In the aftermath of an unforeseen outcome in the presidential election, tens of thousands of Americans in cities and on college campuses across the country marched in protest. The New York Times reported on demonstrations in New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas, Chicago and others.
Many protests were peaceful, some turned destructive and violent. The crowd in Oakland, California, swelled from 3,000 to an estimated 6,000 people, according to the Times.
Kyle Ludowitz, a graduate student in journalism at the University of California-Berkeley, was in downtown Oakland, on Broadway between 17th and 19th Streets, to cover the protests.
“The police had kind of cordoned off areas several blocks up and behind, but were not present on those streets when it was happening. I was photographing some of the bonfires that had been lit in the middle of the street when I heard a crash behind me, and then an alarm go off. And so I turned around and directly behind me there was a series of people taking anything they could find in the street — rocks, bricks and such — and they were smashing local shop windows. They were particularly attacking what I believe was a pawnshop at the time.”
Ludowitz described the individuals as wearing “black bloc” gear – all-black clothing, black backpacks, and black bandanas or ski masks to obscure their faces. Rioting, street-fighting, and destruction of private property, such as Ludowitz observed, are all black bloc tactics often employed by anarchist groups.
Ludowitz started taking photos.
“So, when I was taking a photograph, I was blindsided on my left-hand side by an individual. I fell down to one knee, kind of stunned. I had been in situations in the past where I had been punched while taking a photograph, so I’m familiar with the feeling of being attacked and I tried to get up instantly when I was mobbed. So, after the first attacker had struck me, I believe it was three other individuals joined in on him and I was attacked by four white men in their twenties that were masked anarchists.”
The rioters quickly got Ludowitz down on the ground, grabbing and ripping at his camera gear. Three protesters noticed the attack and attempted to intervene, but the men in black bloc continued to punch Ludowitz, snatching one of his two cameras and breaking the lens away from the body of his other camera, which was hanging around his neck, sheering away parts of the internal components.
“I mean they didn’t really say much to me, the only thing they were saying at that point was ‘Just let it go, just let it go,’ and they said that two or three times and that was referring to my camera. So, that’s how I specifically know they weren’t just randomly attacking me for no reason. They weren’t trying to get the camera to resell it or anything like that. They specifically were attacking me because I was a photojournalist and just wanted my gear destroyed because I had taken photographs.”
Once the cameras were gone, Ludowitz’s attackers relented, and the protesters who’d been trying to help got him up and walked with him to the end of the block until it was clear the rioters weren’t pursuing him. Ludowitz found a street medic who advised him to visit the ER in light of the injuries to his head.
After running into a colleague, Ludowitz heeded the medic’s advice and made his way to a hospital before filing a police report. When asked if he would press charges in the event his attackers were arrested, he said he wouldn’t – the masks precluded him from making a positive identification.
Ludowitz said this is the first time he’s been attacked in the United States, and the first time he’s been confronted by anyone other than a state entity. He’s been a professional photojournalist since 2009, covering conflicts in Israel and Palestine as will as Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan.
He’s photographed landmine victims near the Myanmar border and was in Syria most recently, photographing in Aleppo during several barrel-bombing campaigns in 2014. That was when he decided he was out of his depth and returned to pursue his master’s degree.
Ludowitz is still passionate about covering conflict and human rights abuses, and he recognizes what’s at stake for journalists and for the public. He said, “This is such a critical time in our history, and particularly within journalism.”
“This is a point where tensions are high, people are really angry, a lot can happen, but we as journalists really need to double down and dig our feet in and we need to continue to report stories, so even if it’s scary, and there’s a little bit of danger to be had, I think it’s our duty as journalists to go out there and still just do the hard stories and tell what needs to be told.”
This story, along with the widespread instances of protests and reports of violence we’ve seen covered by high school and college journalists since the election, has given us pause. Normally, the SPLC concentrates on the legal rights of students, and we do have legal guides for students covering a variety of situations, including protests.
These guides, however, focus on the reporter’s rights when questioned or detained by law enforcement. Our concern has long been with state-exercised censorship, but arrest isn’t the only challenge student reporters face. With this in mind, we put together a short list of tips, an addendum to our legal guide.
The starting point is always to be mindful of minimizing personal risk and to appreciate that any large-crowd event — whether it is a political protest or the celebration after a basketball championship — has the potential of turning dangerous. It’s important for every journalist to weigh the importance of photographing or filming a specific incident with their personal safety. Sometimes, the shot isn’t worth it.
Even Ludowitz said, “Next time I ever see someone smashing windows I’m just not going to bother photographing it.”
That said, these events are happening, and students are covering them. Most, thankfully, are peaceful. So, here are some thoughts on protecting yourself and your colleagues during mass demonstrations, protests, or riots.
- Work together: Ludowitz’s primary advice for any journalists covering protests, rallies, or any other crowd events that could potentially turn antagonistic is to report in pairs or teams. He also recognizes the irony of this, given that many newsrooms have cut staff and require reporters to be one-person writer/photographer/videographer machines.
- Memorize key phone numbers: This tip is also addressed in our legal guide to covering protests. There, we intended the advice the event you’re arrested and need to make a call from jail. However, this, and the advice to carry quarters, holds just as true in the event that you lose your phone. Also know that any and all phones in the United States (including payphones and mobiles not on a service plan) will connect you with 911 emergency services.
- Avoid relying solely on your phone: Because rioters may focus on a journalist’s camera, using your phone as your only camera can put you in the doubly vulnerable position of losing both your footage and your lifeline to call for help. Where possible, treat your phone as an emergency backup recording system rather than your primary image-gathering device, and invest in an internet-enabled camera that can upload photos to “cloud” storage for safekeeping.
- Institute a check-in system: If you’re working as part of a newsroom, and have multiple reporters in the field, schedule regular texts or phone calls with editors and map out a location in advance for reporters to meet up. Editors should also monitor the social media streams of their reporters. Sudden silence might mean trouble, and their Snaps and Tweets can give you an idea where to look.
- Don’t get cornered: When reporting, stay on the periphery of the crowd. Try not to get pinned between opposing factions, be it protesters, counter-protesters, or police. Non-lethal crowd control weapons and improvised projectiles are most likely to be fired or thrown from one group into another.
- Insure your gear: This is the last item because, obviously, your personal safety comes first. That said, gear is expensive. It’s bad enough to endure an attack; it’s worse to also be unable to work and report afterward because you can’t afford to replace your equipment. If you have insurance, make sure the policy covers theft as well as damage.