When protestors blocked traffic on Interstate 94 for two hours on Nov. 16, the day after 24-year-old Jamar Clark died in a confrontation with police, Unicorn Riot was there, broadcasting live online to an audience of thousands.
Two days later, Minneapolis police and demonstrators clashed outside of the Fourth Precinct, and a growing online audience once again turned to the not-for-profit media collective’s live-streaming video for scenes from the front lines of the protest.
The night before Thanksgiving the Southwest Journal sat down with Niko Georgiades and Lorenzo Serna, cohosts of the online news show “Deprogram” and Unicorn Riot’s most visible journalists on the Jamar Clark story. It’s Georgiades and Serna who provide the first-person narration for the live video and conduct interviews on camera, at times literally rubbing elbows with journalists from the mainstream media.
(Disclosure: I’ve known Georgiades since we were introduced through mutual friends about eight years ago.)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Southwest Journal: What is Unicorn Riot?
Niko Georgiades: Unicorn Riot is essentially a media collective providing a platform for the voices of community struggle and for the voices that aren’t normally heard within mainstream society. Unicorn Riot is giving that platform, is giving that push to have their voices heard and then to understand the social struggles that they’re going through.
Lorenzo Serna: It’s a learning process and everything we’re doing is basically an experiment in real time. … In order to be effective media people right now, we have to be able to move very quickly and change what we’re doing very quickly and acknowledge that, you know, every situation is going to be a little bit different.
SWJ: How long have you two been doing this?
LS: I started doing media about four years ago. Before that, I was doing copy and I was in school for being a writer and stuff like that. And then I met different media activists from all over the world in New York City during Occupy Wall Street, and they shared all these ideas of how to, basically, look at the world and give it further — I don’t know how you say it. Like, there’s a narrative that’s always happening, but how do we get that narrative to be accessible to as many people as possible?
NG: The media, for me, essentially the (Republican National Convention) in 2008 opened my eyes to the realm of media and how media was getting targeted while trying to document the police state that we were encroaching upon. …
We started speaking about having Unicorn Riot as a creation in November of 2014. A lot of meetings, a lot of talks, endless hours. We got incorporated in March of 2015, late March, and we started filming in April of 2015.
LS: Unicorn Riot was a conversation between a lot of people. … It’s a horizontal organization, and so what you see as Unicorn Riot is really a discussion that happened between, now, up to 17 people.
SWJ: Do you see yourselves as objective journalists, as activists or somewhere in between?
LS: I look at myself as a journalist. I explained this the other day: I think objectivity kind of gets thrown away as soon as you choose a word. You chose one word, you didn’t chose the other one, you’re officially biased. So, I’m not that worried about it, I guess.
What I do when I’m out there is I’m constantly listening and letting people (watching online) hear what’s happening, right? So, while I’m very close to what’s happening, I still think there is that separation that’s almost, in my eyes, necessary. … This is what I do to give voice for people, is to kind of make that space for myself to be able just to observe and share what’s happening.
And so, I view myself as very much a journalist.
NG: As far as it comes to biases, sometimes when we’re live-streaming it’s hard to not sound biased if the police are shooting at you or macing you, especially when you’re seeing what you’re seeing, when you’re seeing nonviolent, peaceful protesters just sort of, maybe, standing there or blocking the way of the police, but it’s a civil disobedience, nonviolent movement and they’re getting beat and truncheoned and sprayed. And then when we’re getting beat and sprayed, it’s tough to not sound biased. …
It’s always (important to include) the context. It’s always the: “This is where we were two hours ago, and this is how it started, and now all of a sudden this is happening.”
LS: For me, I think that’s part of what we’re trying to all the time and something that we talked about when we were creating this, was just trying to provide context to social struggles, trying to provide context to the things that are happening. Because a lot of times we’re experiencing things in 15-, 20-second clips of what’s the most candy to that media organization. Usually it’s going to be whatever’s the most traumatic or just awful. …
Even last night I was just streaming the camp. I was standing on the corner and I’m like, “This is what the camp looks like.” And stuff like that is important, because no one can see that, that really this is just a bunch of people hanging out and being together. And just being able to provide that context for people I think is very important.
SWJ: Does your position outside of mainstream media give you better access when, for instance, you’re covering something like the response to Jamar Clark’s death?
NG: Yes. Mainstream media is frowned upon because of the corporate structure … and I believe that people respect alternative media, first of all. And, second of all, in our case, it’s a little different because (the Jamar Clark protest) is here and it’s local and I’m friends with a lot of the people who are actually doing a lot of this stuff, so it was just an extension of circles.
So, it’s like we’re very welcomed in all spaces. We’re invited to a lot of the spaces where anything is happening. We’re invited to come along.
But I think the main thing is not only that comfortability, but we’re invited because the world is watching, and they know if the world is watching they feel safer — “they” being the demonstrators, the community itself.
LS: I think my experience was a little different from his, because I’m not as familiar with folks. So, when I was first there, a lot of the neighborhood people would come up to me and be like, “What are you doing here?” and they would get angry with me. And I was like, hey, you’re absolutely right, you’re absolutely right. I’m not from here. I’m just holding a camera. I’m just trying to document what’s happening, you know?
And I did a lot of that, just really listening to people and their issues with media, and I didn’t try to explain … that I was any different. I just acknowledged that they’re right, these other experiences.
I did a lot of that work. It was to let people become at ease with me, and I don’t think mainstream media does that really at all.
SWJ: So, what’s been the response to your coverage?
NG: It’s been very overwhelmingly humbling. A lot of people have been saying just a huge variety of things. People are watching it, making sure their friends are safe. People are watching it because they can’t come. People are watching it to see what they can donate. People are watching it to take part in the movement from their house or from their phone, wherever they are because they’re so busy living life.
Also, on some other levels, it seems that, OK, the police are watching it, so that’s one strange thing. But, obviously, we would know that happened … and from what we understand the state uses and utilizes some of the (Unicorn Riot live) streams to try to find violations from their forces.
To me, that’s one of the most overwhelming things that we’re hearing about the stream, personally, is that we’re actually impacting the peaceful protestors’ rights. We’re protecting their rights to a certain level.
LS: I would say it’s been overall very, very positive. People from the neighborhood will walk up to me and thank me. …
I think that it’s really that we’ve provided so much uncut footage of their neighborhood and what’s going on really, to the point where they feel it’s actually honest. And their experience, from what I’ve understood, has been that the media usually comes through and just portrays North Minneapolis as … this kind of horrific situation that there’s no light in. And I think that a lot of the people in that neighborhood think that’s been unfair, and there’s a lot of people who are trying to right societal problems that exist and are trying to create the world they want, really. And they’re not really given that voice to be able to say that, and I think maybe that’s why we get so much kind words thrown our way.
SWJ: What has been the response from other members of the media, the reporters and photographers who you’re working alongside out in the field or who are sometimes using your clips in their reports?
LS: I think people are curious, it seems like. A lot of local affiliate groups have come up to us and want to do interviews and are saying people are watching what we’re doing because we’re kind of doing media in a completely different way they’ve never even thought of, and we can go into places they could never even get into. So, I think it’s mostly that response, from what I’ve seen.
NG: The other realm is the news agencies that are taking our clips, and that — we’re (copywriting our content) creative commons non-commercial share alike, and because of that it creates problems with us, personally, as a team, because we are not OK with commercial entities taking our footage. … So, when we see KSTP or other such news organizations, or CNN, just taking our clips, it’s like a stab in the foot. …
But, within that, it’s just a lot of respect that I’ve seen from other journalists. A lot of curiosity, more so. Murmurs. It’s sort of a murmur here and murmur there: “It’s Unicorn Riot.” …
KARE 11 comes up to us and talks to us like, Hey, hey, hey, how you doin’? And some others are just like murmuring and talking about us when we’re right here.
WCCO, I’ll go back to that real quick. Reg Chapman, he, during (events outside the Fourth Precinct Nov. 18), goes up to protestors who just got pepper-sprayed. He’s there, and I was really surprised that a mainstream news source was almost embedded into the protest, and I got him on live stream.
“Hey, oh my goodness, we have WCCO right here, what’s happening?” And then when (Chapman) got pepper-sprayed, that was incredible. But, to me, he’s actually giving us a lot of respect, too. He’s been very respectful. “Hey guys, how you doing? Thank you for catching that.”
Overall, it’s been a very interesting scene to have The Guardian and Ruptly and all these other major news sources curious about how we’re doing it, what we’re doing.
LS: We’ve watched journalism change a lot and media production change a lot. Content production is all journalism really is right now, at least in all these sort of mainstream mags where they’re all just recycling each other’s stories and everything is flying around. The churn, churn, the churnalism. And I think that a lot of what we talked about was just trying to figure out how to make an organization that could send someone to go do journalism and stay somewhere for a while and learn and be able to follow a story as far as possible, to be able to share that. And that’s real work.