Journalists have faced both aggressive protesters and police during demonstrations across the country following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker’s figures show (as of this weekend) 117 journalists have been attacked and 37 arrested this year. They have counted over 440 “aggressions” just while covering Black Lives Matter protests.
This is not at all new. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked press freedom in the United States 45th out of 180 countries in the RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Treatment of journalists here has gotten worse in recent years, with arrests, physical assaults, public denigration and harassment rising. “Much of that ire,” RSF reports, comes from the president and his associates in the federal government, “who have demonstrated the United States is no longer a champion of press freedom at home or abroad.”
An Inquirer reporter was detained (and later released) last week by police while she covered protesters trying to deliver a letter to city administrators. Police handcuffed her and dragged her backward down two flights of stairs, even after she shouted six times, “I am a reporter.”
The officer told her to “put this on Twitter.”
What is new is how the definition of what a journalist is has changed.
Twitter and Facebook is where a lot of Americans get their news these days. It’s old news that most aren’t reading the daily newspaper. And a lot of the news on social media is no longer gathered by journalists from mainstream media.
Isaac Scott, a 29-year-old ceramic artist, started taking pictures when the coronavirus pandemic shut down his classes at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. He started a new Instagram account in March and began posting color pictures of flowers, buildings, power lines, murals and graffiti, and in the last week in May, an old sneaker. As the month ends, he offers an abandoned basketball in a puddle. The next day his posts were in black and white. He’s marching with protesters, photographing confrontations with the police, and two days later, he is among those teargassed on I-676.
Last week The New Yorker devoted seven double-truck pages to a series of his photographs. Scott told The New Yorker, “The energy is there, and the city is finally respecting what’s happening. Now I gotta get out there again.” Since then he has also photographed peaceful days.
Philadelphia journalist Chris Schiano, who works with Unicorn Riot, a nonprofit alternative news organization, has been reporting outside the mainstream media since the 2016 protests by Standing Rock Sioux tribe members against the Dakota Access Pipeline. His work from Marconi Plaza with defenders of the Columbus statue allegedly assaulting him is one of the most viewed videos posted on social media during the standoff. The tires on Schiano’s bicycle were slashed and a police captain - who was later reassigned - is shown telling the reporter to leave for aggravating a volatile situation and “inciting a riot.”
Finally, photographer Mel D Cole has covered music, especially in the world of hip hop, for almost 20 years. He says on his Instagram page, “I am not press. I’ve never been press. I’m a photographer. Period.” Cole first covered a protest march in New York following the death of Michael Brown, Jr. a teenager who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. He told Esquire magazine he’s always been drawn to conflict, and right now “is one of the biggest conflicts ever.” Since George Floyd’s killing, he has photographed in New York City, at the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond Virginia, and in Houston for Floyd’s funeral. Then he came to Philadelphia, where he was punched in the face by a defender of the Columbus statue who repeatedly yelled “get outta here, boy.”
The following Instagram contains strong language and images.
Just one day later a self-styled vigilante was arrested for the alleged assault, and also charged with ethnic intimidation, reckless endangerment and harassment against Cole. When District Attorney Larry Krasner announced the arrest, he criticized the police for not doing more, and reminded elected officials watching demonstrations of their responsibilities. “I say: Do what is right and deliver the accountability and the justice that the people demand,” Krasner said. “Protect journalists. Protect free speech.”
Since 1998, a black-and-white photo has appeared every Monday in staff photographer Tom Gralish’s photo column in The Inquirer’s local news section. Here are the most recent, in color: