One of the unique aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement in the last year has been how it has spread to even the smallest of communities. It’s made covering the protests as a minority photographer a wholly different and vastly more frightening experience.
I’ve covered quite a few protests in the New York City area, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter in 2014. The tone of a protest in a large city is different; there is inherently a plurality of people and large enough numbers of those people to (generally) dissuade racists from coming out. That’s not always the case, clearly, as many of the protests against George Floyd’s death have shown, but in many of those cases, the threats against photographers come from law enforcement.
In Long Island, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken to the streets of the quiet, mostly white residential neighborhoods that have never seen such forms of protest. It’s not been uncommon to see many residents come out of their houses just to hurl insults at Black Lives Matter protesters in these small towns.
In some cases, I’ve seen groups of “counter-protestors” that have heckled and shouted down the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter groups at these rallies. Their behavior worried me enough that I started to wear a body camera to these events just to capture the way these counter-protestors — actually, white supremacists — treated me, a photographer of color.
This past weekend was the “Long Island Unite Against White Supremacy” march in Wantagh, New York. It was a response to the Capitol riots from days before and specifically targeted towards the disparity in policing on display in that insurrection versus Black Lives Matter protestors. That disparity was on display from the start of the protest, where a large group of police officers, all white, stood around the Trump supporters and chatted with them in a friendly manner, while one of the only interactions the police had with the people rallying against white supremacy was to read them a warning off a printed sheet saying that if they blocked pedestrian or vehicular traffic, they would be arrested. It should also be noted that the group organizing the rally, Long Island Peaceful Protest, had been barred from using a megaphone in the past, but that was no problem for the counter-protestors.
Logically, if the march is against white supremacy, if you’re showing up to protest the march, you’re tacitly indicating you support white supremacy. And that’s what these people who were across the street were doing. I approached them to take some photos, and the response showed a gross demonstration of racism and misunderstanding of photographer’s rights to photograph in public spaces.
You can see that their political affiliations are on full display. They were carrying Trump flags throughout the march, and the person in the video who claimed his father owned the private bank property they were on was wearing Donald Trump socks.
Right after I kneeled to get this photo, you can see the same organizer about to blast my ears out with a megaphone, only stopping short at the last minute after I put my hand up to block him:
A few minutes after this moment, I tripped over a rock in front of him and his only response was to shout to an officer “I didn’t push him, he tripped” instead of trying to offer a helping hand or ask if I was OK.
It’s this lack of empathy that’s most striking in this crowd. If I was a white photographer, would this group have treated me differently? Would they have immediately told me to go back to the side of the street as the Black Lives Matter folks (in this case, the protest group, Long Island Peaceful Protest)? Would they have threatened me?
It’s an uneasy feeling. I wasn’t wearing any clothing or any markings to show that I was affiliated with either side, though I was still treated like an enemy combatant by one side and embraced with open arms by the other.
It’s telling that the group of Trump supporters wanted to hide their faces from a camera. They didn’t just avoid me, they didn’t talk to TV media that was there as well, unlike the organizers of Long Island Peaceful Protest. They wouldn't share their names for a caption. If your cause is just, you likely won’t be the one hiding from the light of journalists.
Today, I wasn’t physically harmed, but plenty of photographers are harmed on the job. If you’re a photographer of color, those two intersections carry an even greater risk at these kinds of protests.