What the arrest of a black CNN journalist on air taught us

The mistake was always to think that it can’t happen here, because it can, it has and – unless we remain aware and vocal – it most certainly will again

Holding image for Omar Jimenez video
‘I suppose we shouldn’t be so deeply surprised when a black reporter is handcuffed and arrested for the crime of doing his job.’ Photograph: CNN

The circumstances surrounding the 29 May arrest of the CNN reporter Omar Jimenez couldn’t be clearer, more obvious, less subject to doubt or debate. You need only watch the video of the incident to know: this is not fake news.

In Minneapolis, Omar Jimenez was covering the protests ignited by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by the police. Confronted by a phalanx of state policemen in riot gear, Jimenez offered to move back. “We’re getting out of your way. Just let us know. Wherever you want us, we will go.” He calmly identified himself as a CNN journalist and produced his credentials. Nonetheless, he was handcuffed and led away, as he continued to ask, peacefully and respectfully, why he was being arrested. Soon after, his producer and cameraman were also cuffed and marched off. One can hear the distraught cameraman asking what to do with his camera, which was seized by the police – apparently unaware that it was still filming.

What the camera doesn’t show is that a few blocks away, a white journalist, also reporting for CNN, was treated by the police with consummate politeness. So what we see, and don’t see, is the convergence of two profoundly toxic streams growing stronger and deeper as they continue to poison our society. One is the erosion of our first amendment protections – Jimenez’s right to document and describe what he was seeing is constitutionally guaranteed – and the other is the systemic racism that explains why a black reporter was arrested while a white one was encouraged to do his job; why a Minneapolis police officer jammed his knee into George Floyd’s neck for eight fatal minutes; and why, almost every week, another black person is killed by the police or – like Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery – by freelance white vigilantes. 

One shudders to think what might have happened to Jimenez, a black man in a tense confrontation with law enforcement, had he not been employed by CNN and accompanied by a camera crew. 

For many years, organizations such as PEN and the Committee to Protect Journalists have been working to safeguard the rights – and the lives – of writers and reporters around the world. Mostly, the arrests, imprisonments and murders of journalists have occurred in (and at the behest of) totalitarian regimes, and in countries in which the lawlessness of criminal cartels has gone largely unchecked. Among the most famous cases were the 2006 murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya outside her Moscow home and the 2018 killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. In just the last two weeks, a Mexican reporter, Jorge Armenta, was murdered and the car of another journalist was firebombed in Sonora state. The silencing of journalists is the hallmark of the dictatorship and the mafia state; threats and violence are the tactics traditionally employed by the powerful and the corrupt to intimidate those who try to expose corruption and the abuses of power.

But that was always somewhere else, happening to other people, and American exceptionalism allowed us to advocate for – and feel slightly removed from – the reporters attacked and imprisoned in other countries, on other continents. Meanwhile the assaults on freedom of speech and on those who try to exercise that freedom have edged closer and closer to home. We’ve watched our president deriding the press and encouraging his followers to put their faith in conspiracy theories rather than in facts. We’ve witnessed the relentlessness with which Donald Trump has attacked the media, we’ve seen Trump and his enablers’ unapologetic disregard for the truth and for those who work to discover and tell that truth. And we’ve noted how Trump’s covert and overt racism has essentially legitimized and encouraged violence against immigrants and people of color while exacerbating the hatred and bigotry that have always been endemic in our society. It was Donald Trump, after all, who referred to the protesters as “thugs” and who suggested that looters should be shot. 

Given all that, I suppose we shouldn’t be so deeply surprised when a black reporter is handcuffed and arrested for the crime of doing his job. And yet we are. One of the most striking things about the video of Jimenez’s arrest is the response of the CNN commentators watching the live feed from the newsroom, or whatever the pandemic equivalent of the newsroom is. One says, “That is an American television reporter being led away by police … I’ve never seen anything like this … Having been in the middle of protests, I’ve never seen anything like this.” The emphasis on American television reporter is significant as the commentator repeats, for a third time: I’ve never seen anything like this. 

Well, one wants to say, now you have. It’s our turn. It’s happening here, right now. The climate has shifted – away from the assurances of the first amendment, away from the pretense of a color-blind, egalitarian society – and towards a moment when the arrest of a working journalist, a black journalist, is still startling, but dishearteningly foreseeable. 

Incidents like this will continue to happen, and perhaps get worse, unless we remain vigilant and make our outrage known. Omar Jimenez and his camera crew have been released from police custody. George Floyd’s killer has been charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder, perhaps in part because the protesters and their supporters refused to keep quiet and let it go. We can’t stop paying attention and, more important, calling attention to the importance of the free press and to the horrors of racism. The mistake was always to think that it can’t happen here, because it can, it has and – unless we remain aware and vocal – it most certainly will again.

  • Francine Prose is a novelist and the former president of PEN America