PITTSBURGH, PA. – Late on Saturday afternoon, outside of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ hockey stadium, a crowd of left-leaning protesters brutally beat Ian Smith, a white KDKA TV cameraman, within fear of his life.
Multiple activists, both black and white, asked Smith to stop filming people of color engaging in vandalizing of a police car.
Drag Queen Alexa Chapman was behind them near the entrance to the PPG Arena.
At 5 ft. 6 in., 135 lbs., Chapman is a gay U.S. Army reservist in Aviation operations administration, and a native of Fajarado, a port city, a little over an hour east of San Juan.
A black Puerto Rican, she initially moved to Pittsburgh to study journalism at Point Park University four years ago and moonlights on the side at bars around the Steel City as a drag queen.
Recently, she left journalism school after others had told her that her accent as a Puerto Rican was too thick.
On Saturday, she suddenly spotted the altercation between Smith and a mixed race group of protestors, who objected to Smith filming the protest.
“They were trying to prevent him from getting footage. They weren’t trying to touch him, they just were trying to get the footage,” says Chapman of the four protestors confronting Smith.
“I did believe they were justified taking the camera,” she says. “They didn’t want a white man dictating what was shown, and I knew at the end of the day, I knew it was KDKA and they would spin it different ways — they had racist profiles before and that’s why people didn’t trust them.”
Smith said he quickly felt overwhelmed by the protestors lunging at him. At which point, he fell and several protestors began beating him.
An unidentified black woman attempted to protect Smith and block a white protestor attacking Smith, according to a photo taken by Pittsburgh Penguins Vice President Kevin Acklin. Then, a mob of protestors descended on Smith, beating him up and smashing his camera.
“I felt my life was in danger. Like, real danger. I could have been killed,” Smith told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
And while Chapman disagreed with the decision of Smith to film the vandalism, she was worried about the possibility that the cameraman would get violently attacked to keep him recording.
“You can’t blame the cameraman for doing his job description, you can’t,” says Chapman, who would like to work in television. “You can’t blame them for trying to get the footage.”
The fight quickly escalated as another group of nearby activists hopped in and four other activists, both black and white, quickly rushed in.
“People rushed in to see what was happening or pull them. Chaos started playing a role into it,” says Chapman, describing Smith being beaten. “I knew the only way this person wouldn’t be hurt was if I got up on top of them.”
Within seconds, Chapman sprinted to stop the blows, jumping on Smith’s head and protecting him.
“I took a lot of blows cause I was the one being stumped on and it was constant for 30 seconds. It was about 30 seconds or more before they realized they hit the actual person of color rather than the cameraman,” says Chapman, who says she was hit 20 times in her head, thighs and chest before yelling from the assembled mob to stop the hitting.
“I was able to stand out because of my outfit,” says Chapman, of her black floral lace and mesh bell-bottom jumper (Chapman) that she designed specifically for the march.
With the assistance of Penguins CEO David Morehouse, Chapman picked Smith up and helped get him into the PPG Arena to protect him.
Over 100 Journalist Have Been Attacked Nationwide
The attack in Pittsburgh follows a startling trend nationwide of journalists, who are attacked as they report on protests across the US. In the last week, there have been over 100 incidents of journalists who have been violently attacked.
Most of the attacks on journalists so far have happened when police have shot or fired at journalists as they have attempted to cover the severe police brutality inflicted on protestors.
However, a few attacks on journalists have happened from protests both on the left and right, raising questions about the distrust in the media and revealing the eroding trust from protestors and activists alike.
On Monday night, a crowd of right-wing vigilantes also beat up WHYY journalist Jon Ehrens in the Fishtown neighborhood in Philly.
“I got called out for recording them and they beat the shit out of me and pushed my girlfriend,” wrote Ehrens on Twitter.
In the instance of KDKA camera operator Ian Smith, the KDKA station has faced accusations of racism in the past, particularly for its racist and inaccurate coverage of the Antwon Rose murder by police.
While activists on the left have rightfully denounced the violence and tear gas deployed against many protestors, there are many activists who have denounced the attack on the KDKA reporter. Still, others have attempted to downplay, and in some cases, justify the attack.
After I denounced the attack of Smith on my Facebook, local white activist Dan Galvin shot back.
“KDKA spews racist bullshit all the time,” he wrote late Saturday night. “People have been charged because of KDKA”.
“Why are you making this narrative about the poor KDKA camera-man, whose footage was inevitably going to be used to spew more racist nonsense and push more criminal charges on people? He was there as an agent of a racist media outlet….You are enabling the racist narrative they are getting ready to push. Just stop.”
Even as a pro-union reporter, I’ve had incidents, where overly suspicious activists who view “the media as the enemy of the working class,” have gotten in my face and physically blocked me from covering protests.
“It scared me too,” says Brian Cook, President of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation and a local reporter at WESA. “Because that could have been me, it could have been you that was assaulted.”
Racial Inequity in Pittsburgh’s Media Landscape
Activists like Carl Redwood hope incidents like Smith’s create a window to have a broader conversation about what role media plays in perpetuating racist narratives and the responsibility journalists have to cover the news.
“I think the question we have to answer is how do we build alternative media institutions that can actually help people on the way to change the system fully,” says Redwood.
The Saturday of Smith’s attack, over 5,000 protestors descended onto downtown Pittsburgh. After an afternoon of peaceful protest without confrontation with the police, a duo of young, white activists suddenly began to vandalize a police car outside of the PPG Paints Arena around 4 p.m.
Many black activists say they grew upset by the contempt that the duo had for multiple African-American activists, who tried to stop them, many out-of-fear that images of a cop car vandalizing could hurt them.
“You’re not even fucking black,” Lorenzo Rulli, a 24-year-old leading black activist and artist on a livestream said as he rushed into a crowd of the initially white protestors vandalizing a police car outside of PPG Arena. Earlier, Rulli began attempting to get KDKA cameraman Smith to stop recording the incident.
Fearing for the safety of the black activists, Rulli told the white vandals “you are going to get black folks killed.”
Worried about the media fallout, Rulli spoke with Smith to ask him to stop filming people of color engaging in vandalism.
“I just ask that people just do not record black and brown folks when we start seeing things like police cars burning and we start allowing the masses to believe that it was set fire by black and brown people then we incriminate those people and we also put them in direct danger,” says Rulli.
Observing from behind Smith, Chapman spotted the altercation between Smith and the mixed race group of protestors who, objected to Smith filming black and brown protesters. As an aspiring broadcast journalist, Chapman wanted to monitor the situation in case she had to intervene.
Chapman says that she didn’t object either initially when she saw the protestors trying to destroy Smith’s camera.
“There is still so much colorism,” says the Puerto Rican native. “In the US, there is more colorism in the media because there is the perception that one has to look and seem white to be credible.”
Many African-Americans Call for Transparency in Pittsburgh Protest Coverage
However, Brian Cook, feels that black activists asking reporters to not film black activists in protest acts is an encroachment on freedom of the press.
“I don’t agree with anyone telling the media to either 1.) Stop film 2.) What not to report on in a public setting,” says Cook.
Veteran African-American organizers like Redwood, who helped lead efforts for the historic Hill District to get a community benefits agreement from the Pittsburgh Penguins, feel it’s crucial for activists to be honest about the vandalism in Downtown Pittsburgh this week.
“Whenever there are demonstrations and protests, immediately afterward, there is a battle over what the protest was about,” says Redwood. “One of the main messages that they put forward is that it was white people who did property damage, not black people.
“Don’t buy their narrative,” says Redwood. “Black people participated in all tactics. They are trying to tell us what is inappropriate for Black protest and they are enlisting you as messenger [saying] black people can only protest and demonstrate in ways that are approved by the system we protest.”
Olivia “Liv” Bennett, an African-American Allegheny County Councilwoman, says that the important lessons can be learned from what white media often depicts as “riots.”
“If riots are the language of the unheard then what is it that these folks are trying to communicate?” she asks. “Instead of talking about what is happening, we need to be asking why is it happening. That is what I feel the media is missing.”
Many black activists in Pittsburgh also complain that the media is failing to interview them about the protests.
“People are crying out to myself and other black journalists saying, Why aren’t we being interviewed,” says Cook. “People are using stereotypical prejudices based on what they see, instead of getting it from the horse’s mouth.”
Cook says that not only is it important to honestly show how people of color are engaging in protests, but also to what degree protest actions are being driven by black activists as opposed to “white outside agitators”; a common narrative that some people like Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto have been pushing.
“Objective reporting is key so we as journalists need to tell the story as we see it,” says Cook. “If [the crowd] is 50-50 [racially mixed] or 72-25 as it relates to race…That’s important information. Some [black leaders] feel as though the media just wants to be singularly focused and not really [be] interviewing them to see where they stand.”
Instead, many fear that Pittsburgh media will once again fumble an opportunity to change the conversation on racism in the city.
“Media can ask the pertinent questions to make sure this moment is not lost but that it stays in the center of our conversation so we can actually make the change we need to see,” says Bennett.
Historically, the media in Pittsburgh has been notoriously racist. One study showed that black men in Pittsburgh were depicted as either criminals or athletes 90% of the time in broadcasts.
Despite Pittsburgh being 35% people of color, one 2016 survey found that only 13% of working journalists in the city were people of color.
(For more, see Columbia Journalism Review in-depth 2019 study “The Pittsburgh Problem: Race, Media, and Everyday Life in the Steel City” prepared by Thomas Jefferson University Professor Letrell Deshan Crittenden)
Activists like Rulli see the media in Pittsburgh as part of the reason why so many young African-Americans have been disproportionately targeted by the police.
With deep distrust in the media, Chapman says that many activists, like those who destroyed Smith’s camera, expressed frustration that his footage would expose young black activists to unnecessary risk.
However, some community organizers say that in a public setting such as a protest outside of a hockey arena, it’s nearly impossible to block what can be filmed.
“I understand their thinking because they were trying to stop people from getting arrested, but in public places, that’s really hard to do,” says Redwood, who added they were filming from helicopters and with iPhones.
Redwood also cautions activists making media the enemy instead of learning how to organize them.
“These cameramen and reporters, they are working class people,” says Redwood. “The media is not the enemy, but as an organizer of activity, you have to try to use the media skillfully to have them help spread the message.”
Deep Distrust of Media Among Black Activists
Smith’s TV station KDKA infamously broadcast false information claiming that police had video evidence that Rose had been involved in a drive-by shooting. The station has reported that detectives had found gun residue on Rose’s hands.
However, the claims were not true and the station refused to retract them even after Allegheny County District Attorney spokesperson Mike Manko issued multiple statements pointing out inaccuracies and calling for retractions.
“That information was met with such defiance and arrogance that it was deeply offensive and bitterly disappointing,” Manko said in a statement at the time.
“You failed the community that feeds you information for your programs, you failed the people that are directly affected by this crime, and you failed the consumers of your product,” Manko, a former journalist himself, admonished at an angry press conference in June of 2018 to the sounds of claps from some reporters in the room.
“A lot of activists say that there is no trust when it comes to police officers or the police department, but also that’s coupled with that many people in the black community feel,” says Cook. “They don’t trust the media to tell the stories either, which can help fuel some of those tensions within the community and media as well.”
“There is also a mistrust of press among our people because of the way we have been covered in some ways and lack of coverage in others,” says Bennett. “So we often have our own press there who we know will be authentic in their storytelling or represent black media.”
The historic New Pittsburgh Courier, pillars of the African-Americans community, is being hit hard by the forces of COVID, during which the nation has thousands of layoffs and furlough as publication lose retail *& entertainment advertising as a result of COVID.
“We have a saying that when the mainstream media gets a cold, black media get pneumonia,” says Cook.
“Some of these publications, especially The Courier, they can thrive if more people would subscribe to their service,” says Cook. “but also know that we have to hold corporations as well because the advertising dollars are not seen in abundance for black media organizations as they would be for other organizations within the City of Pittsburgh”.
Bennet is hoping that the tech boom in Pittsburgh can help provide new opportunities for black-owned media and black media workers.
With Carnegie Mellon University considered by many as the world’s leader in artificial intelligence, Google now has its 3rd largest US office in Pittsburgh.
Since major tech companies like Google and East Liberty have been located where black workers have been pushed out as tech workers pay rents that are often 3x what would have been charged in the neighborhood a mere 10 years ago.
This past October, Google’s New Initiative in conjunction with McClatchy Newspaper launched Mahoning Matters, just an hour up from the road from Pittsburgh in Youngstown.
Late last year, Youngstown became the largest city in the US without a daily newspaper after, The Vindicator went out-of-business, as advertising revenue decreased dramatically with GM’s decision to c partially shutter parts of its Lordstown Chevy plant.
Google, which has faced criticism for sucking ad revenues from local news outlets, launched Mahoning Matters to help fix inequality and news deserts that many media activists say that Google has helped to create.
Now, many black journalists in Pittsburgh hope that Google invests in Pittsburgh’s growing black digital media market.
“With outlets laying off quality journalism and downsizing newsrooms across the country — even before COVID-19 — we’ve noticed a steady decline in local journalism,” says Cook. “Google has an obligation (in my eyes) to help organizations grow exponentially.”
With the County, hiring a diversity office to promote inclusion in tech, Bennett is hoping that lawmakers hold companies like Google and UPMC accountable so that communities of color can take advantage of the tech boom.
“I believe that they should have some accountability and some ownership in investing in the communities that they are now inhibiting”, says Liv Bennet.
At the end of the day though, Cook says it’s up to reporters to lead the way in changing the way race is covered in Pittsburgh, and beyond.
“People in the media, especially those of us in the field, we are the ones risking our lives to tell these stories as they see them,” says Cook. “But, also, we need to hold the media accountable to tell the story in a non-biased and objective way as well.”
In the wake of the attack, Chapman, an aspiring journalist hopes to apply the lessons as a gay soldier in the Army Reserves desegregating the Army, into changing the conversation in the media.
“Everything is a learning moment because it will open the eyes of people of what the big picture is, which is the racial inequity [in media] says Chapman.