When photojournalist and documentarian Mike Shum set out to cover the protests that erupted following the murder of George Floyd, he hit the streets of Minneapolis with the expectation that the police would let him do his job. He was more concerned about hostile protesters. But he was wrong. State, local, and law enforcement officials would later claim that one of the primary challenges they faced in Minneapolis was the difficulty of distinguishing journalists from protesters when imposing a curfew or enforcing a dispersal order. A lack of guidance for police on how to make these distinctions certainly made that task more difficult—but it is not apparent they were even trying. In many instances, journalists were deliberately singled out for abuse. Police punched and shoved photographers carrying equipment and displaying credentials; they assaulted reporters with rubber bullets and pepper spray, deeply compromising their newsgathering work.

The fact that Shum was one of the first journalists on the scene was a bit of an accident. While he had worked across the U.S. and around the world, he had moved only recently from his native Denver to St. Paul to focus on a documentary about COVID-19. He was at home on May 26, 2020, when he first heard that crowds were gathering at Chicago Avenue and 38th Streets, where the day before police officer Derek Chauvin had suffocated Floyd to death under his knee. Shum grabbed his gear and rushed through rain to the scene.



Key Locations During George Floyd Protests
Minneapolis, MN

Shum spent several hours shooting that day. People were angry and emotions were raw.

Some protesters objected to being filmed; others questioned Shum’s motives and used racially charged language to attack him as an Asian American. “They were not trying to connect with me, or understand my role,” Shum recalled. “It pissed me off.”

In the first few days, Shum filmed for his own purposes, with the idea that he might use the footage in a documentary. When he accompanied a group marching to the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd Precinct, the protesters continued to abuse him, cursing at him and telling him to stop filming. By May 28, he had picked up an assignment to photograph for The New York Times.

As the scene around the 3rd Precinct turned increasingly violent, with nearby buildings aflame and the crowd surging, Shum caught the eye of a police officer and waved his press pass in the air. It was a credential that Shum had used while reporting abroad, and Shum was scrupulous about wearing it. With a glance, the police officer acceded to allowing Shum to position himself near the front lines and aim his camera toward the protesters. He was promptly hit in the leg with a large rock presumably aimed at the police. “I wouldn’t call it empathy straight up, but I could definitely see like I would be quite nervous if I was a cop at that moment,” Shum recalled. “Because these were pretty big rocks.”

Later that night, police abandoned the 3rd Precinct on the order of Mayor Jacob Frey as the building was breached and set afire. President Trump weighed in, taking to Twitter to denounce Frey as “very weak.” The president tweeted at 1 a.m. on May 29: “Just spoke with Governor Tim Walz and told him the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” In the morning, Walz called out the National Guard and imposed an 8 p.m. curfew across the Twin Cities. Members of the news media, along with law enforcement and medical personnel, were specifically exempted.

But that was the moment, Shum recalled, that law enforcement turned on the media.

That morning, members of the Minnesota State Patrol arrested CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez and his crew while he broadcast live, even as he offered to comply with the officers’ demands to move. Troopers, as they are known, had been deployed throughout the city along with the National Guard. Shum filmed protesters marching half an hour west from the 3rd Precinct to the 5th Precinct, where they once again clashed with police. That night police fired on a group of journalists with rubber bullets, hitting Shum in the foot. “It was confusing because we just kept screaming ‘we’re press, we’re press,’ but the bullets just kept flying,” Shum recalled. In a separate incident that day, police in Minnesota fired on photojournalist Linda Tirado with what is believed to be a rubber bullet, permanently blinding her in one eye.


Minneapolis, MN

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Throughout the next day, May 30, several hundred demonstrators rallied peacefully outside the 5th Precinct, listening to speeches from a makeshift stage. At 8 p.m., everyone present, including several dozen reporters, received a text announcing that the curfew was in effect. Some of the journalists were local. Others, including photographers with extensive experience covering conflict and unrest, had arrived in the preceding days from across the country and around the world. A group of about 20 journalists assembled on the sidewalk along a cement retaining wall and positioned their cameras to capture the unfolding scene. Members of the state patrol who were reinforcing the Minneapolis police formed a skirmish line outside the station house. Around 8:30 p.m., police gave an order to disperse through a loudspeaker. Then, suddenly, they advanced in formation through tactical blue smoke.

The journalists who were clustered off to one side were pelted with pepper spray, tear gas, and other projectiles as they ran to take cover. Several were forced into an alcove along the retaining wall. Ed Ou, a Canadian photographer who was working at the time for NBC, was hit in the head with what he believes was a flash-bang grenade. As blood poured down his face, police blasted him with pepper spray. Blinded and disoriented, he asked multiple police officers to provide medical assistance, but they ignored him. Ou had moved to the United States after covering war and conflict in the Middle East because he wanted to work in a country where the rights of journalists were respected. He was stunned by the hostility police were now displaying toward working journalists, who were clearly identifiable, holding cameras and notebooks and displaying press credentials. “The state patrol had every opportunity to disengage, but they didn’t,” Ou said.


Minneapolis, MN

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Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole suffered a back injury and a damaged cornea when a police officer aimed pepper spray directly into her eyes and then pushed her over the retaining wall, as described earlier in this report.

A state trooper shoved Shum over the same retaining wall, and he landed awkwardly after a six-foot fall. He suffered injuries to his shoulder and side. Clearly, whatever informal understanding that might have existed between police and journalists when he first began filming had broken down. “You should always be cognizant that there will be press out there, and reach an understanding,” said Shum in reference to the police. “But they were consistently aggressive to reporters. We were treated very intensely, and our work was impeded on multiple levels.”

As protests spread throughout the country, so did the attacks on journalists. In Los Angeles on May 30, freelance reporter Lexis-Olivier Ray was jabbed in the stomach with a baton by a police officer, the first of six alleged attacks carried out against him by police as he covered protests in that city. The following day in Iowa, police pepper sprayed and arrested Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri. Prosecutors charged her with “failure to disperse” and “interference with official acts.” A jury later acquitted her of all charges.

On June 1, Amelia Brace and her team from Australian TV channel Seven News were beaten and shot with rubber bullets outside the White House by U.S. Park Police clearing Lafayette Square, an attack broadcast live on Australian television. Invited later to testify before Congress, Brace said she was shocked by the violence of the assault and had expected to work “freely and safely ... in the world’s greatest democracy.”


Washington, D.C.

In July, freelance photographer Mel D. Cole was arrested by police in New York while covering a pro-police demonstration because he didn’t have a press pass. Later that month, Grace Morgan, a freelance photographer covering unrest in Portland, Oregon, was pepper sprayed, thrown to the ground, and arrested by federal agents, who repeatedly shoved her face into a concrete wall.

While police departments in the U.S. are highly decentralized, each having its own culture and approach, the fact that similar violations occurred repeatedly and all over the country suggests that deployment of indiscriminate crowd control measures and the aggressive use of less lethal munitions are systemic problems. In the year following Floyd’s murder, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documented hundreds of separate incidents carried out by police in 80 cities across 36 states. “Protests have always been dangerous to cover, but we had never seen anything on this scale,” said Tracker Managing Editor Kirstin McCudden. From May 26, 2020, to May 26, 2021, journalists in 309 cases claimed they were targeted by the police. Forty-four of those incidents took place in Minneapolis.



Like Mike Shum, attorney Leita Walker was initially willing to give the Minneapolis police the benefit of the doubt. One of a handful of lawyers in Minneapolis with a specialized First Amendment practice, her phone began buzzing after CNN’s Jimenez was arrested live on TV. Walker was relieved when the crew was released after about an hour, following a phone call from then-CNN President Jeff Zucker to Gov. Walz, who publicly apologized, taking “full responsibility” and explaining at a press conference later that morning that “even if you’re clearing an area, we have got to ensure there is a safe spot for journalism to tell the story.”

But news organizations around the country were deeply concerned. They asked Walker, a partner with the national firm Ballard Spahr, to be on call, ready with a criminal defense attorney to help spring arrested journalists and provide bail. Despite the experiences of Shum and others in the subsequent days, Walker’s confidence in Minneapolis law enforcement as an institution remained intact. It was a chaotic period, she reasoned. She was reassured by statements coming from senior officials, including Walz, and attributed arrests and attacks on reporters to the actions of frontline officers rather than the command structure.

A year later, following the police killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, an incorporated city within the Twin Cities metro area, that faith began to crumble. On April 11, 2021, in a period of heightened tension during the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter shot and killed Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop when she said she mistook her gun for a taser. (Potter was later convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison.) In the aftermath of the killing, protesters went back to the streets, gathering daily in front of the Brooklyn Center Police Department to express their anger. The city imposed a 10 p.m. curfew, and once again there were clashes.




Key Locations During Daunte Wright Protests
Brooklyn Center, MN

On April 17, 2021, writing on behalf of nearly 30 media organizations, Walker outlined her concerns in a letter to Walz and other senior officials. As they had following the Floyd murder, police liberally deployed chemical munitions and aggressive crowd control measures that directly impacted the work of journalists covering events. But they also seemed to go out of their way to target journalists in particular, in some instances in ways that suggested a racial bias. On April 13, police arrested CNN reporter Carolyn Sung after grabbing her by the backpack, throwing her to the ground, and restraining her using zip ties. “Do you speak English?” one officer screamed at Sung, who is Asian American. She was transported to the local jail, subjected to an intimate body search, and made to put on an orange jumpsuit, before being released after about two hours.

That same night, police surrounded a car carrying a number of journalists, including New York Times photographer Joshua Rashaad McFadden, who is Black. Police beat on the car with truncheons and later entered the vehicle and attacked McFadden with batons, striking him in the legs and trying to break his camera. It was only after a white colleague vouched for McFadden that police allowed him to leave the scene. (Across the country, Black journalists contended not only with the risk of racial profiling by police but also the emotional toll of covering one’s own community in a time of stress and turmoil—often as part of a news organization in which Black journalists were significantly underrepresented.)

Beyond the physical attacks, Walker also raised concern about the actions that police took on April 16: They ordered journalists caught up in a mass arrest to lie on the ground along with protesters. After 10 minutes, they ordered the journalists to stand up, and forced them to line up and be individually photographed before they could leave. In her letter, Walker called the incident “deeply disturbing.”




Brooklyn Center, MN

KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images

Ed Ou, who had traveled back to Minnesota on assignment for The New York Times, also found his experience covering the Brooklyn Center protests transformative. In part because of the risk of being on the street, he approached the story differently. Ou met a Black family living in an apartment near the police station who invited him into their home to record their thoughts and observations. As clashes took place in the streets outside, a member of the Minnesota State Patrol observed Ou inside the apartment and yelled at him to stop filming. Ou felt he had a professional obligation as well as a legal right to film, particularly because he was on private property. But he put down his camera because he was afraid that police might fire on him with less lethal munitions, endangering the family that was hosting him. Allowing threats from the police to limit his coverage of newsworthy events greatly troubled Ou.

The year before, after the police attacked him outside the 5th Precinct, Ou had been approached by the ACLU of Minnesota about joining a class action lawsuit on behalf of journalists whose rights were allegedly violated while covering the protests. He had not followed up. But now back in Minnesota, he decided to meet with local ACLU attorneys to hear about the case. By the end of the meeting, he had agreed to sign on as a plaintiff. His tape of the events on May 30, 2020, outside the precinct would prove to be a crucial piece of evidence.

The lead plaintiff in the ACLU case was a freelance journalist, Jared Goyette, who was shot in the face with less lethal munitions on May 27, 2020, while covering the Floyd protests. The ACLU had begun collecting evidence of press freedom violations soon after the protests began in order to build a class action claim against the city of Minneapolis and law enforcement authorities, including the Minneapolis Police Department and the Minnesota State Patrol. “The first consideration was how do we stop the bleeding,” said Isabella Nascimento, a member of the ACLU legal team who today works with Walker at Ballard Spahr. The initial complaint was filed on June 2, 2020.

A year later, the case was moving slowly through the legal system when Brooklyn Center erupted. The wave of new and serious attacks on the press—a number of which appeared to be targeted and deliberate—added momentum. The Chauvin trial was ongoing, the verdict uncertain, and the possibility of even more street protests seemed real. On April 16, 2021, U.S. District Court Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright granted the ACLU’s request to temporarily prohibit police from using physical force against journalists.

On July 28, Judge Wright held open hearings in the case. Ou testified about his experiences covering events outside the 5th Precinct on May 30, 2020, and walked the court through the video he shot that night. Another plaintiff, California photojournalist Chris Tuite, testified about his experiences covering the Brooklyn Center protests, including the attack on Timesphotographer McFadden, which Tuite witnessed.


Brooklyn Center, MN

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Maj. Joseph Dwyer of the Minnesota State Patrol alleged in his testimony that police deployed outside the 5th Precinct on May 30, 2020, had come under attack from protesters, though Ou’s video showed no such violence. Dwyer also alleged that as many as a third of the estimated 1,000 protesters there that night falsely claimed to be members of the media, but on cross-examination admitted he had no documentation to support this allegation. Gov. Walz had made a similarly unsubstantiated claim at a press conference more than a year earlier on May 31, 2020, when he complained about “people being picked up with guns, claiming to be reporters at the time.”

In her opinion granting a preliminary injunction against the Minnesota State Patrol, Judge Wright challenged law enforcement’s claims regarding the difficulty of distinguishing journalists from protesters, noting “many of the alleged incidents of misconduct in this case involved law enforcement officers actively disregarding clearly displayed press credentials, distinctive clothing, and other indicia that individuals were members of the press. Rather than an inability to identify members of the press, the record reflects many instances of law enforcement officers willfully disregarding the relevant identifiers. This demonstrates a problem of compliance, not a problem of clarity.” Judge Wright also found that the “facts suggest that the State Defendants’ actions were motivated, at least in part, by the engagement of the press in constitutionally protected activity.”

In January 2022, six months after the hearing, the state of Minnesota reached a settlement with plaintiffs in the case that included monetary compensation of $825,000 and affirmation of the rights of journalists to cover protests free of police harassment or coercion. The monitored injunction requires the Minnesota State Patrol—and anyone acting “in active concert or participation with them”—to refrain from arresting or attacking journalists or seizing their equipment. The settlement puts the onus on police to identify journalists by looking for “indicia,” including “carrying a professional or authorized press pass or wearing a professional or authorized press badge or other official press credentials or distinctive clothing that identifies the wearer as a member of the press,” but also stating, “These indicia are not exclusive, and a person need not exhibit every indicium to be considered a Journalist under this Order.” The settlement also contains provisions requiring the use of body cameras by members of the state patrol and additional training on First Amendment rights, and mandates an independent expert review conducted by an “individual who is mutually agreeable to the Parties.” Nascimento called the settlement a legal milestone.

Many journalists say they continue to feel unsettled. “I’ve never been a fly-on-the-wall type of photographer or a documentary photographer,” said Cole, from the L.A. Times. “I identify myself as a photojournalist. I believe in my role as a journalist and that confidence gives me an inner strength to carry out my job in dangerous situations. But working as a mainstream photojournalist is no longer a shield, it can be a liability. I think it’s still important to have a credential process to identify members of the press but know that it doesn’t offer the protection or access that it once did.”

Ou agreed. After years of covering conflict around the world, Ou said his “radar for what’s safe and what’s not has been completely fried” because the police response in Minneapolis was so violent and so sudden, even though he felt he had done everything right to protect himself.

Despite his pivotal role as a plaintiff in the Goyette case, Ou is uncertain the settlement will make him safer, given the breakdown in trust and respect between press and police.

As for Shum, he originally signed on as a plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit but withdrew because of the possible conflict when he began work on a Frontline documentary, “Police on Trial,” about the prosecution of Chauvin. In the course of making that documentary, Shum came across body-worn camera recordings of police lieutenants and sergeants disparaging journalists and expressing contempt for their work, which had been uncovered during court proceedings. He found it shocking.


Shum understood from covering the first few nights of violent protests the challenges that police faced working in a chaotic environment. But his own experiences, confirmed by the candid police comments, suggested a fractured and permissive institutional culture that facilitated the abuses committed against journalists. “The way they were talking about protests clearly meant that behind the line they didn’t care about press freedom,” Shum concluded.


Ch 4: Legal Reform in California →