You might think during a highly-visible trial about the use of excessive police force in Minneapolis that police throughout Minnesotawould be on their best behavior. But that’s not what has been happening in recent days as state and local police have physically abused and illegally detained reporters, photographers and producers even after a local judge issued a restraining order aimed at stopping such First Amendment abuses.
As the nation watched the trial of Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, journalists covering protests in connection with the death of another man, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in nearby Brooklyn Center, were being manhandled by law enforcement there.
One of the most troubling accounts of abuse involved a CNN producer, Carolyn Sung, who was wrongfully arrested April 13 while covering protests in connection with the death of Wright. According to an April 17th letter to Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz from Leita Walker, an attorney representing several news organizations, Ms. Sung was thrown to the ground by state law enforcement officers who zip-tied her hands behind her back.
The letter also alleges that Ms. Sung, who is Asian American, did not resist arrest and repeatedly tried to identify herself as a CNN journalist. During that time, one of the troopers allegedly yelled at Ms. Sung, “Do you speak English?” Ms. Sung’s first language is English.
Ms. Sung was loaded onto a prisoner-transport bus, which took her to a county jail where “she was patted down and searched by a female officer who put her hands down Sung’s pants and in her bra, fingerprinted, electronically body-scanned, and ordered to strip and put on an orange uniform before attorneys working on her behalf were able to locate her and secure her release,” according to the letter of complaint. CNN reported the incident Sunday on “Reliable Sources.”
Journalists ranging from freelancers to USA Today staffers were also abused by law enforcement officers while covering protests last week in Brooklyn Center, a suburb of Minneapolis, according to a report in USA Today.
Friday night, journalists were rounded up and forced on their stomachs as law enforcement officers examined their credentials and then photographed their faces.
“We condemn the actions of the police in Brooklyn Center in the strongest possible terms,” Maribel Perez Wadsworth, publisher of USA Today, said in a statement over the weekend. “Requiring journalists to lie prone on the ground and photographing their credentials are purposeful intimidation tactics. To be clear, we will not be intimidated or deterred in fulfilling our First Amendment right and responsibility to hold power to account in our reporting.”
There are also other accounts of journalists being pepper sprayed and assaulted by law enforcement officers while covering the protests.
Mr. Walz said Saturday that he was embarrassed by the treatment of journalists in his state.
“A free press is foundational to our democracy. Reporters worked tirelessly during this tumultuous year to keep Minnesotans informed. I convened a meeting today with media and law enforcement to determine a better path forward to protect the journalists covering civil unrest,” the governor wrote on Twitter Saturday.
But Mr. Walz voiced the same kind of high-sounding words in May after a fierce backlash to CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez being handcuffed and arrested by Minnesota State Police while on air. The actions of Minnesota law enforcement officers last week show how empty the words of the governor were then. Why believe him for one second now?
I fear what the police in Minnesota will do if there are major protests after a Chauvin verdict. If they will disregard the First Amendment and abuse journalists who can readily expose excessive use of force, what won’t they do to citizen protesters?
As a society we have to ask how we got to this point where some police officers think it is acceptable to blatantly disregard First Amendment guarantees and harass, assault and try to humiliate members of the press while they are doing their journalistic jobs of informing the public.
There are a lot of answers, and such tactics are not new. From labor battles in the 1930s to civil rights struggles in the 1960s, journalists have often been targeted by police while trying to report. But none is more immediate or obvious than the poison of fascism and hate that former President Donald Trump injected into the culture. Calling members of the press “enemies of the people” and “scum of the earth” for four years from the most powerful pulpit in the land looks to have sadly done its dirty work.