Since at least the 1950s, police have often used violence, threats, and arrests to limit coverage of protests for progressive causes, including protests against police abuse itself. Some of the most notorious incidents occurred during the Civil Rights era, a period that not coincidentally also marked the dawn of the modern news industry. The growth of network television, coupled with the attention of wire services and northern newspapers like The New York Times, led to a surge of civil rights coverage that turned resistance to segregation and racial discrimination in the South into a national, even global story. “If it hadn’t been for the media—the print media and television—the Civil Rights Movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song,” the late civil rights leader and Rep. John Lewis told the U.S. House of Representatives in 2005. Southerners who supported segregation understood this. For them, media attention was unwelcome, a threat that needed to be stopped.

What today might be termed a battle to control the narrative helped fuel the violence toward journalists, who were attacked alongside civil rights protesters. Black reporters in particular were routinely assaulted as they tried to cover protests during this period. Often, they were forcibly escorted from the scene by law enforcement officials. This history is told in detail in The Race Beat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of civil rights reporting by journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

In 1957, reporters attempting to cover the integration of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas were told by a high-ranking National Guard officer that they would be arrested if they interviewed participants. In 1963, when police infamously loosed dogs on civil rights protesters in Greenwood, Mississippi, reporters were caught in the conflict, harassed by police who seized film of the attacks from their cameras.


Little Rock, AR

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While police were directly responsible for many of these attacks, in other instances they also failed to protect journalists when their rights were violated by others. Often, law enforcement officials simply stood by as journalists were accosted by hostile crowds. This indifference was evident, terrifyingly, in the summer of 1961 when reporters trailing a busload of Freedom Riders arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, only to be abandoned by local police to a violent mob of hundreds. Life Magazine reporter Norm Ritter was beaten, as was Life photographer Don Uhrbrock, while NBC camera operator Maurice Levy was attacked with his own camera. The following year, as civil rights activist James Meredith was trying to integrate the University of Mississippi, state and local law officers surrendered the campus to an angry crowd that went on to attack camera operator Gordon Yoder, among others.

While the Civil Rights Movement continued, the period of active street protest began to ebb by the late 1960s, bringing a similar decline in attacks on the media at protests. But the tensions remained. In 1968, police violently attacked protesters outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, also beating and bloodying reporters covering the mayhem. At least 21 journalists were arrested, even as events were televised nationally.



Chicago, IL

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The Chicago Sun-Times reported that one of its photographers was attacked and injured during the convention by police who took off their name tags and badges. Other photographers were clubbed for trying to document the scene. A reporter for Newsweek who flashed his credentials was told to get out of the street, then cursed by a cop who clubbed him on the head, neck, back, and upper thigh. The Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory later recalled, “What made the scene most hair-raising was that the presence of the press—our credentials were plain to see—had not the slightest deterrent effect. The cops wanted us to see them beating an unarmed and defenseless man and felt no need to explain themselves. They were making a statement.”

In August 1970, groundbreaking Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar, a Los Angeles Times reporter and columnist, was killed during an anti-Vietnam War protest. The peaceful rally of an estimated 30,000 Mexican Americans turned chaotic after law enforcement moved in to respond to reports of vandalism. An L.A. County sheriff’s deputy fired a tear gas canister into a bar where Salazar had taken shelter. The canister struck Salazar in the head, killing him instantly. No charges were ever filed against the deputy.

Over the next couple of decades, violent police attacks on journalists receded along with police-protester clashes, perhaps in part because many police departments adopted a more conciliatory, negotiation-based approach to demonstrators. But there was still friction. In New York City in the 1990s, police newly empowered under Mayor Rudy Giuliani sought to limit access to news scenes, confining reporters to poorly positioned press pens and arbitrarily confiscating or threatening to confiscate credentials, according to a civil rights complaint drafted in 1999 by prominent First Amendment litigator Floyd Abrams and others. (The complaint was never filed because the parties came to a resolution, but it was made available to the Knight Institute for this report.)


New York, NY

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Uncharacteristically for rival news organizations, The New York Times, Daily News, Newsday, and The Associated Press joined forces, along with the New York Press Club, to push back. They charged that longstanding police cooperation with the press was breaking down. For example, according to their complaint, in March 1998 an NYPD officer shoved WNBC camera operator Carmine Alonso and covered his camera lens as Alonso and New York Press Club President and WNBC reporter Gabe Pressman tried to record the arrest of protesters at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Later that year, AP photographer Adam Nadell was forced into a press pen with no visual access to a group of AIDS protesters in front of City Hall. When Nadell tried to take a photo outside the pen, police confiscated his press pass. In early 1999, in the weeks after police fatally shot Amadou Diallo, members of the press, including Times photographer Jim Estrin and reporter Nancy Siesel and Daily News photographer David Handschuh, were penned without adequate access to protest areas.

The news organizations’ complaints were resolved after threat of legal action. The city reaffirmed its commitments to standards of behavior outlined in the NYPD Patrol Guide, which emphasized cooperation and assistance with press personnel as well as access to news scenes.

In more recent years, political conventions have been scenes of police-press conflict, echoing the 1968 battles in Chicago. In July 2000, several journalists were detained or arrested while covering protests during the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia; one freelance writer spent two days in jail. Then, in August of that year, a number of journalists were arrested and assaulted during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, some hit by rubber bullets and charged by officers on horseback. The ACLU later settled a suit on their behalf.



Los Angeles, CA

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At the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York—the first convention following 9/11—police arrested or detained at least six journalists. Some were swept up in a mass arrest of nearly 1,800 protesters. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an officer threw Newsday photographer Moises Saman to the ground and arrested him while Saman was shooting the arrest of a protester. In a report, the New York Civil Liberties Union charged that, “in an effort to maintain tight control over protest activity, the NYPD lost sight of the distinction between lawful and unlawful conduct,” unveiling a command-and-control style of policing that “used indiscriminate arrest tactics that resulted in the unlawful arrests of hundreds of protesters, legal observers, members of the media, and passersby.” The arrests became the subject of a lawsuit by the NYCLU that ultimately settled for $18 million.



New York, NY

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The conflicts continued in August 2008 at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where police pushed ABC News producer Asa Eslocker into traffic and choked him while arresting him. Eslocker and his camera crew were taking pictures of Democratic senators and big donors on a public sidewalk. At the Republican National Convention the following month, police arrested as many as 40 journalists, among them Amy Goodman, host of the nationally syndicated program “Democracy Now!” Police ripped press credentials from their necks and tampered with their recording equipment.

Police arrested and mistreated journalists during the populist Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in September 2011 and spread to hundreds of communities in the U.S. as part of a global movement, continuing for months. In a dozen U.S. cities, police are believed to have arrested at least 85 journalists total. Even as some journalists displayed credentials, they were hit with batons, slammed into barricades, held on the ground, shot with rubber bullets, and pepper-sprayed; police detained others for hours, confiscated their equipment, or simply kept them away from areas where they could cover the protests.

The steady growth of police militarization post-9/11 helped fuel further conflict with the press. Since 1996, the Department of Defense has given police departments across the country military-grade equipment like armored vehicles, rifles, and grenades. That equipment has sometimes been deployed by police at the site of public protests. Officers in riot gear armed with rifles, backed by armored vehicles, present a show of force at protests that can heighten tensions between police and protesters and impede any possibility of dialogue or deescalation. A dramatic example occurred at the protests that followed the August 9, 2014, shooting death by police of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. A PEN America report documented 52 alleged violations of freedom of the press during the demonstrations, including 21 arrests, physical aggression, and obstruction of access.


Ferguson, MO

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In one instance, police launched tear gas at an Al-Jazeera news crew and fired rubber bullets in their direction as they fled, even after they repeatedly shouted “Press!” In another, Daily News reporter Pearl Gabel said she was walking toward police with her hands in the air when an officer pointed a rifle at her face. Gabel was then cuffed for violating curfew and her equipment and cellphone were confiscated. When they later released her after viewing her credentials, police told her, “Welcome to St. Louis.”

Journalists complained that police tried to obstruct protest coverage by blocking or restricting access. “Police refused to allow anyone to approach their lines, making it essentially impossible for journalists … to approach the police to ask questions, engage in dialogue, or identify themselves as press,” the PEN America report found. Some journalists, including Don Lemon, then with CNN, were physically pushed by officers, while others, like Getty photographer Scott Olson, were arrested after venturing outside designated press areas. Many of those arrested or detained were released once police verified they were press.

According to PEN America, the actions against journalists, as well as those against protesters, were “fueled by the aggressive militarized response by police to largely peaceful public protests. … This apparently created a mentality among some police officers that they were patrolling a war zone, rather than a predominantly peaceful protest attended by citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, and members of the press who also possess those rights.” The number of reported abuses “strongly suggests that some police officers were deliberately trying to prevent the media from documenting the protests and the police response. The many and varied ways in which police interfered with the media’s ability to do their job makes it difficult to dismiss these as isolated mistakes.”


Ferguson, MO

Jamelle Bouie/Wikipedia

In November 2014, a federal judge forbade three Ferguson-area police departments from interfering with news media, after the ACLU sued over those departments’ repeated efforts to prevent bystanders and journalists from recording the protests, including police actions. Meanwhile, four journalists filed a federal lawsuit in March 2015 alleging that St. Louis County police violated their First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights with the intent of “obstructing, chilling, deterring, and retaliating against” them for doing their jobs. The journalists also accused Ferguson police of battery, false arrest, and unreasonable search and seizure. Two were allegedly shot at with rubber bullets after raising their hands in the air and identifying themselves as press, then arrested and handcuffed with plastic ties. Two others were arrested while presenting press badges. An officer who refused to identify himself restrained them with plastic ties. The journalists were charged with refusal to disperse. The legal settlement the following year required St. Louis County to pay $75,000 and mandate all police officers undergo training on media access and the right to record police activity.

It was a rare instance of accountability for police mistreatment of the press. The timeline from the Civil Rights era to Ferguson shows the volatility of the police-press relationship. Police sometimes viewed media attention as a provocation and an unwanted intrusion and reacted with violence, especially in the context of social justice movements that attracted a wide swath of the national press. Most recently, a militarized style of policing turned journalists into collateral damage from aggressive crowd-control measures that failed to distinguish between lawful demonstrators and those engaged in vandalism. Whenever law enforcement turned on journalists and used violence or harassment to inhibit their work and suppress coverage of protests, there were few consequences.


Ch 3: Covering the George Floyd Protests →