Mel Reeves is editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the state’s oldest Black-owned newspaper. The newspaper’s office is located a few blocks from where George Floyd was murdered, in the community Reeves has belonged to for 30 years.
Reeves’ work over the past year has been in service to that community—he works to inform his readers at a level the national media can not, while protecting his readers from the trauma of even mainstream local coverage.
In the lead-up to Reeves’ appearance on this week’s Kicker, he spoke with CJR about his work covering the trial and verdict announcement, and the events’ impact on his community. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CJR: After the murder of George Floyd, and during the Chauvin trial and verdict announcement, there’s been a major national media presence in your community. How is their relationship with local press?
Mel Reeves: So we had a pretty good relationship. We’re all part of the press pool, because everybody couldn’t get into the courtroom. So we had an amicable relationship.
CJR: Sometimes national media enjoys better access. Did you sense any of that?
Reeves: No, because we were local, we are literally located five blocks from where George was killed.
To be honest with you, I didn’t read a lot of the coverage. But I think national media got the story for the most part. I think the mainstream press is kind of overplaying the reaction, but otherwise it seems like they treated people alright, they quoted folks.
People here were glad that they got a victory, but they don’t see it as the be all and they don’t see it as vindication of the system. It seems like the mass media is playing it up a little more than the people on the street are. People on the street see it as what it is, you know. It’s a victory, but it doesn’t say that the system has changed. It actually shows that the system has its flaws and maybe you have a better chance of getting the next killer. Next person who kills somebody from the community on trial and convicted. But the issue is we want to get to the problem before it gets there. We want real accountability, we don’t want any more Derek Chauvins.
CJR: What have been the challenges for you, covering this?
Reeves: Hard to say, it takes a lot of time to cover because we try to give a daily update, and that was hard because you had to cover other news, edit the newspaper, and try to get it updated every day and get people to help out, read more insights. So it was pretty taxing because it takes time and you have to watch the trial too.
At the end of the day, we try to do a summation for a lot of people who did not want to watch it, because they felt like it was traumatizing. So I think we did a service to the community that way.
I think the last of the numbers are quadruple our normal readership. I mean, we got hundreds of thousands of folks reading us here today. I think what happened is a lot of folks in the Black community around the country found us, and they realized we would tell it like it is from a real community perspective, from the people’s perspective.
CJR: You’ve been part of this community for 30 years, right? How do you think that affects your coverage now?
Reeves: It affects everything. I’m Black and I’ve been an activist in the community. I’ve been somebody who’s actively taking part in a lot of the struggles of the community. So I have that history behind me and the experience of seeing things and events and experiences as well. So, yeah, it really helps to tell a story from the community perspective. You know, not everybody would necessarily agree with the perspective we put out all the time, it’s not a Conservative perspective. Some people in our community are Conservative, but we write from a progressive perspective.
CJR: Have you witnessed police brutality in your community?
Reeves: Actually, I have, but that was nothing recent. I personally have witnessed some, but nothing recent that I can think of.
CJR: Could you tell me what you saw?
Reeves: No, no I’m not going to get into all that. That’s too long ago.
But I will tell you this, that I was at the protest where I saw the police be really provocative. I’ve been at protests where I’ve seen the police tried to incite the crowd. We had asked our police at one of the rallies, you know, targeting nonviolent folks. The first one on Sunday night. They were firing tear gas at people who weren’t doing anything. So, yes, I’ve seen them be pretty brutal.
CJR: What kind of toll does that take on you?
Reeves: You know, our emotions aren’t going to make anything happen. It’s the real stuff people do that’s going to make a change. That’s why I don’t write a whole lot about trauma and the pain that goes on. I kind of let other people tell that story. We’re trying to tell a story about information and analysis, you know, summarize stuff so readers can hear it from a Black perspective. Everybody already knows the pain and trauma.
CJR: On CNN, I saw the concrete barricades going up around the police precinct ahead of the verdict announcement. You know, ever since Rodney King, big verdicts are often tipped to the police so that authorities can decide whether to hold the day shift or call in the mid shift or the night shift early. Did you have any idea of anything like that? You must have pretty strong connections, did you hear about any of that?
Reeves: That’s the first I’ve heard of that. I’m not so sure that the process is set up so that the city could be tipped before they announced that that’s possible. Possible? May make sense.
But the preparations, all of that was designed as a political move. It was designed to appear that the community is violent, not the police who actually killed someone in the community. It was designed as a script, and it projects on to the world that this community is really violent.
Even if you talk about the violence that did happen as part of that first day, the uprising and riots, people didn’t just decide to walk out of the house and commit violence. They were responding to violence. It was the city that was violent first. The police are violent, but they didn’t put a fence around the police.
CJR: The networks also showed press crowded around George Floyd’s girlfriend in the lead up to the verdict.
Reeves: I saw that.
CJR: She was crying. She said, “I’m sorry, I’m not used to this.” Were you there?
Reeves: I did see that. It was a bit problematic. But she was already emotional about the verdict. And I thought she was able to get free space and tell the story. I don’t think anybody was mistreated that I could see.
CJR: Can I ask what you’re working on now?
Reeves: Well, if I could ever get away from all the reporters I could actually write what I think this verdict means but I have not been able to do it.
CJR: How many people are asking you for interviews like this?
Reeves: This is the fifth interview today. Yes.
CJR: Oh, my God. What do they ask you about?
Reeves: All the questions you’re asking.
CJR: Ok, I’m going to keep it short. Is there a benefit to having the national press here now, national attention, does the community feel that?
Reeves: To be honest with you, I don’t think anybody thinks like that. The local press has done a pretty good job talking about what’s going on and calling out the police. And we did it throughout the trial. It doesn’t necessarily push the needle to get the press.
CJR: And a national audience found your coverage.
Reeves: We are writing from a different perspective because we have a different audience, a Black audience, a people of color audience. We have an audience that’s more liberal, progressive. So, of course, we’re going to write a little differently. We’re situated in the community, and the writers, the online editors and myself, and the freelancers are from the community, so we get the story from that perspective.
The best way to explain is you can see the difference if you read our coverage of the Derek Chauvin trial from day one. We highlighted things that the mainstream press didn’t think were important. Like with the medical examiner Fowler, we talked about his background, that he’d been sued in Maryland. That didn’t make it into most mainstream papers. I think the Washington Post did a story on it. And then we have legal insights by the former Hennepin County chief public defender, to get a different perspective. We cover racial dynamics in the community. No other periodical is able to write that piece. There were things that we thought were more important than a lot of mainstream press folks. So I think we did a pretty good job overall.Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.