Reporters Covering Protests: Tear gas, rocks and emotions (”1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)

Protestors and law enforcement clashed on the streets of downtown Wilmington on May 31, 2020.
Protestors and law enforcement clashed on the streets of downtown Wilmington on May 31, 2020.(WECT)
Updated: Jul. 17, 2020 at 5:29 AM EDT
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Reporters Covering Protests: Tear gas, rocks and emotions (”1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - In the days following George Floyd’s death while in the custody of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, protests across the country demanded an end to police brutality and racial inequality. Protesters clashed with law enforcement officers in many cities, including Wilmington, resulting in the use of tear gas and other devices to disperse crowds. Agencies reported arresting hundreds, even thousands of protesters, after protests that began peacefully turned violent and resulted in violence, vandalism and destruction. Reports from several cities, including Louisville and St. Louis, say a number of deaths were connected to the civil unrest.

Journalists assigned to cover those protests found themselves in harm’s way while trying to chronicle the history-making events. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented 80 physical attacks, from law enforcement and protesters, on 129 journalists in the ten days following Floyd’s death. Other reporters, videographers and members of the media found themselves overcome by tear gas or pepper spray while at these scenes. Several reporters who covered protests in the Carolinas joined me to talk about what they experienced.

Miranda Parnell, a multi-media journalist for WIS-TV in Columbia, South Carolina, was hit in the head by a rock while reporting from a protest on May 30.

Miranda: “Everything was overwhelmingly peaceful throughout the morning. They (the protesters) began with having speakers at the state House (of Representatives). After that a few speakers decided they should march down to Columbia Police Department Headquarters. When people were saying that, we were thinking ‘okay, today’s been overwhelmingly peaceful, but we’re wondering if this may turn’. As soon as things got to the doors of Columbia Police Department Headquarters, that’s when it started with people throwing water bottles at the building. After about five minutes of throwing water bottles at the building, the police descended the stairs in riot gear and that kind of escalated things further. That’s when it became a standoff between police in riot gear and protesters throwing sandwiches, fries, rocks, water bottles. So you kind of didn’t know which side to stand on because if you were standing on the protesters’ side, you didn’t know if you were going to get tear-gassed. If you were standing on the side of the police officers, you didn’t know if you were going to get by some projectile. So it was difficult to figure out where to stand and still tell the story. We were trying to get a relief crew to come in so we could go and edit to at least show our evening show viewers what was going on earlier that day. We were headed toward the car and some commotion tumbled out onto the street. As we were looking at this new line of police and protesters in the street, folks started throwing smaller rocks again. I guess someone picked up a larger rock, and that one hit me in the head. I rolled over to the side and called the (assignment) desk to tell them ‘hey, I got hit’. They said ‘you’ve got to find your photographer and get out of there’, and that’s what we did. After we left the hospital, things had escalated much more. There were some police cars that were set on fire, windows were being smashed around town. It was a very different scene from when I had left off reporting. So, I wanted to make sure I went back to the station, still bloodied up, still wearing the bloody shirt and with gauze on my head. I wanted to do another live shot to show that we were there this morning, to show that people were peaceful, and that this started out with the right intentions. There were so many hundreds of people out there with this clear message, with this good message. We wanted to make sure that didn’t get lost because of a few bad apples that were agitators that day.”

WECT’s Emily Featherston and Bryant Reed both reported from the scene of protests in downtown Wilmington on May 31. Law enforcement used CS gas to disperse the crowd after they say protesters first started throwing objects at Thalian Hall, and later threw fireworks at vehicles on Front and Princess Streets.

Bryant: “We didn’t take a direct hit. Where we were, it was the wind that blew back the tear gas toward the officers we were close to. That’s how it got in our eyes, how we got affected. Then, one of the officers was telling us to disperse the area immediately or we could be arrested, so we had to walk back into the tear gas and we got more of it. At least for myself, it wasn’t that bad at first. But then within a minute it was ‘Oh my goodness, my eyes are burning terribly’. I’m crying. We had the masks on too, which seemed to make it even worse.”

Emily: “I’ve never experienced CS gas before. I’ve been trying to describe to people what it feels like, and the best things I can come with is, if you’ve ever had sunscreen in your eyes, that specific type of chemical burning sensation, magnify that by ten, twenty-five times. That’s sort of what it feels like. It gets in your lungs and you feel like you need to cough, but then you’re wearing a mask, and it’s kind of this compounding effect. Like Bryant said, we had to walk back into it. Luckily we found a water bottle and were able to wash each other’s eyes to clear some of that out. After that, we were able to dodge it a little bit better. Wilmington is pretty close quarters in some areas so you can’t exactly escape it. I think at the time it wasn’t as much frightening as, we were just trying to make sure we kept going. We were live streaming as well, so you’re trying to keep your composure and trying to report what’s happening. But also, you can’t breathe. There’s some video of me trying to talk to Facebook Live while also sniffling and everything.”

Ron Lee is a veteran reporter/videographer for WBTV-TV in Charlotte. He was on the scene June 2, when demonstrators gathered in an area on Beatties Ford Road. Ron says the demonstration started peacefully, but the problems began after sunset, when members of the group began throwing objects at a police substation. That’s when Ron says officers began attempts to disperse the crowd.

Ron: “They started off with one of their senior officers there, and I know him very well, he had what is basically a pepper ball gun. If you’ve ever played paintball with your kids, that’s basically what they use but it’s filled with a cayenne pepper sauce. That is specifically to try to deter the instigators, the people who are the leaders of the demonstration at that point. It’s kind of like a surgical strike. When that failed to disperse the crowd, they started to use items like flash bang grenades. If you can imagine, it’s like an extremely loud firework. These things will go off near crowds and do a very good job of dispersal. I’ve been in the business for 33 years, talked to riot police in multiple markets, the last thing they want to do is use gas. Gas is an uncontrollable beast. What I mean by that is that once it’s deployed, you have no idea where the gas goes. You have no control over it. In a metropolitan area like Charlotte, the wind switches direction, gets in-between those buildings, the gas could very easily come back on police officers, which many times it did. It also came back on media. We took several hits and I can tell you from first-hand experience, it is a very good deterrent to get you out of a particular situation. We knew what it was immediately. There’s no question what it is. The problem is that when it is deployed, it effects your eyesight first. It’s like this burning sensation, and then the optics around your eye start to burn uncontrollably, and then you inhale the gas. Your lungs immediately want to purge the gas from your system, so you start coughing. But when you cough, you’ve got to bring in a deeper breath so that makes it much worse. There was a crew next to me from a competing station, and they took it very hard. Both the photographer as well as the reporter were on all fours, almost vomiting, it was so bad. They actually had to have a person who referred to themselves as a ‘riot medic’, who was actually part of the demonstration, come up and administer aid, give them some water, try to wipe the cayenne pepper sauce out of their eyes.”

Miranda, Bryant, Emily and Ron talked about other aspects of covering those protests, and the importance of journalism in these historic, challenging times. I hope you enjoy their insights, and appreciate their dedication to our profession.

To listen to my entire interview with journalists Ron Lee, Miranda Parnell, Bryant Reed and Emily Featherston, click on any of the links below.

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