Daunte Wright, George Floyd, and a renewed focus on police brutality

On Sunday afternoon, Kim Potter, a police officer in Brooklyn Center, a suburb of Minneapolis, shot and killed Daunte Wright, a twenty-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop. Minneapolis was already grappling with the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin, the cop charged with murdering George Floyd in the city last summer; on Sunday night, protesters gathered at the Brooklyn Center Police Department, and officers used tear gas, flash bangs, and rubber bullets to disperse them. Yesterday, police leaders convened a press conference to address Wright’s killing. Journalists with national and international media, which already had a presence in Minneapolis for the Chauvin trial, were admitted, but local outlets had a tougher time getting in—two of the three journalists sent by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune were denied entry, as were reporters from Minnesota Public Radio and the Minnesota Reformer. The Star-Tribune’s Andy Mannix, who was turned away, said an official he approached “shut the blinds” on him. The situation, Mannix added, was “outrageous.”

An official reportedly told local media that the room was full, a claim that was disputed by the lone Star-Tribune journalist who managed to get inside. Online, observers speculated that baser instincts were at work. “Officials often fear local journalists the most because they have the best context and knowledge to ask the right questions and spot the spin,” Fenit Nirappil, of the Washington Post, noted; MSNBC’s Hayes Brown added that the access block, when added to officers’ decision to quickly release body-camera footage, “seems to indicate a strategy of getting ahead of the normal police shooting narrative: Get the national media in. Show that it was an ‘accidental discharge.’ Move on.” An accident was, indeed, what Tim Gannon, the Brooklyn Center police chief, claimed at the presser: Potter, he said, “had the intention to deploy their Taser, but instead shot Mr. Wright with a single bullet.” In the footage shared by police, Potter can be heard shouting “Taser, Taser, Taser,” followed by, “Holy shit. I just shot him.” Gannon told reporters that he can “only see what you’re seeing. I can couple that with much of the training that I have received, and that’s why I’m believing it to be an accidental discharge.”

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Almost immediately, the words “police say” and “accidental” were paired in a barrage of headlines, push notifications, and tweets, as various commentators, politicians, and law-enforcement experts pushed back on Gannon’s claim. On Fox News, anchor Sandra Smith asked correspondent Mike Tobin about the local response to the presser. “I think there is still a great deal of anger,” Tobin said. “You still have a young Black man who has been killed at the hands of police, and when you have something like an accidental discharge, people aren’t going to say that it’s justified, and they’re still going to default to the belief that police… that Black lives matter, and they think that Black people are treated somehow otherwise.” Numerous outlets referred to Wright as an “unarmed Black man,” a framing that can, as Poynter’s Kelly McBride has written, fuel stereotypes and dangerous assumptions about the justification for police killings even when reporters use it to communicate innocence; others referred to Wright’s killing as an “officer-involved shooting,” which, as Mya Frazier has written for CJR, is police jargon that obscures accountability and basic clarity. Some reporters spelled “Daunte” wrong.

On cable news, the bodycam footage looped all night. Networks also patched in reporters on the ground as protesters again stayed in the streets, in defiance of an official curfew, and some of them clashed with police. At one point, a group of protesters surrounded NBC’s Ron Allen, as one shouted “go the fuck home” into the camera; separately, a man approached Sara Sidner, while she was reporting live for CNN, and took her to task, telling her to “get away from here with all that media shit you’re doing,” and accusing the media of making protesters “look crazier than what they are.” Police fired what Sidner described as “the strongest tear gas I have ever faced during a protest,” and also used stun grenades. Carlos Gonzalez, a photojournalist at the Star-Tribune, reported that he was pepper-sprayed in the eye while he covered confrontations outside the police department. Later, police ordered journalists—who were theoretically exempted from the curfew—to gather in a single spot. According to Sidner, reporters were threatened with detention if they didn’t comply.

The protests weren’t limited to Brooklyn Center. Demonstrators gathered in Wright’s memory elsewhere in America, including in Portland, Oregon, where, according to the Portland Tribune, members of the press were confronted by protesters and knocked to the ground in a police charge. Nor was yesterday’s coverage of police brutality limited to Minneapolis: footage circulated, too, of a traffic stop near Norfolk, Virginia, during which officers pulled their weapons on Caron Nazario, a Black and Latino Army lieutenant, pepper-sprayed him, and shouted threats. (The stop occurred in December; on Sunday, officials said that one of the officers had been fired. Nazario also recently sued the officers.) Last night, Nazario’s treatment was paired with the killings of Wright and Floyd in cable coverage. “Policing, let’s just be honest, it’s broken,” MSNBC’s Joy Reid said. “It’s broken at every level in America.” Following Reid onto the air, Chris Hayes asked, “Is anything really getting better in the wake of George Floyd?”

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A month ago, I wrote that a wave of individual stories about police brutality and misconduct that were then in the news cycle had not yet added up to a collective, national focus on the institution of policing of the type that we saw last summer, after Floyd’s death. Chauvin’s trial, which has been a huge story for much of the past two weeks, began to retrain that focus—amid much legalistic dissection of courtroom particulars, and whether each day has been a good day for the prosecution. It has taken the killing of another Black man in the Minneapolis area to sharpen it.

Below, more on Minneapolis and the police:


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.