots, looting, and peaceful marches throughout the weekend, typically harken to other countries, not America—until now.

It played out to a live TV audience when CNN reporter Omar Jimenez, and then his camera crew, were arrested by Minneapolis State Patrol troopers, handcuffed with their hands behind their backs, and taken away in a paddy wagon. The arrests halted their coverage of the protests following the death of African American George Floyd while he was in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers. Later that day, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz apologized for the arrests.

Then the same day, on Friday, May 29, NBC affiliate WAVE 3 News reporter Kaitlin Rust, also on live TV, began screaming, “I’m getting shot, I’m getting shot,” until she realized what had hit her were pepper balls fired by police. Working with photojournalist James Dobson behind line police had set up in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, Rust was asked by a WAVE 3 anchor, “Who were they aiming at?”

Rust’s answer? “At us. Directly at us,” she said.

Also Friday night, two women photojournalists, Ellen Schmidt with the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Bridgett Bennett freelancing for AFP (Agence France-Presse), were shoved and one knocked to the ground twice by police, both arrested, charged and held before making bail, in the midst of covering, as photographers with press credentials, a George Floyd protest on the Las Vegas Strip. They now face misdemeanor charges in court.

Again on Friday, freelance photographer Linda Tirado, as she photographed street protests in Minneapolis, was shot in her left eye, she told The New York Times, with what she thought was a rubber bullet. Protesters rushed her to a nearby hospital where she underwent surgery. Doctors, she said, told her they believe they saved her eye but not her eyesight.

Minneapolis Police spokesperson told the Times in an email that the department has not used rubber bullets “in decades,” but noted that when someone feels police injured, they may contact Internal Affairs or the Office of Police Conduct Review. The following day, however, on Saturday, May 30, CNN’s Jimenez reported that he and his crew were also hit with rubber bullets as they resumed covering the unrest on the streets of Minneapolis.

Interrupting journalists while lawfully on the job on American soil more resembles China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, which have been referred to as the world’s worst jailers of journalists.

The unrest across America has taken us back to 1992’s Los Angeles riots, where angry mobs took to the streets, looting and leaving destruction in their wake, causing martial law and a curfew to be imposed. I covered the L.A. riots that followed the acquittals of police officers who beat Rodney King, also a black man whose attack was videotaped, breaking some of his bones and injuring his face to the point where he was unrecognizable. On assignment for a newspaper with photographer Russell Klika, he and I as members of the working press were exempt, as were other journalists there, and allowed on the streets after curfew.

We followed the rules, not stepping past police barricades or getting in their way as they did their jobs to quell the violence on the streets of L.A. Reporter Omar Jimenez and his CNN camera crew did the same, yet they were arrested.

Also following the rules were Los Angeles Times reporter and bureau chief Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Carolyn Cole when Minnesota law enforcement ignored their press passes, camera gear, and Cole’s flak jacket labeled “Press.” They were fired upon by rubber bullets and tear gas as Hennessy-Fiske shouted, “Press” and waved a reporter’s notebook at an officer. “But officers kept firing,” Hennessy-Fiske recounted in the Times. “We realized we had to run, too. We were not exempt. They were treating us as scofflaws.”

In the process of covering the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, where martial law was also imposed on the streets of New Orleans, and while reporting the Rodney King riots, never did I or photographers I worked with feel at risk from anyone in law enforcement, nor did the police try to impede our coverage. I covered the military in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Panama, and never did the military shut down either me or photographers I worked with.

As the practice of law enforcement interfering with working journalists continues, news agencies and organizations that represent journalists around the world are speaking out and reminding law enforcement that a free press still exists in America.

Richard Karpel, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, following the shoving and arrests of two Nevada photojournalists, issued a statement that read in part: “The press serves a vital, constitutionally protected role during moments of national strife and civil disobedience. Journalists put themselves at risk to inform citizens about protestors’ grievances and their actions, and to observe whether law enforcement personnel are operating within the bounds of the law."

Following the arrest of the CNN news crew, Carlos Martínez de la Serna, program director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, issued this statement: “Targeted attacks on journalists, media crews, and news organizations covering the demonstrations show a complete disregard for their critical role in documenting issues of public interest and are an unacceptable attempt to intimidate them. Authorities in cities across the U.S. need to instruct police not to target journalists and ensure they can report safely on the protests without fear of injury or retaliation.”

While Minnesota and St. Paul mayors and others have appealed to protestors to stop the looting and destruction of property, none has resonated with protestors to quell the unrest.

That was not the case with the May 1992 riots following the acquittal of police in the Rodney King beating. King himself stepped forward to speak directly to protestors. Standing by his attorney, attorney Steven Lerman, King spoke for the first time.

“People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we all get along?" King said in his plea to those uprising on the streets for an end to the rioting in South Central Los Angeles.

In 2017, on the 25th anniversary those riots, Theresa Walker, writing for the Orange County Register, reminded readers that King’s words live on, but from his resting place at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills, Walker wrote in an anniversary article about the riots.

His now-famous words, “Can we all get along," are written on his grave marker.

The Reverend Mark Whitlock, pastor of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church in Irvine, California, prophetically told Walker in her Orange County Register story that he feared similar unrest could happen again.

“We have to be very careful about maligning any race,” Whitlock said. “If you stereotype a group of people, then they will rebel and riot.”

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