This group of citizen journalists is keeping authorities in check with their cellphones


Four nights before a white supremacist shot at a crowd of Black Lives Matter activists in Minneapolis in November, he showed up at the activists’ encampment with two others, seeking an interview.

“We saw the stream. We saw what was going on,” one of his friends said into the camera.

They were looking for Unicorn Riot, a group of renegade citizen journalists committed to telling stories about social justice through livestream. Members of Unicorn Riot cover more than just protests and rallies, but that’s where a big chunk of their work lies. And they’re usually in the thick of it with demonstrators—multiple Unicorn Riot producers have been arrested and beaten by cops at different rallies and protests.

“[I’m inspired by] the idea of another world being possible,” said Lorenzo Serna, 35, one of the people who started Unicorn Riot. “You hear that all the time: another world is possible. I’m, like, what does that look like?”

One of the major events Unicorn Riot has covered was the Fourth Precinct shutdown in Minneapolis, where last year police shot Jamar Clark, an unarmed 24-year-old black man. Unicorn Riot streamed protests outside the police station for days on its Livestream account, and their coverage was beginning to get noticed. One woman who saw the stream even drove about three hours to drop off donations for the encampment.

The three men who showed up at the protest before the shooting told members of Unicorn Riot they were also there because they saw the livestream. Unicorn Riot’s video had fueled their rage. In an on-camera interview, the men, later described as white supremacists, declared “the fire is rising.”

Four days later, four men showed up at the encampment and shot at protesters. Five people were injured. Allen Lawrence Scarsella, 23, was charged with five counts of second-degree assault and one count of second-degree riot, according to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. The three other men, Joseph Martin Backman, 27; Nathan Wayne Gustavsson, 22; and Daniel Thomas Macey, 26, were charged with second-degree riot. None of the shooters was charged with a hate crime. Federal officials recently announced there would be no civil-rights investigation into Jamar Clark’s death.

On another day of the Minneapolis protests, activists shut down a major highway for more than an hour. Forty-three adults and eight juveniles were arrested and charged with misdemeanors. One of the first people arrested was Niko Georgiades, a producer for Unicorn Riot.

“I was mad because [we were] media being targeted first,” Georgiades said. “We knew right away we had a target on our back because some police even came up to us and commented that they were watching our stream.”

Georgiades, 33, has worked for 10 years at a small non-profit on the south side of Minneapolis and has been involved in social justice work his whole life. But it wasn’t until the 2008 Republican National Convention came to St. Paul that he realized he needed to pick up a camera.

“When the RNC came to St. Paul, I saw how dire it is for alternative media,” he said. “The police preemptively raided journalists houses. It was an eye-opener for me.”

There are 19 members in Unicorn Riot, and they’re based in Denver, New York, Boston and Minnesota. The group is organized horizontally—there’s no one person more senior than another and they always consult the group when making editorial decisions. And right now, all of the work with Unicorn Riot, a nonprofit organization, is volunteer-based.

“Oh, this is real,” she said. “This person is actually a hateful white supremacist and they’re threatening me.”

Another big event they covered was an eviction of a homeless camp in Denver, Colorado. Five small homes were built by a group called Denver Homeless Out Loud on a patch of land owned by the Denver Housing Authority. Before the lands were transferred over to private developers, the advocacy group set people up with temporary housing in these tiny homes. But in the evening, the same day of the main build, the Denver Police Department arrested the activists and tore down the structures they had built.

The video shows Boyle being slammed to the ground and having his camera taken away.

The homeless camp dispersed. Some moved directly across the street and others went to a different park. About a month later, the cops came to evict those camped out in a different location. Producers from Unicorn Riot were there—in the midst of a blizzard—in time to livestream at 6 a.m.

“We slept in the back of someone’s truck because we knew the police might be coming to evict the camp in the snow,” said Wendy Marlow, 46, a Unicorn Riot producer. “We wouldn’t have made it there in time, [if we waited for someone to call us]. The fact that we decided to camp out and stay there with them and just be a part of it – it was so intense.”

What’s more, as a woman livestreaming for Unicorn Riot, Wendy has to make judgement calls that her colleagues don’t necessarily face.

After getting a rape threat online by someone who appeared to be a white supremacist, judging by a picture of a Snowman dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan holding a noose on his Facebook page, she realized she had to be careful about what she puts out publicly.

“It’s just like, oh, this is real,” she said. “This person is actually a hateful white supremacist and they’re threatening me. I don’t take it that seriously because those people are also pretty stupid, but it did get under my skin.”

Privacy isn’t just an issue for the livestreamers involved. Producers for Unicorn Riot have to be mindful of the images they’re putting out of other people as well, especially during direct actions like marches and rallies where adrenaline is flowing.

“[During one of the nights at the Fourth Precinct shutdown], there were a couple of rocks thrown at the police,” said Georgiades. “That’s tough to try to gauge. You’re not going to show people’s faces at that point so what do you focus on? It becomes a tough situation.”

There’s also the case when people don’t want to be on a livestream – no matter what.

“If people don’t want to be on camera and suddenly they are by mistake we try to be very careful about that,” said Wendy. “If someone does not want to be on a livestream, then that’s respected. But at some point, it’s just a little hard to manage.”

In fact, Unicorn Riot footage was used as evidence to convict a contributor to the Huffington Post, Jesse Benn, at a protest back in April 2015. He was covering a protest in Denver that was held in solidarity with Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray and the 43 missing students in Mexico.

The prosecution used Unicorn Riot footage during his trial, arguing it showed his foot stepping off of the curb, thus, failing to obey police orders. The jury disagreed. He was convicted of obstructing a roadway and sentenced to five days in jail.

“I personally don’t want to do anything where I’m jeopardizing the safety of anyone else,” said Pat Boyle, a producer based in Denver, Colorado, and the person who captured Jesse Benn at the solidarity protest. “Moving forward, we have to assess how we use this media to keep people informed and keep people safe. That’s still a learning moment for us.”

Boyle, 33, was assaulted by cops in July of last year while covering a chiefs of police meeting in Denver. During the arrest, he was slammed to the ground and had his ribs separated. Officers took his camera and threw him in jail for the night. After that incident, he bought a new cellphone and decided to start livestreaming.

An internal investigation by Denver PD determined there was no misconduct on the part of the arresting officers.

“When I think about why we’re being targeted by law enforcement – it’s really just to keep people from being informed,” he said. “When they do that, it makes me realize that at least some of what we’ve been doing has been effective and that they don’t want people to be educated around this stuff.”

When Boyle isn’t covering events for Unicorn Riot, he’s working as an AV technician at a school in Colorado. And Wendy’s job in restaurant operations is even further from the work with the group.

“People know that we’re not trying to make money off of this,” Wendy said, choking back tears. “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being compensated for the work that you do, but we genuinely care and we just want to broadcast these stories.”

People in the communities that Unicorn Riot covers are starting to recognize this too.

“It was really nice that morning in the blizzard when we popped out of the truck to livestream,” she said. “Someone from the homeless camp asked us who we were and I said, ‘Unicorn Riot,’ and they just started cheering, knowing that their story is going to be told.”

Sometimes, it’s just the simple act of taking out your phone that can make all the difference.

“The other night I was at a meeting and the police were just really harassing this homeless guy,” she said. “We all walked up and just pulled out our phones and immediately [the cop] at least pretended to treat him like a human being.”

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