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A year ago tensions between the press and police erupted in Los Angeles

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

About 200 journalists were detained or arrested over the past two years while on the job here in the U.S. Many were covering social justice protests following the murder of George Floyd. NPR's David Folkenflik and Marc Rivers report on how tensions between police and the press erupted on one chaotic night in Los Angeles a year ago today. And a warning - you will hear the sound of rubber bullets being fired in this piece. Here's Marc.

MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: Activists gathered at Echo Park almost as soon as the story broke late last March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Breaking news. It appears the crackdown has finally begun tonight to clean up one of LA's largest homeless camps.

RIVERS: Over the course of a day and a half, protests picked up steam...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

RIVERS: ...Much of it directed at police, who had orders to clear the park and then the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) LAPD.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) You won't win.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) LAPD.

RIVERS: Lexis-Olivier Ray was among the reporters who rushed to Echo Park. He's with the local site, LA Taco. We recently revisited the scene with Ray and other reporters.

LEXIS-OLIVIER RAY: That was kind of my beat - housing, homelessness, cops, the intersection of all three. It was, like, one of the most covered events, stories that I've ever reported on, for sure.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Police tried to direct reporters to a staging ground outside the park and away from the most intense protests. Kate Cagle is a reporter for Spectrum News 1 in LA.

KATE CAGLE: How do I tell a story that now I don't even have access to?

FOLKENFLIK: Many of the nearly 200 people at the encampment did not want to leave, despite promises of housing and other social services. Reporters came to capture what happened when police swept the camp and to cover the protests, but they got caught in the middle. Officers hauled Cagle off moments before she was to go on the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAGLE: Wait. I'm with Spectrum News 1. They have my name. Wait. I have to stay with my crew.

I have a clip of me holding up my press pass next to my face, saying, like, hey, I'm press. This is my crew. We just want to go. And they said, no, you have to stay.

RIVERS: Police officers zip-tied Cagle's hands behind her back. A reporter who covers criminal justice for the LA Times was held that same way for more than an hour. Lexis-Olivier Ray was confined for even longer. In all, police detained about 200 people there, but at least 16 journalists.

FOLKENFLIK: And that's more than a quarter of all journalists detained or arrested across the nation last year. Officers formally arrested two other reporters and a social media news blogger, holding them at a police station. Police also shot two photojournalists at Echo Park with what are called less-lethal rubber bullets. One has covered combat for the LA Times; the other, a freelancer, was hit twice.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

FOLKENFLIK: Those shots left a bloody welt the size of a baseball. Adam Rose chairs the press rights committee for the LA Press Club.

ADAM ROSE: These are things that would chill what we would consider part of this constitutional right and the need - not just a right, but a responsibility - to inform the public of how police were executing these sweeps and clearing out what they declared as unlawful assemblies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Back up. Back up. All of you, back the [expletive] up.

RIVERS: Officers gave the order to disperse, but journalists didn't realize it applied to them. Rose started tracking allegations of police mistreatment of the press in September 2020. That's when LA County sheriff's deputies tackled KPCC reporter Josie Huang as she taped them making an arrest. They arrested her, too, even though she repeatedly identified herself as a reporter.

FOLKENFLIK: Rose found a pattern around the state - reporters detained and handcuffed, shot with rubber bullets, tear-gassed, their equipment seized or destroyed - in all, reporters prevented from reporting.

ROSE: In fact, it turns out that over the course of a 12-month period in California, there were at least 50 incidents where police violated the rights of members of the press in some way, shape or form.

FOLKENFLIK: During protests or riots, officers have often let reporters behind police lines to witness events. At the least, it's a guarded recognition of the job journalists do. At Echo Park, that recognition collapsed.

STACY SPELL: I mean, there were, like, tensions on top of tensions.

FOLKENFLIK: Captain Stacy Spell heads the Los Angeles Police Department's media relations division. Spell and other LAPD officials will not comment directly on that night in Echo Park due to legal challenges.

RIVERS: Even so, Spell says police officers face tough choices in handling reporters during protests.

SPELL: I want to make sure that people, if they want to gather stories, if they want to inform the public, that they have the ability to do that.

RIVERS: Of course, anyone with a smartphone can post footage online.

SPELL: When you have those, for lack of a better term, bad actors who are now blending in with a crowd, you know, representing themselves as members of the press, but they're really reflecting their own personal interests and not the interests of either a news organization or the interests of the public.

RIVERS: Ray asked why the police get to make such distinctions. Ray doesn't have an official LAPD press badge, never applied for one. And when we met, he wore a red baseball cap with an LA Taco logo perched atop his afro.

RAY: A lot of times, it feels like the cops don't believe that I'm a reporter, you know? They think that I'm a protester. And I think that definitely has a lot to do with my appearance, you know, not just, like, the color of my skin but also the way I dress and, you know, kind of carry myself.

FOLKENFLIK: A May 2021 internal police memo said Ray's conduct at protests, quote, "blurs the lines between functioning as the press versus functioning as an activist." The memo provided no evidence for that characterization.

RAY: Oh, it's completely false.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Start the car. Start the car.

FOLKENFLIK: When celebrations over the LA Dodgers World Series championship got out of hand months earlier, police officers rushed Ray.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAY: I'm a member of the press - member of the press.

(CROSSTALK)

FOLKENFLIK: That's Ray shouting repeatedly, member of the press.

RAY: I've never even been to a protest as a protester. I don't consider myself to be a protester. That was really frustrating - really rubbed me the wrong way.

RIVERS: Captain Spell is himself Black, and he later called Ray to talk, seeking to build trust. Ray says he appreciated that but remains shaken.

RAY: Leaving the house was, at some points, like, a little bit scary for me, for sure, and took a while to get over that, I think.

RIVERS: Ray says he carries himself differently now. He's more guarded. Spectrum News' Kate Cagle says she had always thought her professionalism would be respected and protected by cops in times of tumult. But not anymore.

CAGLE: When I saw the police officers, I no longer felt like they were providing safety for me.

RIVERS: That they would take care of you.

CAGLE: That they would take care of me. I felt like we're on our own.

FOLKENFLIK: In 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill giving reporters more protections after law enforcement officials objected. Last fall, Newsom reversed course and signed a similar bill into law. Journalists say they're heartened but remain wary, with strong memories of Echo Park.

I'm David Folkenflik.

RIVERS: And I'm Marc Rivers, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.