For two mornings in a row now I have woken up and remembered that I was shot in the eye and am now half blind. It’s not the sort of thing that you expect to have happen to you, although given my line of work, I suppose it’s always only been a matter of time. There is no single person to blame for this turn of events. I lost my vision to a nation wreathed in trauma and fire, to a system that sees accountability as discretionary, to a police force that fires into crowds and at journalists.
I am a writer and photographer, so I came to Minneapolis to cover the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd. On Friday night I was taking pictures of the protests, and of the heavy-handed tactics of law enforcement, when I caught a projectile to the eye. It came from the direction of the police line. I had at some point also been shot with what is called a marking round, a paintball filled with florescent paint. Police use it to track and target protesters, although it would have been difficult to look at me with my media credentials and pro camera gear and think I was anything but working press.
Journalists doing their job, reporting the news, have been arrested on air, hit with pepper spray; they have tweeted the aftermath of their own assaults.
I am far from the only journalist who has been assaulted this week. Journalists doing their job, reporting the news, have been arrested on air, hit with pepper spray; they have tweeted the aftermath of their own assaults. The targeting of journalists — and it's hard to feel as though those of us identified as press aren’t being targeted — feels like something we might hear about in another country, in another era. But it is 2020, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has now had to come out with a statement insisting that the tear-gassing, pepper-spraying and detention of journalists violates our First Amendment rights.
The first time I smelled tear gas was in 2014 in St. Louis, the summer Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. That was also the first time I saw the full might of a militarized police force brought to bear on the communities they are sworn to protect and defend. I saw children hit with chemicals and when their frantic mothers broke the door of a McDonald's to get milk to put into the eyes of their children I watched the world condemn the property damage as unnecessary violence. I saw police aim shotguns filled with beanbags at close range at homeless youth. I watched, and for the first time I understood how much I did not know what tyranny was until I was struggling to breathe, having been attacked by my own government for simply existing in a place they thought I should not be.
These things have a familiar pattern now, which is, or should be, an indictment of law enforcement. Police kill a black man or woman, people protest, police determine that the protests should end, and then a small war breaks out in residential neighborhoods. Eventually the situation deteriorates. We hear pundits scattered around the nation wonder things like “why are they burning down their own neighborhoods,” never stopping to consider that people are defending themselves the only way they are allowed when authority is mired in violence and oppression.
I threw up my arms and started screaming “Press, I’m press.”
I was only on location in Minneapolis for two days. Thursday night I got into town around 8 p.m. and went out to take photos. I saw structure fires and smashed windows but the people I ran into were mostly just scared and angry and grieving, the property damage more a symptom than a cause. Friday night was the first night of curfew, and I started hearing that police were tear-gassing protesters before curfew had started, without issuing dispersal warnings.
I put on my goggles and respirator and ran into the gas. I was lining up a photo when I felt my face explode. My goggles came off and my face was suddenly burning and leaking liquid, the gas mixing with the blood. I threw up my arms and started screaming “Press, I’m press,” although I’m not sure if anyone could hear me with my breathing apparatus and the general chaos around me. Protesters took my hands and guided me to their medics, who put a bandage on my lacerated eye and drove me to the hospital.
At the end of World War II, thousands of soldiers were surveyed on their use of weaponry and their ability to kill. It turned out that in the Greatest Generation, only 15 to 20 percent of soldiers fired their weapons, and of those most didn’t shoot to kill. The urge to preserve life, to see humans as human was simply too strong. After that, the military overhauled its training to desensitize soldiers and make it easier for them to dehumanize their enemies. I suppose it was inevitable that as we militarized our police, we would see the same impact on civilian communities.
In the same way, it's hard not to look at the last few years and think that these things are not intentional. When a president says that we should crack down on protesters and that the press is the enemy of the people, how can those words not trickle down into the minds of the people, in the streets and on the front lines of law enforcement. Of course we cannot draw a causal line, he did not pull the trigger that took my sight, but it stretches credulity to think that the officers who have this week openly targeted members of the press have not been watching and listening as Donald Trump has spent the last week hurling threats from his Twitter account at the journalists he has decided are fake news, because they report things that make him look bad.
As for me, I’m just glad I am breathing and I can still see the sun set, even if I can’t tell how far away the horizon is any more.