Al Letson, host of Reveal, an investigative podcast from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, made a split-second decision to intervene when a contingent of black-clad protesters got violent at a demonstration in Berkeley, California, on Sunday.
It wasn’t the only moment Letson took a “human first, journalist second” approach to his reporting that day. Hours earlier, he helped an elderly woman safely traverse the scene of the protest to buy groceries.
“I didn’t have time to think,” Letson tells CJR of the moment he saw a protester taking a beating. “All I saw was someone getting hurt, and I didn’t want him to die. I thought he was going to die.”
As a journalist, Letson says he never wants to become the story. He also doesn’t want to be the journalist who stands by as something like that unfolds. “I don’t have big answers for the line in the sand that journalists should draw,” he says. “I’m not here to judge anybody else. I just know for me I felt like I had to do something. I slept well knowing I did the right thing—that speaks to your values and convictions.”
Letson’s actions are a reflection of the increasingly murky territory journalists find themselves in, especially in a political climate rife with volatile civil conflict. The line between observer and participant, journalist and bystander, is blurred. It isn’t a new debate, says Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. For decades, journalists have had to grapple with decisions of whether to intervene both domestically and overseas. “It’s a challenge for many reporters,” he says. “But I think it’s important there’s no dividing line between reporter and human being.”
If you are going to leap in, it’s because simply telling the story is no longer the morally adequate response.
The reporter’s safety should always be front-and-center, Shapiro says, but neutrality, especially in the midst of conflict, isn’t the optimal stance for some journalists; human impulse can get in the way. “That said, our primary role is always to tell the story,” Shapiro adds. “If you are going to leap in, it’s because simply telling the story is no longer the morally adequate response.”
Reveal’s editor in chief, Amy Pyle, says its editorial policy is clear: “We are unbiased observers not participants.” Pyle contends Letson didn’t take sides in this case. Instead, he responded “as any of us might if we saw another human in distress.” Shapiro agreed: “He must have made a judgment that there weren’t others around to protect the person.”
“I wasn’t thinking about the questions of ethics or anything in the moment,” Letson adds. “I was thinking there’s a human being hurt, and I can stop it.”
Letson was covering the “Rally Against Hate,” a mostly peaceful demonstration with thousands of protesters and a small group of people identifying as antifa or anarchists. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that tensions rose, violence escalated, and Letson stepped in. Mother Jones journalist Shane Bauer caught the altercation on video (see below). In the footage, a group of protesters, dressed in all black, surround a man balled up on the ground. The protesters deliver blow after blow to him until someone wearing a red shirt, later identified as Letson, jumps in front of the protesters to protect the man from further injury.
Antifa beat down apparent alt-righter. pic.twitter.com/WVdDJqLKmA
— Shane Bauer (@shane_bauer) August 27, 2017
“I just ran towards him,” Letson says. “It definitely was not premeditated.”
Bauer identified the aggressors as anti-fascist protesters, often referred to as the antifa, and the man being beaten as member of alt-right. According to Reveal, those observations have yet to be confirmed. Jack Smith of Mic captured another angle of the altercation.
Someone dives on top of another guy being beaten by Antifa, begging them to stop, fleeing behind police lines. Intra-left blows exchanged. pic.twitter.com/bz2zFEB25j
— Jack Smith IV (@JackSmithIV) August 27, 2017
The situation came as a surprise to Letson. Until that moment, he was feeling hopeful. He first arrived on the scene hours earlier, around 10 am, and observed what seemed to be a peaceful gathering. Midway through the rally, Letson left for two hours after an older woman, about 90 years old, approached him, asking if he could escort her as she traversed the scene of the protest.
She grabbed his arm and said, “I need to get across the street, can you help me?” Letson obliged. “It was random as hell,” he jokes.
Together, it took Letson and the woman, who he identifies as Ms. Alberta, almost 40 minutes to walk a single block. “We got to the store, and I helped her do her shopping,” Letson says. “I knew she couldn’t walk back through the protest because her apartment was right on the other side of where the protest was. So I ordered us a Lyft, it picked us up and went to her house.” The groceries were heavy, and Letson helped her put them away once they were safely back at the apartment.
“When I left there, I felt like there was some hope for the world,” he says. “I’m with this older woman, and she’s telling me about her life. She told me she didn’t have anybody anymore, that she wasn’t close to her family, but she did have God so she was okay. When she was talking about that, it really got to me. I’m not a super religious person, but I left there and was like ‘Everything is gonna be alright.’”
I definitely go for being a good human over a good story.
But it wasn’t. Ms. Alberta’s apartment was maybe a block or two from Civic Center Park, where the rally was still underway. It took Letson no time before he was back on the scene. “I came out and saw this stuff and everything that happened with this guy,” he says. “It really got me afterwards. I feel like the rest of the day after that, I was punch-drunk. I didn’t know what was up or down. I’m still trying to figure out what it all means.”
The mood shifted when a platoon of black-clad protesters, banging on shields and waving flags, joined the rally around noon. There had been a few right-wing counter-protesters at the event, some donning “Make America Great Again” baseball hats, others blending in without calling attention to themselves. Confrontation had been minimal until the black-clad protesters chased after one of the counter-protesters. Letson followed along, audio and video equipment in tow.
To his left, Letson saw another man running. He tripped, or someone tripped him—Letson isn’t sure of the details. That’s when the group of four or five people surrounded him. Someone had a flag pole, using it as a weapon against the man. “As I watched the flag pole come down on him, I got nervous,” Letson says. “I thought they were going to really hurt him.” He glanced back at the scene of the protest and saw all the people from the park heading towards them. “In my mind, I thought they were going to kill him, and I didn’t want him to die,” he says.
Letson tried to break up the fight. When that wasn’t possible, and with his equipment still on him, he used his body to shield the man from the assailants: “I was trying to put his head on my knees so he wouldn’t be close to the concrete. They were still kicking and punching. I got kicked and punched a couple of times, but I think every time they realized they were kicking me, they didn’t put as much effort into it.” Before he knew it, maybe three or four minutes later, it was suddenly over. The crowd dispersed, and the injured man ran away.
When he got back to the office, he started working on a special episode of Reveal about the Berkeley protest. He stumbled upon the video, and it was difficult for him to watch: “I thought, ‘Wow, I could’ve been killed, I could have died.’” Despite that, he still stands by his decision: “I definitely go for being a good human over a good story.”
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TOP IMAGE: Photo by Tiffany Manning