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Unicorn Riot, the Tiny Media Collective That Is Delivering Some of the Most Vital Reporting from Minneapolis

OtherUnicorn Riot, the Tiny Media Collective That Is Delivering Some of the Most Vital Reporting from Minneapolis

The killing of George Floyd—on May 25th, in Minneapolis, under the weight of Derek Chauvin’s knee and a brutally racist police system—precipitated a torrent of images of spectacular violence. Cell-phone-camera footage of the horror committed against Floyd ignited a wave of protests; any number of police squads, first in Minneapolis and then in scores of cities across the country, received the protests as an invitation to assault civilians—likewise captured on video, likewise outraging the conscience. It is a moral duty to witness the scenes of uprising, but it is concussive to take it in. You can glut on the best cable-news coverage of this flaming grief, or the most conscientious and keyed-in correspondents on Twitter, and still feel starved for context.

It may be wiser to attend to this nationwide conflagration as a local news story. An extremely compelling view of what is happening in—and to—Minneapolis is streaming by way of Unicorn Riot, a not-for-profit media collective that was incorporated in Minnesota five years ago, with a mission to bring attention to social and environmental struggle. Its reporters regularly cover the Twin Cities, Boston, Denver, and Philadelphia, and have fanned out to cover events such as the Unite the Right rally, in Charlottesville, in 2017, and the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. For the past week in Minneapolis, Unicorn Riot has delivered a sustained act of witness: night after night of vigils and struggle and trouble. The coverage is impressive for its intimacy with the community and unrivalled in its ability to tell the story patiently, in hour upon hour of searching the streets for clarity.

But perhaps “story” is the wrong word. It is implicit—on, say, a five-and-a-half-hour live stream, shot with a single camera—that the creation of a familiar sort of processed journalistic narrative is not on the agenda. Instead, you get a constantly updating document that accommodates person-on-the-street interviews thriving with unaffected voices. One night last week, a Unicorn Riot camera crew elicited a succinct commentary on the dynamics of property destruction from a local business owner. “I realize why the Third Precinct was burnt down,” the man said. “It wasn’t burnt down because people were mad at the police. It was burnt down because the police were mad at the people”—meaning that the officers’ passivity in protecting the building was in fact an aggression, intended to tar the mass of protesters as arsonists.

Unicorn Riot—its members claim they chose the cryptic name for its pure euphony—does reporting across the country, but it was founded in a particular powder keg. “Minneapolis has a very contentious past with the police,” Niko Georgiades told me. A citizen of the city, Georgiades and six colleagues founded the horizontally organized group in March of 2015. That November, a black man named Jamar Clark was shot to death by the Minneapolis Police Department, and Unicorn Riot’s ground team covered the reaction to the killing—and the subsequent shooting of Black Lives Matter protesters by white supremacists—twenty hours a day. In 2016, outside of St. Paul, a police officer shot and killed a black man named Philando Castile at a traffic stop, within forty-five seconds of approaching his car. Unicorn Riot covered the Clark and Castile deaths in a way that earned local respect: these are not haughty correspondents parachuting in but people tethered to the community. Though Georgiades often goes into the field alone, he is rarely a solitary presence. This past Friday, he was shooting video in the smoldering streets when he happened upon a familiar source. At the end of the interview, she said, “I love you,” and he said, “I love you, too.” These are not connections or exchanges you can see on CNN or terrestrial local-news stations.

The depth of those connections generates intimacy and intensity on live stream, and the depth of the problem creates horrible and fascinating pileups of coincidence. On May 30th, Georgiades and a colleague were live-streaming as they walked down Lake Street—a main thoroughfare, the site of a diversity of small restaurants and, now, a burnt-out precinct house—when they came across a cousin of Castile’s, Louis Hunter, on the sidewalk in front of a vegan café that he owns. Within a minute, patrolmen in riot gear pressed them into the restaurant. Hunter had been poised to discuss his own history of protest; the aggression turned his genial warmth into bitter heat. The bad turn of a chance encounter linked a history of police violence to a new present of authoritarian behavior.

The day after, over the phone, Georgiades apologized for “feeling a little loopy . . . I got two hours of sleep before the first night of protests, and since then it’s been a couple of days of no sleep and a couple days of two or three hours of sleep,” he explained. He is thirty-eight, a native of small-town southern Minnesota, and came to reporting by way of teaching and youth work, after a stint in the juvenile-justice system. He had been planning to spend the week working on an interview with an indigenous elder about the coronavirus’s impact on his community, and on a documentary about mothers who’d lost their children to police violence. Instead, he’d been roving his city to gather video of raw rage and the context to understand it. “What I’m trying to do is allow the community to speak,” he said. “But also I want to show a broader audience that this is one community member’s perspective at that moment, and that also can change, from person to person, from minute to minute, from action to action. It’s just important to be documented.”

He was trying to assemble his equipment to go out and do it again—a Panasonic camcorder on a shoulder rig, an audio kit, a Teradek backpack to broadcast the material, a helmet, a gas mask, a flak jacket. He was trying, first of all, to figure out a ride. “Our car—a vehicle we had donated to us during our coverage of Standing Rock—actually got a flat tire yesterday,” he said. “We must have run over some shrapnel.”

You could refer to what Unicorn Riot does as “activist reporting,” just as you might call a bystander capturing footage of N.Y.P.D. officers tossing people to the asphalt or plowing cruisers through crowds “citizen journalism.” But you also could decide that these distinctions reflect a certain snobbery and have lost a certain salience. There is no use in quibbling about objective journalism amid this emergency, when the power of people’s voices is our only defense. To be a good citizen is to be an activist. To report is to speak up. To have your eyes open is to witness democracy in action, and its failures in abundance.

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