I got tear gassed Friday night while covering the George Floyd protest in downtown Oakland. It was the first time I’d been hit with gas by police since 2003 in San Francisco, during a demonstration against the second Persian Gulf War.
The police didn’t target me on Friday. I was in the middle of a crowd of demonstrators, doing my job, when officers fired gas canisters without warning. They’d been pelted with bottles and firecrackers and sworn at for more than an hour, and frankly, moments before, I had marveled at their restraint. But then came the flash bangs, and the gas, and I was unable to flee fast enough to escape the noxious cloud that overtook everyone, including quite a few members of the media. Elsewhere around the country, journalists have been targeted directly during this spasm of protest triggered by the police killing of Floyd after he was accused of passing a bogus $20 bill in Minneapolis. I have friends and colleagues who have been hit hard with rubber bullets, dragged to the ground and arrested, hauled off in handcuffs without explanation, despite displaying valid press credentials, carrying obvious equipment and cooperating with police officers who refuse to explain why they’re arresting journalists. Many are journalists of color, left to wonder whether it's their profession, or their skin, or some combination of the two, that drew fire.
We know we take chances out there. I’ve been doing this for more than 35 years. We calculate the risks and do whatever it takes to get the story/the shot/the sound, without putting our lives in too much danger. I’ve covered literally hundreds of demonstrations that turned chaotic and violent. During the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992, I was shot at by a looter and escaped by driving my rented subcompact through a gauntlet of burning buildings, the flames so intensely hot that I sped down the center stripe to keep the car from exploding. Once, a barricaded suspect fired at me while I covered a police standoff in the Bay Area, one bullet ricocheting off the pavement near my foot, another whistling past my ear. Covering countless demonstrations and wildfires, earthquakes and terrorist attacks, I’ve had too many close calls to count. Some would call me lucky. Others would be fair to call me a fool. Sometimes, as we check our VU meters to make sure we’re getting good audio of the whizzing bullets, or forget our surroundings while framing the shot of the cop with the riot gun, we somehow imagine we’re protected by an invisible force field, that as duly credentialed members of the Fourth Estate we are immune to the deadly forces cutting people down around us. Or maybe that’s just me.
Of course, we’re not. We’re just committed journalists, passionate about what we do. We believe we are necessary to a free and informed democracy. Our nation’s founders thought so too, enshrining our rights in the Constitution of the United States, and the courts have recognized and upheld those rights, time after time after time. But now, in this most perilous time when we are needed to bear witness and amplify voices more than ever before, those rights are not only in jeopardy, they seem to have evaporated. The media are held in contempt, not respect. The President of the United States openly derides us, calling us “Fake News” and “The Enemy of the People.” On Sunday, he tweeted that the “Lamestream Media” are “truly bad people with a sick agenda.” So it’s no surprise that so many people, including law enforcement officers and looters who use legitimate protest as cover for their crimes, see us as adversaries and targets, ignore our press passes and pleas, and knock us to the ground, both figuratively and literally. We diligently avoid interfering with the performance of the cops’ jobs, but some of them keep us from doing ours.
Even so, as targeted as journalists may feel right now, we still have enormous privilege compared with many, if not most, Americans. In my case, I’m a white man. I have press credentials, issued by the San Francisco Police Department and the State of California. I have my employer’s corporate attorneys to bail me out. If I get busted or hurt, it will be a “mistake” that brings a public apology. George Floyd couldn’t say the same. Nor could Eric Garner. Nor Michael Brown.
Friday night in Oakland, I tried to climb an onramp to cover protesters who had blocked Interstate 880. The entrance was blocked by police cars and crawling with heavily armed riot cops. They shouted for me to stop. Told me to turn around and go back. Shined a bright light in my face. From 30 or 40 feet away, I yelled “Media!” I shouted “I’m with KCBS, just trying to see what’s happening on the highway!” They barked, “Move back! Now!” I kept advancing. They tensed and stepped toward me. Some raised their guns. I was holding a three-foot long black pipe, part of a microphone stand I cannibalized at the start of the coronavirus pandemic so I could conduct socially distant interviews in the field. It dawned on me that it could easily be mistaken for a weapon. That they couldn’t hear my shouts over the hovering helicopter, the M80s and flash bang grenades going off down the block. That in the swirl of smoke just after nightfall, there was no way they could make out the press passes around my neck, the KCBS Radio logo on my vest, or even the CBS News emblazoned on my baseball cap. I stopped. I showed them my hands, hoping they didn’t think the mic stand in one of them was the barrel of a rifle. They kept their lights and weapons pointed at me as I slowly backed away, waved submissively, and then turned and walked as quickly as I could away from them. And all I could think was: Thank God I am white.
That’s the reality of life in America, 2020. Yes, we journalists have become targets too, and it’s not right. It’s not legal. It’s not good for the country. But when it was all over, when I had washed the teargas out of my eyes and filed my radio stories and tweeted my last video, I went home to my comfortable house and my wife and kids knowing that I could go out the next day, wearing my N95 mask, without feeling like a target simply because of the color of my skin. And thanks to my status as a journalist, I will continue to have a front row seat to history and a backstage pass to life. I may have to dodge a few more bullets, but only if I put myself in harm’s way to do my job. Not when I go to a store. Or for a jog. Or simply walk down the street. America has a responsibility to protect those of us who tell its stories, who reveal its truths, who keep its citizenry informed. We, in turn, have an awesome responsibility to speak the truth about that citizenry, about this nation. Our society endures these violent convulsions every few years and nothing ever changes. Buildings get torched, windows get smashed, people get hurt and angry and tired and sad. Eventually, emotions subside, broken glass gets swept up, and life returns to what we call normal. Which, for me, is a life of extraordinary privilege and opportunity, but for those who don’t look like me and have the protections and access that I do, is a daily stroll through fear and anxiety. Too often for them, an innocent outing or yes, sometimes, a petty crime, leads to an indefensible murder, an inexplicably horrible moment of inhumanity like the killing of George Floyd and too many more before him.
And the sad, brutal truth is: Nothing. Will. Change. It never does. The racism won’t ever go away. How can it? Too many Americans don’t want it to. They don’t even believe it’s real.
Once, maybe a dozen years ago, during a similarly chaotic night of protest in Oakland, a police officer approached me and said, “I’ve been watching you all night. You move really fast. You never stand still, and you’re really quick. You’d be really hard to kill.” I wasn’t sure whether to thank her for the compliment, or express how unnerved I was that she had actually contemplated the difficulty of gunning me down.
Yes, we journalists are targets now. We’re not used to it, and it’s wrong. But black and brown Americans are targets every day, and have been for centuries, and they are terribly used to it, and as we advocate for our own protection, let’s not get lost in our indignation and forget to tell the truth about that.