Magazine article The Quill

Under Attack

Magazine article The Quill

Under Attack

Article excerpt

"I was sitting there, choking. I couldn't breathe."

Davis Winborne, a freelance photojournalist, remembers the night he and several other journalists were forcefully loaded into a van by police while covering a protest in St. Louis last September.

"All of a sudden, there were no cops around us," he said. "It was dark, and we were running with these protesters as they were breaking things. Then, two dozen cops came out from around a corner and started firing beanbag shots."

This was his third night covering the protests that followed the acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley in the shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith. This night felt different he said; the police were more on edge, and the protesters had been growing more aggressive.

He had a feeling the night was not going to end well.

After the beanbag shots, Winborne said, a Jeep roared toward the group, which at this point was 70 percent protesters, 30 percent journalists. Fresh on their minds was the death of Heather D. Heyer, who was killed after a car plowed into a crowd of protesters a month earlier in Charlottesville, Virginia.

"We all jumped out of the way, and then the windows rolled down and it was full of cops," he said.

The police ran toward the group, screaming for them to get down on the ground after firing pepper spray in the air. Winborne said all the protesters, who for the most part were shirtless and wearing black masks, ran away, but the journalists, wearing khakis and carrying camera bags, froze and threw their hands in the air.

"We assumed it was obvious we were journalists," he said. "They (police) would go after the rioters, not let them run away and leave us alone."

Instead, Winborne said, an officer grabbed him and threw him against a wall where there were three other journalists forced into the same position.

"I was wearing a helmet and a gas mask, and the police tried to rip it off, but the strap was choking me," he said. "Another journalist saw what was happening and told the cops I couldn't breathe. But all he said was, 'Shut the f--- up,' and then walked away."

With zip-tied hands, Winborne was able to lean back and shimmy his helmet off. A photojournalist for less than a year, he said he expected something like this to happen to him at some point.

"I see how police treat journalists," he said. "A similar thing happened, in D.C., to a friend, but I got so caught up following the protesters, I did not pay attention. And then it happened to me."


"These attacks happen surprisingly often," said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. "Unfortunately, many of us (journalists) at one point or another are going to have something like that happen."

Since January 2017, 46 journalists have been physically attacked or had equipment damaged in targeted incidents or while working in the United States, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the website launched by the Freedom of the Press Foundation in August.

Peter Sterne, a senior reporter at the foundation and managing editor of the Press Freedom Tracker, said the website was launched to help the public better understand the risks journalists in the United States face every day.

"They are not being imprisoned for long periods of time or killed, but they are facing physical attacks and arrests," Sterne said.

David Minsky, a freelance journalist who was beaten by masked protesters in August while covering protests in Berke- ley, California, said being a journalist can be dangerous, especially if you are covering a protest.

"Just because you have a camera and notepad and a jacket that says press, that doesn't mean you are safe," he said.

During protests, journalists are "being squeezed on all sides," said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.

"Demonstrators are suspect of anyone they do not know who is photographing or recording them," he said. …

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