‘I didn’t expect to get tackled trying to do my job’ 

Journalists face risks during Black Lives Matter protests, coronavirus crisis

Tear gas at the Lansing police brutality protest, May 31, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

For Steve Neavling, it was a seminal moment.

The veteran Detroit Metro Times investigative reporter described to the Advance how he was roughed up on June 2 up by Detroit Police while reporting on police arrests of Black Lives Matter protesters in the Motor City. Neavling said that he was punched, kneed, and elbowed by Detroit police on Gratiot Avenue as he covered protesters and their subsequent encounter with the law.

Steve Neavling | Ken Coleman photo

“It was horrifying,” Neavling recalled as he lay face down along a section of the six-lane major eastside thoroughfare that extends from downtown Detroit beyond city limits. “I didn’t expect to get tackled trying to do my job.”

There have been more than 585 reported aggressions against journalists during Black Lives Matters protests across the country, according to a media watchdog tally. Since March, reporters also have been grappling with health risks in covering the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed about 150,000 people and sickened more than 4.3 million in the United States alone. 

Vickie Thomas is a 2019 Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame inductee who has reported on metro Detroit as a radio reporter for more than 30 years, primarily for WWJ News Radio 950. She covered the incident with Detroit police and said she was astonished at the scene.

“In all my years, I would have never thought that No. 1, I’d been covering a pandemic, and No. 2 that I would be witnessing, I imagine, something out of the 1967 Detroit riot,” said Thomas.

The steamy evening featured a showdown between city police and protesters who at that point had marched from Detroit Police headquarters just west of downtown about eight miles due east toward Detroit City Airport site at Conner Road. Protesters, Black and white and mainly young, chanted, “Black Lives Matter!” and “We don’t bow down to bullets and shields.”

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Riot gear-clad police, pounding their batons on their clear shields in rhythmic fashion, formed a blockade and began moving toward the protesters asking them to “go home.” The protesters respond in unison: “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” It was just past 8 p.m., the city’s recently established curfew. If it weren’t real, you might have thought it was a scene with the Stormtroopers in the classic “Star Wars” series. The clash resulted with tear gas being sprayed, protesters hit, and arrests made.

The clash between protesters and police resulted in multiple arrests. Mainly, it was riot gear-clan police wrestling with protestors into submission. All detainees were swiftly released.

Neavling said he wasn’t expecting that police reaction during the first several days of protests in Detroit following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

“And the police never apologized,” he said. “The city [its elected officials include the mayor and City Council] wanted [journalists] to hold them accountable but the police had a different perspective, which was just to tackle anybody in the way.”

Now he’s ready to toss a body blow of his own.  

“I’m meeting with a lawyer and I’m likely going to file a lawsuit against the city of Detroit and the Police Department,” Neavling said on Sunday. 

Detroit Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood told the Advance, “We are aware of his allegations and have launched an investigation.” 

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Detroit reporters detained

Across the nation, hundreds of journalists have been assaulted while covering protests. One of them was Linda Tirado, a freelance photojournalist, who was shot with a rubber bullet round while covering protests in Minneapolis, permanently losing vision in her left eye.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota has filed a class-action lawsuit against state and local law enforcement officials there. Its aim is to ensure that police officers who target journalists are held fully accountable for their unlawful actions.

Over a four-day period in late May and early June, several Michigan journalists were restricted from carrying out their work while covering the protests. At times, they’ve been mistaken as protestors by police and faced violence. Along with demonstrators, some have been teargassed and hit by non-lethal rubber bullets. 

On May 31, Christine MacDonald, a Detroit News investigative reporter, was handcuffed and arrested by a Detroit police officer while she was recording a demonstration on her cell phone.

“I was filming from afar. I was not interfering at all, and he arrested me,” MacDonald said, according to a News report. She was detained briefly and released. 

The same day, Detroit Free Press reporter David Jesse said police shot rubber bullets at journalists. “We were yelling ‘Media!’ and showing our press passes. They shot at us anyway,” Jesse said, as reported in the Free Press. Free Press Deputy Photo Editor Kelly Jordan also said police knocked her cell phone away as she was filming arrests.

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Two days later, Detroit Free Press reporter Darcie Moran was handcuffed  and taken to the ground on June 2 by Detroit police during the same Black Lives Matter protest in Detroit that Neavling endured a violent encounter. 

Moran tweeted that evening about the incident:

“Yes. This happened. I am fully okay. You can see a very nervous me awkwardly explaining what happened on our [Facebook] Live. I didn’t have time to lift up my media pass hanging on a lanyard in front. Officer apologized and found me again a few minutes later to apologize again.”

Later, the Detroit Police Department acknowledged the mistake.

“There was a member of the Detroit Free Press and after we approached and made an arrest, the journalist we detained she quickly identified herself as a member of the press,” Detroit Police Chief James Craig said the following day. “And she was immediately released.” 

At a subsequent daily press briefing, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan publicly apologized to Moran.

Neavling, who wears a mask and has covered many of the Detroit protests, said that in recent weeks law enforcement has done a better job allowing protesters to carry out their First Amendment rights and providing journalists an opportunity to report the news.

Updated: Police remove woman after allegedly threatening to kill Lansing protesters, her car was destroyed

“I think that the intention is good that they want the media out there and that they want to be accessible,” Neavling said. “I think that the [Detroit] police would get a five and the [rest of the] Duggan administration would get a 10.”

Dozens of public protests have been carried out throughout the state including Grand Rapids and Lansing, mostly without incidents of police targeting media. However, former Michigan Advance reporter Anna Liz Nichols was nearly run over by a counter-protester on June 1 during a Lansing rally

National response

Naturally, many in the news industry are wondering whether journalists are able to stay safe while covering COVID-19 crisis and Black Lives Matter protests. A national coalition of media groups last week urged congressional leaders to pass the Journalist Protection Act.

The legislation, S.751, introduced by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, (D-Conn.) and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, (D-N.J.), and H.R. 1684, introduced by U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, (D-Calif.), would make it a federal crime to intentionally cause bodily injury or threaten a journalist in a manner designed to intimidate them from gathering or reporting the news.

The News Media for Open Government (NMOG) is a group of several organizations including American Society of News Editors; the Associated Press; Association of Alternative Newsmedia; National Newspaper Association; Radio Television Digital News Association; and Society of Professional Journalists.

The coalition believes that passing the measures would send a strong message by affirming the First Amendment protections. It would also give federal prosecutors the ability to prosecute people who assault or intimidate journalists, if state or local prosecutors fail to do so. 

The coalition has created The Journalism Freedom Tracker to compile violations against news gatherers. It reports that since 2017, 195 journalists have been arrested or attacked covering protests.

Media group calls on Congress to protect journalists

Workers’ rights

During the early days of the COVID-19 crisis in March, Thomas said many WWJ reporters were directed to work from news trucks and were not allowed in the building.

That angered Thomas, who is a union steward for Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the union with which WWJ reporters are affiliated.

Thomas also covered a March 18 news conference centered on environmental injustice in Hamtramck that was called by state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit), who likely died from COVID-19 on March 29. Her interview with Robinson was before mask wearing and social distancing became standard operating procedure. After learning about Robinson’s death, Thomas was concerned about her own health, but has not been tested for the virus.

About that time, she led a union effort to request a meeting with Debbie Kenyon, senior vice president and market manager for Entercom Detroit, to discuss the reporter’s concerns about safety. WWJ reporters wanted the opportunity to work from home. Their request was granted.

“It was the right decision to make at the time,” Thomas said.

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Detroit News Editor and Publisher Gary Miles said his paper, which is owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, has provided journalists everything from gas masks to sanitizer when they are on scene. The outlet’s reporters have worked from home since the COVID-19 crisis began in Michigan in mid-March, he said, and the team communicates via Zoom or phone calls. 

When it comes to covering demonstrations, he and others have had discussions with city government officials in Detroit in an effort to create an environment where journalists have access to report freely when on the scene.

Safety for reporters is vitally important, Miles said. While reporting on anti-police brutality demonstrations, the News purchased a few gas masks for reporters’ use.

“Journalism, no doubt, is a dangerous profession,” Miles said. “And we have in many ways been shielded from that, in that we live in a relative peaceful country where there is law and order. But we have sent people into war zones, and situations of great conflict, and if you are going to report we want everyone to be as safe as possible. And what you don’t want is the police or the authorities to have a license to put a target on a journalist’s back.”

Neavling said the Detroit Metro Times has not provided him with personal protective equipment (PPE), but that’s because he has secured his own. He believes that his paper would provide him PPE if he asked for it. During the COVID-19 crisis and Black Lives Matter protests, he is not required to cover public events. 

“For safety reasons, I’m staying further away,” said Neavling about his approach to coverage in comparison to how he would normally report. He described himself as being a “fly on the wall” with respect to Black Lives Matter protests.

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Stevie Blanchard, the Newspaper’s Guild of Detroit administrative officer, said the local government and news agency management have done a better than average job in recent weeks in helping to provide journalists an opportunity to carry out their work. No grievances have been filed.

The guild represents 200 journalists, copy editors, designers, photographers, public relations workers, advertising representatives from five local papers and one union. It currently has units at the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, Observer and Eccentric newspapers in metro Detroit, Macomb Daily and Royal Oak Tribune, as well as Michigan Catholic and the public relations team at United Auto Workers. 

Moving forward, Blanchard said her organization will continue to have concerns about journalists’ safety.

“It’s something that is a major concern, particularly right now with the protests,” she said. “What we do, we keep an eye on it. We watch it. I openly communicate with management, but we also let management do their job, which is to take care of their employees.”

Lisa McGraw, Michigan Press Association (MPA) public affairs manager, points out its 300-member organizations have complied with state government executive orders to wear face masks and practice social distancing whenever possible. MPA’s members have also asked government officials for the ability to cover events without law enforcement restriction.

“They hear us,” McGraw said. “I will acknowledge that these are extraordinary times and we are all learning.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.