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Journalists and protesters alike were detained by law enforcement during the George Floyd protests in Dallas.EXPAND
Journalists and protesters alike were detained by law enforcement during the George Floyd protests in Dallas.
Jacob Vaughn

Journalists Speak Out on Treatment During Police Brutality Protests

As protesters crossed the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge toward a wall of cops on June 1, they chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot!” Members of the media were among the protesters. Photographers’ camera shutters snapped, writers scribbled in their notebooks and some streamed the event live on their phones.

Then, the cops started firing “less-than-lethal munitions” — tear gas, pepper balls, smoke. Some of the first pepper ball shots on the bridge appear to have been fired directly at a photographer. That’s when the situation on the bridge erupted into chaos.

By the end of the night, the police would detain several hundred protesters and several journalists.

Local journalist Steven Monacelli, the publisher and editor of Protean Magazine and an Observer contributor, was covering the protests for Dallas Voice.

He was with a group of reporters when he was shot with what he suspects was a tear gas canister, which left a bruise on his leg that covered more than half of his thigh. As he retreated, he was shot in the back with a green paintball.

Monacelli believes the paintball was meant to mark him for questioning because, despite all the indications that he was a member of the press, he was detained for hours along with other reporters and protesters. Press Freedom Tracker covered Monacelli's experience.

The department has received heavy criticism for its response to the Dallas protests from May 29 to June 1, which is laid out in the Dallas Police Department's after-action report.

Nationally, there have been more than 740 reported aggressions against the press since the beginning of the police brutality protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, according to the Press Freedom Tracker.

Avi Adelman, a local long-time photojournalist, got a call near midnight on May 30 from an attorney with the National Press Photographers Association. They told him that another one of the association’s member photographers, Christopher Rusanowsky, had been arrested by DPD earlier that day.

Rusanowsky was covering the protests in Dallas for Zuma Press on May 30 when he was arrested, according to the Press Freedom Tracker. He was booked into Dallas County Jail for allegedly obstructing a highway. This is a Class B misdemeanor in Texas that could result in 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.

One of the last photos Rusanowsky took before being arrested has since become a major talking point around DPD’s treatment of protesters.

In the moments leading up to his arrest, Rusanowsky was taking photos of demonstrators as they blocked traffic on Interstate 35. He then focused his lens on a police officer shooting a protester with pepper balls at close range. After snapping a few shots, the officer began approaching Rusanowsky, telling him he was going to jail.

Rusanowsky showed the officer his media credentials, but that didn't stop the arrest. He was booked around 11:40 p.m. and got out the next day after posting a $300 bail. Rusanowsky maintains that he did not obstruct the highway.

The photo Rusanowsky took later became the subject of an investigation by The Dallas Morning News, which drew the attention of the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. Last week, the DA launched an investigation into police treatment of protesters during the demonstrations.

Adelman has had his run-ins with police as a photojournalist over the years. He often covers crime scenes in Dallas. In 2016, for instance, Adelman was photographing someone receiving medical attention on Dallas Area Rapid Transit property. A DART officer told Adelman to stop and then arrested him for trespassing when Adelman refused. The charges were later dropped, and DART paid Adelman a $345,000 settlement for his unlawful arrest.

So, before he went to cover the Dallas protests on May 31, the first day of a 7 p.m. citywide curfew, he wanted to make sure he and other journalists were allowed to be in the area. He sent an email to Tristan Hall, the mayor’s spokesperson, who confirmed that the media was exempt from the curfew.

“City manager just issued those regulations. Media is exempt,” Hallman’s email said.

Adelman then reached out to DPD’s public information office asking that they publicize the media exemption. Tamika Dameron responded, “Our officers have been advised that media with appropriate credentials are allowed in the curfew areas.”

But, there was still confusion on the ground as to who was allowed to be where.

Adelman was wearing an orange safety vest with the word “press” on the back and carrying two cameras when he whipped out his phone to begin recording an officer who was telling people to leave the area.

The officer locked in on Adelman, he says. The officer tried to tell Adelman he wasn’t allowed to be there, regardless of him being a member of the media. Had someone not chimed in on the police radio to correct the officer’s mistake, Adelman says he might have been arrested.

“That’s when I knew shit was not going to be good,” Adelman says.

Adelman was following some protesters in Oak Cliff when others began gathering outside the Frank Crowley Courthouse on June 1. The event was moved from its original location to the courthouse, which, at the time, was just outside the curfew zone.

When the courthouse protesters began marching down Riverfront Boulevard toward the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, the reporters covering them followed.

Monacelli had made his way to the front of the march when police first started firing projectiles and releasing tear gas on the bridge. He did what he usually does: He stood his ground, did everything he could to identify himself as a member of the press and continued documenting as long as he could.

He became overwhelmed by the gas and retreated into the crowd. After rinsing himself off, he made his way back to the front as the crowd walked in the opposite direction. This is when he was shot. Dallas Morning News staff photographer Ryan Michalesko was also caught in the crossfire and shot with a foam bullet, according to the Press Freedom Tracker.

Eventually, the protesters and the journalists were closed in on by two walls of police.

“Get on your stomach and put your hands behind your back,” an officer said over a speaker.

The officers began zip-tying protesters' hands behind their backs and loading them into DART buses.

Lumped in with the protesters, Monacelli kept trying to tell the officers he was with the press and that all of his media credentials were on his phone. But, because he didn’t have a laminated media badge, the cops wouldn’t hear him out. For about the next two hours, Monacelli tried to prove he was with the press.

The police told Monacelli he was being arrested for obstructing a highway. They put him in restraints and moved his backpack to where it was hanging over his chest. Ironically, the backpack was labeled “press.”

Monacelli says the officers continued to tell him that anyone can claim to be a member of the media. “It just indicated that, by and large, police officers had no preparation whatsoever with how to deal with journalists,” Monacelli says.

Trace Miller, a reporter covering the protest for D Magazine, was also detained on the bridge. He was with Monacelli when a superior officer finally approached them after two hours to confirm they were journalists. But, being a freelancer, Miller had only an expired ID from the college newspaper he used to work for. The officers tried to tell Miller that they hadn’t heard of D Magazine and his credentials weren’t official enough, but they eventually let him and Monacelli go. They were told they were lucky to be getting off the bridge.

Miller said the interactions with the police over his credentials were “very discouraging to freelancers and especially discouraging toward literal independent journalists.”

Cyrus Cezar, a local independent journalist and owner of the community news platform Smash Da Topic, was detained on the bridge as he filmed officers snatching the protest organizer Dominique Alexander from the crowd. As the cop began putting Cezar’s hands behind his back, he repeatedly told him to stop resisting.

Cezar captured the whole night in a livestream on the Smash Da Topic Breaking News Facebook page. In the video, Cezar and a woman in the background can be heard telling the cop that he wasn’t resisting. Ironically enough, just months before, Cezar had a one-on-one interview with the police chief herself.

Luckily for him, Cezar had his own laminated badge that got him off the hook.

During Miller’s and Monacelli’s detainment, one officer asked them, “So anyone with a phone now is a journalist?”

The situation on the bridge is admittedly a tricky one, Adelman says, because whether you’re a journalist or not, it is illegal to obstruct a highway. But, if you asked Adelman this question, he might argue that anyone with a phone can be considered a journalist.

“Most legitimate journalists, like me, have a badge. … That’s part one,” Adelman says. “Part two is, it doesn’t fucking matter because the law, the First Amendment, says ‘We are the people and we are documenting.’ If you go out there with a camera, you are the media. You don’t have to take a test.”

DPD’s general orders state that no member of the department may prevent or prohibit anyone from observing or documenting police activity in public as long as there is no threat to an officer or their investigation.

"The public’s access to information regarding the official business of the Dallas Police Department is of critical importance to effective, transparent government,” DPD's general orders say.

Adelman has taught officers classes on how to interact with journalists. He says that often the biggest problem is that departments begrudgingly enforce their media policies, which are not taken seriously by leaders. This is the problem in Dallas, he says.

Journalists across the country, from global organizations like CNN to small local independents like Smash Da Topic, were having their rights infringed upon during the recent police brutality protests. 

Miller says the internet and social media have made for a more complicated discussion about press freedoms and who is a member of the media.

"But just because it's more complex doesn't mean we should cede that power to the authorities," Miller says. “We have police gatekeeping the watchdogs and that’s very dangerous."

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