CNN reporter Omar Jimenez began his workday before dawn on Friday, prepared to cover the aftermath of protests in Minneapolis that had turned destructive. Smoke still wafted and a small fire flickered from the remains of a liquor store burned out the night before as he and his crew set up their live shot on a broad avenue.
Within minutes, he was arrested on the job – and became part of the story he’d been assigned to cover.
Reporters have been arrested – as well as bashed, gassed, disfigured and killed – in the course of covering the anarchy of street demonstrations and riots. Such incidents occur relatively infrequently in the U.S., though – and almost never on live television.
Jimenez and his colleagues – field producer Bill Kirkos, photojournalist Leonel Mendez and an unidentified security person – were reporting in front of a line of Minnesota state police on CNN’s “New Day” morning program at 5:09 a.m. local time Friday. The blue line was guarding a Minneapolis police station that had been targeted by a mob that set a bonfire at its entrance Thursday night, destroying part of the building. The remains of the liquor store that had been similarly trashed were visible as Jimenez went live.
The scene was calm, the long avenue in front of the journalists devoid of civilians. Which made what happened next bizarre.
As Jimenez continued his discussion with “New Day” hosts John Berman and Alisyn Camerota, Mendez swung his camera away from the reporter to show police moving to arrest a young woman. But then the camera swung again as police officers appeared to crowd closer to the journalists.
Jimenez could be heard talking calmly off-camera, first apparently explaining to police that his crew had been given permission to film there – “I gotcha, I gotcha. They had us here” – and then again to the “New Day” hosts: “We’re speaking with State Patrol right now. Give us a second, guys.”
And then again to the police: “We can move back to where you like. . . .We are live on the air at the moment. . . . Just put us back where you want us. We are getting out of your way.”
When the camera next showed Jimenez, he was attempting again to narrate the scene for viewers — “This scene here in Minneapolis is part of the advanced police presence we saw” — but now a helmeted officer held him by the arm.
“I”m sorry?” Jimenez said to another officer who approached. “Would you mind tell me why we’re under arrest?”
Back in the studio, the CNN anchors sounded shocked. “They were standing where they were told to stand previously by police,” Camerota said over the live feed. “They were out of the way. We don’t know why they are being arrested.”
Berman added, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Jimenez’s arrest was widely condemned on Friday by press groups and others — and for many viewers, picked at the wounds that had been opened by the racially charged killing that sparked the street protests Jimenez was covering.
The demonstrations, which have morphed into instances of arson and looting, were prompted by the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man who was detained and handcuffed by Minneapolis police investigating a report of a counterfeit $20 bill on Monday.
One of the arresting officers, Derek Chauvin, held Floyd down for more than eight minutes by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck as Floyd gasped that he unable to breath. Floyd went limp at the scene and later was pronounced dead. Chauvin, who was fired from the force along with three others, was arrested on Friday and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Floyd’s arrest and death were recorded by a bystander and shown widely on television, including CNN, spurring protests in Minneapolis and other cities.
Jimenez is black. And for many, a seemingly racial element of his arrest was underscored by the experience of a second CNN journalist, Josh Campbell, who was a couple blocks away at the time. Campbell, who is white, reported that police let him continue working after he identified himself as a journalist, much as Jimenez and his colleagues had.
The CNN crew was released about an hour after their arrest and returned to cover the protests. But the incident instantly blew up into a public-relations disaster for the Minnesota State Patrol. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, apologized to CNN at a news conference and in a call to CNN President Jeff Zucker Friday morning. “As I told [Zucker], I don’t care what the circumstances were,” Walz told reporters. “It is wrong. It is unacceptable.”
While arrests of reporters during demonstrations aren’t typical, they’re not unknown. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a nonpartisan monitor supported by media organizations, reports that 43 journalists have been detained by police while covering street protests since the beginning of 2017. The most recent instance was in March, when three reporters were arrested in Sacramento during a protest march.
In that instance, Sacramento’s mayor, Darrell Steinberg, apologized, too.
First Amendment lawyer Theodore Boutrous Jr., who represents several media organizations, argued that Friday’s incident is the outcome of several years of politicians taking aim at journalists “and trying to undermine the public’s respect for journalists and journalism. This has created an unprecedented degree of dangerous hostility to the press in this country that has shattered traditions and that can lead to shocking events like this one.”
The First Amendment has long protected reporters’ right to cover public events. But there has also often been a general understanding between local police and reporters about the ground rules of covering the chaos of protests and demonstrations. The most basic rule: Journalists who identify themselves as such, and who follow police direction and don’t interfere with enforcement activities, are left alone.
That police appeared to be fully aware that Jimenez, who is based in CNN’s Chicago bureau, was a journalist covering a story is evident in the awkward manner of his arrest.
Jimenez stood peacefully in front of the officers for several minutes, holding a wireless microphone and chatting with Berman and Camerota, with Mendez’s camera trained on him, As police moved in to arrest him, he showed them his CNN identification card. One of the officers fumbled with Jimenez’s microphone as he sought to cuff him.
Mendez asked to lay his camera on the ground as he was being arrested. An officer carried it behind the police line as Mendez was led away, apparently unaware it was still on.
Neither man resisted as they were being zip-tied by police. But Jimenez did inquire repeatedly about why police were arresting him. He received no answer.