‘Open season on media’: journalists increasingly targeted at Los Angeles protests

Los Angeles has seen volatile protests almost every weekend this summer over trans rights, political opposition to masks and vaccines, and the recall of the Democratic governor. At least seven journalists have been physically assaulted while covering these rallies, six of them by rightwing demonstrators.

Attacks on the press are just one part of escalating rightwing street violence in the city, which has included multiple stabbings, people being sprayed in the face with bear Mace, an assault on a breast cancer patient outside a clinic, and repeated physical brawls with leftwing protesters in the streets. In another sign of growing tensions, protesters rallying against vaccine mandates showed up at the homes of two Los Angeles city council members on Sunday.

Several Los Angeles journalists said the violence was like nothing they had seen before, and that some of the attacks had taken place with police officers standing nearby.

The Los Angeles police department and the Los Angeles county sheriff’s department did not respond to requests for comment about whether there had been any arrests so far in any of the incidents, even as some of the journalists have publicly identified the people they believe attacked them and at least three have made official police reports.

The documentary film-maker Rocky Romano said he was hit over the head with a lead-filled baton at an anti-trans protest on 3 July while wearing a vest clearly marked “press”.

Eric Levai, a freelance journalist who reports for the Daily Dot and other outlets, said he was confronted by an angry crowd of people counterprotesting against the far-right at a second anti-trans protest outside WiSpa in Koreatown on 17 July.

After taking a photo that included a passing car, he heard people shouting “he’s taking a picture of the license plate”. Several people surrounded him, and screamed at him to delete the photo, Levai said. Worried that he was going to be beaten up, he ran away, Levai said, but his phone and backpack of camera equipment were stolen.

The assault shocked him, Levai said. “I’m always on guard for a group like the Proud Boys. I’m always on guard for the white supremacists, who are statistically the most dangerous. I didn’t expect it from people who – we probably agree on many social issues.”

At the same demonstration, a Guardian reporter had her phone and notebook slapped out of her hand by a helmeted rightwing demonstrator, and was later chased by other members of the rightwing crowd and pushed to the ground. The demonstrators screamed “get out”, “traitor”, and “demon, flee!”, with one man shouting, “I’ll slap the shit out of you, stupid bitch,” according to audio of the incident.

Vishal Singh, an independent journalist known for documenting protests, was pursued by a crowd of rightwing demonstrators and repeatedly punched in the face on 29 July at a protest near a West Hollywood restaurant that had asked diners to show proof of vaccination. The attack left Singh with a concussion and multiple broken bones in their nose and the bottom of both eye sockets.

And at least three different journalists were physically assaulted on 14 August at a single anti-vaccine protest outside Los Angeles city hall, which is also directly across from the Los Angeles police department headquarters.

Tina Desiree Berg, an independent journalist who reports for Status Coup, a progressive media outlet, was punched by one rightwing protester and called a bitch. Another protester ripped her mask from her face while screaming, “Unmask them!”

Frank Stoltze, a veteran Los Angeles journalist who reports for LAist and KPCC, a public radio station, was shoved, kicked and had his glasses ripped off his face after attempting to interview a rightwing demonstrator. The men who attacked him called him a “little bitch” and used an anti-gay slur, he wrote later.

Taylor Eve, a writer for Left Coast Right Watch, an independent site which tracks far-right extremists, said she was pepper-sprayed in the face. Before she was pepper-sprayed, Eve said, another man pointed at her and then looked at the man who attacked her, leading her to believe she was deliberately targeted.

Two demonstrators were stabbed at the city hall rally: an anti-vaccine demonstrator who was hospitalized with serious injuries, and a leftwing protester, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Stoltze afterwards called the violence he experienced something “that’s never happened to me in 30 years of reporting”.

“​​Some of these people obviously are very dangerous,” he told the Guardian.

Los Angeles journalists have been attacked at protests before, including repeated assaults at pro-Trump rallies in Beverly Hills last summer.

But Romano, who said he has documented more than 50 Los Angeles protests following George Floyd’s murder last year, said the level of violence happening now was nothing like what he’d seen before.

“There were definitely moments where you’d be confronted in the streets, but it was, ‘Don’t film me!’ ‘Hands up! Get away!’” he said. “Nothing like: lay hands on you, hit you on the head, spray you with bear Mace, push you to the ground.”

After getting hit over the head in Los Angeles, Romano said, he attended a rightwing demonstration in El Cajon, near San Diego, where multiple journalists were sprayed with bear Mace.

“It was pretty much open season on media,” he said.

Several reporters said the male rightwing demonstrators in Los Angeles appeared most likely to target female journalists, queer journalists and journalists of color.

“Violence just comes out of nowhere,” said Eve, the Left Coast Right Watch writer. “I don’t expect to have a big guy come attack me. I’m a woman. But those lines have blurred. It doesn’t really matter.”

Singh, a self-described “advocacy journalist” and a “gonzo journalist” who reports from a leftist perspective, said the videos of them being punched were widely shared and celebrated across rightwing media outlets and Proud Boy social media channels, along with slurs and racist comments about Indian Americans.

Sean Beckner-Carmitchel, an independent journalist, said he was threatened but not physically attacked while covering the August city hall protest. “I can’t ignore the fact that most of the press people who were hurt were women or smaller men,” he said.

“To me, it feels like they’re more emboldened the more they get away with stuff,” Berg, the journalist whose mask was ripped off, said. “No consequences legally, no consequences criminally.”

Activists have repeatedly accused the Los Angeles police department of failing to enforce the law equally against rightwing protesters, and have argued that the department’s failure to make any arrests after a violent anti-trans demonstration on 3 July, or to charge people for other serious assaults, has encouraged the subsequent attacks.

Adam Rose, the chair of the Los Angeles Press Club’s press rights committee, said police officers covering protests had a challenging job but questioned whether law enforcement could be doing more to prevent or intervene in situations where journalists were being attacked.

“We’ve seen incidents where violence happened against journalists right across from police headquarters and with police in the vicinity,” Rose said.

Several journalists said they were now wearing protective vests, helmets, goggles and masks, to report on protests in Los Angeles in the middle of the day.

“I do have a Kevlar vest that I wear now,” Berg said. “After [the city hall attack], I’m wondering, is that even enough?”

The day after Singh was punched, activists protesting outside the same West Hollywood restaurant chased Beckner-Carmitchel, Berg and another person into a nearby Trader Joe’s grocery store, and then waited outside, threatening them. The two journalists said they recognized one of the men who threatened them as a Proud Boy, and that he had been wearing brass knuckles.

Berg said that the grocery store manager briefly locked the store’s front door to protect them, and later allowed the journalists to escape out of the back of the store.

Most of the assaults against Los Angeles journalists were captured on video or live stream, sometimes from multiple angles. The assailants were typically masked and attempting to conceal their identities, but some of the journalists said they recognized their attackers from previous encounters at protests, and others said they had worked to uncover their identities. Local anti-fascist activists have also reviewed footage of the attacks and posted on social media naming rightwing activists they believe were responsible for the different attacks.

Romano, the documentary film-maker, collected footage from throughout the protest where he was attacked, and was able to match images of the man who hit him over the head, whose face was entirely covered with glasses and a scarf, with what appeared to be the same man earlier in the protest, giving an interview with his face uncovered. He said he believes the man who attacked him is a Proud Boy.

The footage collected also showed the assailant escaping from the scene in a car with a visible license plate, Romano said, which activists were able to link to Sarah Stephens, one of the many Republican candidates for governor in the recall election against the Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom.

“Sarah just recently discovered that one of the people who jumped in her car was allegedly in an altercation with antifa,” an adviser to Stephens told the Los Angeles Times in late August, when it reported on the connection, following other outlets. “If she would have known this she would not have let that individual into her car.”

Rose, of the Los Angeles Press Club, said he had encouraged journalists who had been assaulted in Los Angeles to file police reports, though he acknowledged some may be reluctant to do so, out of concern about showing bias or making themselves part of the story.

At least three of the seven journalists assaulted have reported their assaults to the Los Angeles police department or Los Angeles county sheriff’s department, according to interviews with the journalists and news reports.

When it comes to press protections, Rose said, trying to draw lines between independent journalists, “activist” journalists and reporters for mainstream news outlets, did not make much sense.

“The constitution doesn’t say that first amendment protections are exclusively for corporate media, nor does it prohibit a point of view,” he said. “If somebody is gathering news without participating in the event or interfering with law enforcement, they should be able to do their job.”

Some journalists said the hostility they faced now came from people who did not seem to care what kind of media outlet they represented.

“You’re starting to see a real blanket hatred for the press,” Beckner-Carmitchel said. Before, “they would ask me if I worked for CNN, and if I didn’t work for CNN, it’d be OK. Now, as soon as they see the press pass, it’s harassment from the jump.”

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