Late Friday as demonstrations against police brutality continued in Minneapolis, Minnesota Rep. Hodan Hassan was grieving the police murder of George Floyd that occurred four days before, in broad daylight, in her district. She noticed a constituent tag her on Facebook in a live video feed by the nonprofit independent journalism network Unicorn Riot. The feed showed a fire on Park Ave. near the intersection of Lake Street, closing in on a gas station and a residential area nearby, a center of the community Hassan serves.
Distraught, Hassan called Mayor Jacob Frey. He told her there was nothing he could do, that the governor and the national guard were handling the situation of unrest on the ground in response to police brutality. So Hassan called the governor’s office. She was advised to call the mayor. A fire truck arrived from St. Paul 90 minutes later. Hassan felt her district was abandoned.
“People are fed up with the disinvestment in our community,” Hassan says. “People are just tired of our young people not being able to walk down the street without fearing police. We’re just tired, period. My district and the people that were protesting were peaceful,” Hassan says. “Everything in the [mainstream] media became about destruction.”
While most news outlets speculated from a distance about who started the fires and why, Unicorn Riot was present and livestreaming for hours each night, sometimes counting more than 250,000 views. The New Yorker and the New York Times took note of the transparent, improvisational feeds posted on Facebook and YouTube showing Minneapolis citizens caring for one another in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The response on social media has been sizable: On Twitter, for example, Unicorn Riot gained more than 130,000 followers this week. The outlet doesn’t have a managing editor or a traditional top-down editorial structure. Correspondents in the Twin Cities, Boston, Denver and Philadelphia narrate intense community responses within the frame of a community focused on grief, survival, and justice for victims of police brutality.
Rep. Hassan first learned about Unicorn Riot’s work when her district was on fire. But Unicorn Riot journalists have been working since 2015 to inform and represent communities marginalized by government agencies and the media.
Molly Glasgow works with the organization MPD 150 to decrease police power and restructure systems of community care in Minneapolis. She remembers Unicorn Riot’s presence after Jamar Clark was shot and killed by Minneapolis police in 2015. For 18 days, the network documented protests outside the 4th Precinct.
“They have been showing up to not only protests, but important community actions large and small,” Glasgow says. “Being able to get information about where people are, especially if an action or a march is moving, has been useful for me and others.”
Unicorn Riot journalists were present at Standing Rock and the demonstrations in response to the murder of Philando Castile by St. Paul police. The relationships they’ve built come across in the arc of their coverage. On Friday, Unicorn Riot attempted to film an interview with Castile’s cousin Louis Hunter in front of his business, Trio, the first black-owned plant-based restaurant in Minnesota. (SWAT shut the interview down and forced the journalists and their subject into the building.) Unicorn Riot was there in 2018 when Hunter and others were targeted by police for demonstrating in response to Castile’s death. These relationships have been key for informing the community, Glasgow says, since organizers don’t always trust other media to tell the full story.
Instead of reserving air time or word count for people attached to institutions or leaders in traditional power structures, Unicorn Riot journalists often interview citizens at length who are simply on the scene in dynamic situations. They provide a platform for community organizers and those directly affected by police brutality.
Unicorn Riot co-founder Dan Feidt provided remote production support for independent journalists who were livestreaming during the Occupy movement in 2011, well before it was a regular mode of coverage.
“What we find over and over is the state is essentially an uncommunicative force,” he says. “In Minneapolis this week, before the third precinct was overrun by demonstrators and burned, the police made virtually no effort to communicate dispersal orders or attempts to build any kind of lines of communication with the people down there. I think we’ll see a lot more of that. So we’re out there trying to communicate with people, and to a great extent, the government has not.”
Being on the ground with such consistency during states of unrest has its risks.
“Unicorn Riot reporters have been arrested and charged a number of times for trying to cover what’s going on with social movements,” Feidt says. “We’ve had our press passes literally shattered, cut in half, by police munitions being shot at reporters. We’ve had flash bangs land very close. It can be challenging and stressful to experience things like that. But it’s also been productive for our audience to develop a deeper understanding of the dynamics around these social issues and the risks they take when they participate in them.”
While journalists from many media outlets have experienced this type of danger — especially in the past week, with more than 130 attacks on journalists by police documented by industry watchers — Feidt says the uncut nature of Unicorn Riot’s live feeds, which often show more of those types of interactions with police officers, “help illustrate the way that social movements get managed in the United States by law enforcement, and now, the military. From a distance it shows that government forces are very often not interested in discussing anything with anyone. And they aren’t usually interested in having a conversation as soon as anything is going on.”
In the media, too, longer conversations are hard to come by, even during a time where other structures are changing so quickly. National organizers like Tamika Mallory are going straight to social media to speak, taking advantage of Instagram’s extended IGTV option. In doing this, they avoid framing language used by outlets like “died in police custody” instead of “murdered,” something Unicorn Riot also works against with directness.
“The question of objectivity is really tied up with analysis in a way that I think a lot of the journalism industry hasn’t been candid about,” Feidt says. “A lot of the time in the mainstream media, the analysis is very defensive of existing establishments and it tends to write off a lot of people. Traditional objectivity doesn’t really lend itself to paying attention to what people outside the power structures are saying.”
Read more on journalistic objectivity in Next City’s statement here.
Lyndsay Knecht is an arts writer based in Texas. As associate producer for KERA 90.1, Dallas' NPR station, she launched the online editorial presence of Think with Krys Boyd. Her work has been heard on Monocle 24 radio, in Southwest the Magazine, Texas Monthly, the Tulsa Voice, The Dallas Morning News, the Texas Observer, Bustle, and other publications.