The PEN Pod: On the Ground in Minneapolis with Julio-César Chávez
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with Reuters journalist and producer Julio César Chávez, who has been covering the Minneapolis demonstrations. On Saturday, law enforcement officers shot him and his colleague with rubber bullets. Both were clearly identified as members of the news media, and Julio-César was wearing a press pass and holding a camera. We spoke with Julio-César about his experiences on the ground in Minneapolis, what he’s seen so far while covering the protests, and what the risks are for both journalists and protesters. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Julio-César is up until the 10:35 mark).
How are you doing, and how is your colleague?
I’m doing fine. It was just the back of my arm that was burned by rubber bullets. I was hit in the back of the neck, but that’s the one that was surprisingly the best. It’s just a little swollen, but not really painful. My colleague Rod, our security advisor for the Reuters team out here, got hit in the face. He has a little bit of a black eye, and his cheekbone is a little swollen up. But his gas mask actually protected his face from the brunt of the rubber bullet.
And you’re actually at the site where you were fired on last night, is that right?
Yes. Rod and I came out this morning just to look at the scene and figure out what exactly might have happened. I have to say it’s pretty clean, because volunteers have been out here cleaning since pretty early on. We came out here, we mapped out where we were, where the police officers were when we were fired at, and how it is that we evacuated.
“As I’m putting the mask back on, a rubber bullet flies past me, on the left side of me. It came from behind. It flies past me, I finish putting my gas mask on, I’m reaching for my helmet—that’s when another rubber bullet hit me in the back of my forearm. I put my helmet on and when I’m buckling it, that’s when I get the second rubber bullet that actually hit me, to the back of my neck.”
Your footage is pretty stunning. You basically were filming a police officer aiming directly at you. Walk me through what happened after that.
The police aiming directly at me and being shot at—we do have to mention were two separate incidents. It’s about a hundred meters. This entire thing took place at a gas station. I was at the car wash, at the machine where you punch in what kind of car wash you want. I was covering behind it, with my camera on top when the police officers on the roof across the street—one of them was sweeping with this rubber bullet rifle, pointed it straight at me, and then actually took aim. He actively took aim at me. I was not fired at, but that did happen. And then later, a few minutes later, Rod and I had come around the corner into the area with the actual gas pump. There were police that we knew on the far side of the street, and tear gas was being used.
Now here’s the thing: I wear glasses. So when I put the gas mask on originally, I had to make a choice—do I want a perfect seal with the gas mask, or do I want to be able to see? Things weren’t really bad at that moment, I just left my glasses on. But because of the temple of my glasses, there was a gap when air could get in, without having to go through the filter. When tear gas started being used, that’s when I put my camera down. I told Rod, “I need to fix my mask.”
I put my camera down, I go off a little bit, and Rod stays with my camera in my backpack, which was transmitting live back to my office. I’m taking my mask off. I take my helmet off, I take my mask off, I take my glasses off, put them in the helmet, and I start to hear chaos happening. I hear panic, so I put my mask back on. As I’m putting the mask back on, a rubber bullet flies past me, on the left side of me. It came from behind. It flies past me, I finish putting my gas mask on, I’m reaching for my helmet—that’s when another rubber bullet hit me in the back of my forearm. I put my helmet on and when I’m buckling it, that’s when I get the second rubber bullet that actually hit me, to the back of my neck. And as I’m standing up to run after Rod, who I could hear was yelling at me, “Julio, we have to go,” more rubber bullets fly past me. Here’s the thing: I was the only person in this area, apart from Rod. So there weren’t protesters at the gas pumps with us.
There weren’t a bunch of other demonstrators around you. You were really sort of by yourself.
Yes. The protesters were near us, about 50 meters away. But we were not in the middle of the protesters. We were not between protesters and the police. We were from our own little section, filming and transmitting the live back to the office. So that’s when I just ran with Rod. I grabbed my gear from him, and he told me he got hit in the face with a rubber bullet, and we just ran and evacuated the area along with some protesters.
We’re seeing, across the country, journalists who have apparently been targeted by law enforcement, by demonstrators—reporters who were clearly identified wearing press passes, identifying themselves verbally, and yet still being arrested and assaulted. What’s going on here? Were you prepared at all for this level of intensity, and how do you keep working?
I was prepared because of the hostile environment training that we get. Before starting full-time with Reuters, I lived in El Paso. Because we were next to Juarez, the Juarez Association of Journalists had put together some hostile environment training for us in the past—more geared toward gunfire, in case any of us were covering a gunfight between cartels and police. And then last year, Reuters did send me to an entire hostile environment training, actually the week of the El Paso shooting. So, that training and the equipment that we were given by work—the helmet, the face mask, the flak vest—we were all wearing to help protect us. So we were prepared. We knew how intense things could get, and we were prepared for it. As to how we keep working, we stopped to regroup and rest, but my colleagues and I, we’re not going back home just yet. We’re still going to be here covering—on my side, the TV side; our photographers and our writers are still going to be here covering.
“There are risks that we [as journalists] know and accept when we undertake these assignments. It’s just important to realize that what we’re going through seems like more of a big deal because we have that much of a bigger platform of people who listen to us. But there’s protesters that are going through the same things that we as journalists have gone through.”
You mentioned that you saw that protestors were also being injured amid this.
Yes. I saw one guy get shot in the leg by a rubber bullet. He was limping away. We heard rubber bullets being fired, I believe into the crowd, and that’s when the crowd just panicked and broke.
They were, at one point, a very organized march. They were an organized march at the beginning, then people broke and split up. Then the group I was with—at least 300 people, honestly, probably a lot more—they regrouped and started marching again, but that’s when they were shot at again. The group broke.
So, one thing people need to keep in mind is yes, it’s getting a lot of attention that journalists were fired at, and some journalists, it seems, were specifically targeted. But it’s not just about the journalists. There are risks that we know and accept when we undertake these assignments. It’s just important to realize that what we’re going through seems like more of a big deal because we have that much of a bigger platform of people who listen to us. But there’s protesters that are going through the same things that we as journalists have gone through.
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