Amid nationwide protests against police brutality, police crack down on the press

Minneapolis police killed an unarmed Black man in their custody, George Floyd, on May 25, 2020. The killing, following a string of other violent, racist incidents against Black civilians in the preceding months, provoked protests in cities and towns across the United States, and even around the world. Scores of journalists covering these demonstrations have reported being maced, shot, or arrested by police. Journalists and Free Speech advocates fear the forceful police response to protest coverage threatens to erode press freedom. 

Key Players

George Perry Floyd Jr. was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and raised in Houston. He moved to Minneapolis to find work and start afresh in 2014, according to The Guardian. Floyd worked as a bodyguard at Salvation Army, drove trucks, and worked as a bouncer at a local restaurant—his last job before his murder. 

Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25 at the age of 46 after a white officer pinned his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Floyd issued repeated pleas for help, but they were ignored. Officers had arrested him after receiving reports that he had purchased goods from a convenience store using a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd left behind three children, the Los Angeles Times reports. 

Further Details

Floyd’s death sparked intense public outrage, catalyzing protests across the country. Demonstrations, which would soon spread globally, began in Minneapolis on May 26, one day after Floyd’s death. Protesters and onlookers reported violent police responses to peaceful marches and rallies in the city, including the use of tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets to disperse crowds, according to The Guardian

Minneapolis police also targeted reporters covering events there. Photojournalist Linda Tirado permanently lost vision in her left eye after being shot by police with a “less-lethal” round, The Guardian reports. VICE News correspondent Michael Adams was shoved to the ground and pepper-sprayed by police while covering a demonstration, even after flashing his press pass and complying with officer demands. In an incident that Free Speech advocates found especially jarring, Minneapolis police arrested Omar Jimenez, a Black CNN correspondent, while he was live on air. Despite identifying himself as a reporter and offering to comply with officer demands, Jimenez and his team were handcuffed and brought into custody as their cameras were still rolling. Police released Jimenez and his crew later the same day, according to The New York Times

The crackdown on the press was preceded by years of media vilification by President Donald Trump, who has called reporters and objective mainstream news outlets “fake news” and “enemies of the people.” Analysts suspect that the aggressive police response to reporters is a manifestation of this vitriol, The Washington Post reports. 

Though most attacks against reporters occurred in Minneapolis, the pattern of press suppression by police continued elsewhere as protests spread across the country. Dozens of videos posted on social media sites capture journalists being beaten, sprayed, or shot at by police while covering these events. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which tallies press freedom violations, recorded more than 56 reporter arrests and 240 attacks (212 by police) against reporters between May 26 and June 6. The tracker had recorded a total of 37 assaults against the press during the entirety of 2019. Journalists identified themselves as press in 106 out of 148 instances before being attacked by police officers, according to a separate batch of data gathered by The Guardian. Many reporters recall being explicitly targeted by police officers when covering the unrest, as The Intercept reports. “We were not caught in the crossfire,” LA Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske remembers. “They pursued us. And they knew that we were reporters and photographers.” 


Journalists, Free Speech advocates, international leaders decry police attacks on press

Recent police attacks against reporters in the United States have drawn comparisons to press suppression under authoritarian regimes. “It is common in autocratic countries for journalists to be swept up in arrests during protests and riots, but rare in the United States, where news gathering is protected by the First Amendment,” New York Times reporters remarked when summarizing Omar Jimenez’s arrest.

The shocking symbolism of the attacks on the press have tangible implications. Police violence against reporters chills important journalism and undermines accountability for public officials, according to PEN America Washington Director Thomas O. Melia. 

“By trying to silence journalists, law enforcement officers are seeking apparently to prevent reporters from fulfilling their invaluable mission of informing the public, holding our leaders accountable, and providing vital information to citizens across the country,” Melia wrote in a statement. 

Some reporters and civil rights groups are taking legal action against police. Freelance journalist Jared Goyette teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union to file a class action lawsuit against state and local police in Minnesota after officers allegedly threatened him with a gun and shot him with a rubber bullet after he identified himself as a reporter.

The crackdown on the press in the United States has also worried and angered foreign governments. The Australian government launched an investigation into U.S. law enforcement on June 2, after police attacked an Australian reporter and photographer at a demonstration in Washington, D.C.