The revolution will be streamed: Livestreamers redefine journalism during protests

“When we said the Revolution will not be televised, the things that are gonna change people is something that will never be captured on film. It’ll just be something you see and all of a sudden you’ll realize, ‘I’m on the wrong page,’ or ‘I’m on the right page but on the wrong note and I’ve got to get in synch with everyone else to understand what’s happening in this country.’” — Gil Scott-Heron

SATURDAY, JUNE 28
It’s 10:04 p.m., and I’m melting into my couch at home.

“Great Dylan flick on TMC,” a friend texts.

“Multiple people shot at Jefferson square downtown,” I reply, repeating the news that’s just rolled across my phone.

Darkness has settled on a weird day. Despite having announced their plans for an armed march past an anti-racist encampment downtown, the American Freedom Fighters are thus far a no-show. Now, however, my thoughts turn to a possible evening drive-by shooting, and I go exploring on Facebook and discover a post by a livestreamer named Maxwell Mitchell, who’s just archived the footage he’d broadcast in real time an hour earlier.

The very first image you see is visceral: A man we now know is Steven Lopez stands on Sixth Street near Liberty Street and is holding a pistol, his arms raised over his head and about 20 feet from the camera. He fires into the air, then lowers the gun and points into the park. He fires again. More shots are heard.

Mitchell’s iPhone video camera rolls as he retreats toward Jefferson Street and circles back into the park where he comes upon camp medics tending to a young photographer named Tyler Gerth, who lay mortally wounded, his blood visible on the sidewalk.

INDEPENDENT LENS
A core group of livestreamers has been documenting the downtown Louisville protests since they began on May 29, demanding that police involved in the Breonna Taylor case be fired, arrested and prosecuted for killing her. Collectively, they’ve garnered more than 60,000 followers and racked up millions of views, numbers that seem to have grown since the Saturday night shooting. It’s not unusual to see more than 2,000 people watching individual streams during the evening.

From the mauling of peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama to Rodney King and George Floyd, video footage depicting white-on-Black violence has played a key role in U.S. civil rights struggles for more than 60 years. Never has it been more powerful than today, however, when seemingly everyone has a high-resolution video camera tucked in a pocket or purse.

The livestreamers aren’t interested in just documenting potential conflicts that grow more likely at night. They’re present during the daytime, capturing mundane moments and speeches and people playing the piano that was left in the park (now gone). They want to push back on stereotypes that the protests are constantly violent, a view they believe mainstream media perpetuates by focusing on conflict and blindly accepting official police accounts.

Their livestreaming also has opened a discussion about what qualifies as journalism and who is a journalist? And driving that discussion is whether the police have been targeting them for arrest (which police deny) and whether they deserve to be treated as press from conventional outlets.

Their ranks have included but are not limited to:

  Tara Bassett, 59, a longtime Louisville broadcaster and current president/host at Take It From Tara Productions
  John Doemain, who declined to say his age and is an independent videographer and former editor/producer for teleSUR who’s covered conflicts in Israel and Palestine
  Jason Downey, 34, who works in cybersecurity
  Maxwell Mitchell, 32, a graphic designer and musician
  MilkyMess TV (Steph Townsell), whose Facebook page says: “Journalist — news from the people, for the people”
  RiotHeart, 31, who prefers to conceal his identity, runs an all-purpose event planning and consultation network in Louisville
  Antonio T-Made Taylor, 46, who is an on-air personality at 104.7-FM and co-owner of WaveFM Online, an Internet radio station and podcast hub
  Chea K. Woolfolk, 46, whose Chea Chea Media Inc. encompasses radio, TV and a digital magazine.

Mitchell, Woolfolk, Doemain, Townsell and Taylor are Black. Bassett, Downey and RiotHeart are white. They were largely unknown to one another before the protests but now feel a kinship, though they don’t seem to closely coordinate efforts beyond cross-posting one another’s work.

Their narration styles vary, from Bassett’s journalistic quest for balance to Woolfolk’s breezy in-your-face repartee. Some work in or around media. Others are new to media roles. Both RiotHeart, who went to the first night of protests to help as a street medic, and Downey, who was out for a bike ride when he bumped into the conflagration on the second night, decided to begin streaming after they saw LMPD deploying tear gas and rubber bullets.

They’ve been at it almost daily since.

Louisville-area old-timers will recall Bassett from her days as a TV meteorologist. Lately she tells her stories on Facebook Live, focused on animal rights advocacy and pretty much anything else that comes across her transom. She went to look at downtown after the first night of protests turned violent and has livestreamed almost daily. On the morning the American Freedom Fighters were expected, she set up at Jefferson Park and waited for hours. Later in the day she went to Thurman Hutchins Park, where the group was said to have gathered and broadcast for an hour while protesters verbally jousted with an AFFer. That night, it was Bassett who called her friend, Courier Journal Metro Columnist Joe Gerth, to break the news about his godson’s death.

For the uninitiated, a Facebook “Live” is just that — you turn your phone camera on, choose Live, and start transmitting images for anyone on Facebook to see, comment on and share on their timeline. When the user ends the video, it can be archived or deleted.

WHAT’S IN A WORD?
Streaming public events raises interesting questions of terminology. Live video can be visceral, compelling and, most importantly, unfiltered in a way mainstream media can’t (or won’t) approach.

But does the mere act of recording events make you a journalist? In this case, because the streamers also largely self-identify as protesters, the answer gets muddy.

“I have a favorite saying that every American has the First Amendment right to commit journalism, and I use that verb purposely,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the UK. “If you use that verb, you have an obligation to present things fairly and completely.”

While acknowledging the value of their work, Cross stopped short of calling the streamers journalists. “There is value in people being able to do their own thing and offer perspectives … But people need to understand there are people running the camera, and even with a Facebook Live, there are still editorial decisions being made — where the camera is, when to turn it on and off, how close you are and so on.”

LMPD spokeswoman Jessie Halladay, a former Courier Journal police reporter, said the police are aware of the livestreamers but don’t necessarily see them as reporters.

“We obviously know they’re out there, and we watch some of them,” she said. “They’re not asking for comment. They’re simply recording. Many are participants. … You can look at the contrast — WDRB has a reporter out there, but he never chants or participates. He’s simply there documenting.”

Louisville First Amendment attorney Jon Fleischaker said he is also unsure about what to call the livestreamers, but he said they have a clear right to freedom of speech regardless. “That said, being a journalist won’t necessarily protect you from being arrested if the cops say you’ve done something to be arrested for,” he said. “Journalists don’t enjoy special protections.”

UofL Professor Ricky Jones, a freelance columnist for The CJ who also contributes to LEO, said he believes the livestreamers can provide new power for holding police accountable. “Their operations rest on people complying — it’s Cartman on ‘South Park’ — ‘You will respect my authoritay,’” he said. “Here’s where streamers are incredibly important. When people don’t comply or do something to piss off the cops, they abuse and kill them. You see cops’ strategy of turning off body cams because they know some things they do are wrong, and they don’t want a record of it so can they tell their own story.

“What streamers represent, because of advances in technology and tactics, they provide their own record for themselves. They’re commenting on events. I think they are historians. The cops understand the threat streamers pose to anonymity. Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant — darker forces always want to function in the shadows and keep things secret. Streamers can prove this isn’t hearsay — ‘we have you on this camera.’ If you harass someone or hurt someone or kill them, they see it. That handcuffs the cops.”

SUNDAY, JUNE 29
Whatever you call them, it’s hard to deny the streamers’ impact and ability to show an unfiltered view of events on the ground, whether it’s a ruckus or civil conversation between police and protesters.

One day after Gerth’s murder, LMPD announced plans to end camping in the park and to strictly enforce its closing at 11 p.m. Mitchell’s Sunday night Livestream, which runs four hours, begins a little after 8 p.m. with a memorial service in the park for Gerth. That segues into a march down Sixth Street to Broadway and back to the park via Fifth and Liberty streets. As 11 p.m. approaches, the air grows pregnant with tension fueled by uncertainty, and Mitchell slowly walks toward a group of officers in riot gear who’ve blocked the intersection at Fifth and Jefferson streets. A handful of protesters are having a back and forth with a female officer who identifies herself as Lt. Shannon Lauder.

Livestreamers John Doemain, Maxwell Mitchell, Tara Bassett
and Antonio T-Made Taylor. | Photo by Kathryn Harrington.

“The only thing I would ask,” says Taylor, the WaveFM livestreamer, “if you all do need to go up in the park, please go in there as non-aggressively as possible. We’re standing up for justice. We don’t want any problems with you all, I promise you. They are angry though, we are angry. We don’t wanna feel threatened.”

“We don’t wanna go in there like that, either,” a male officer replies. Multiple conversations continue. Mitchell asks a female officer if she understands why protesters use the phrase “Black lives matter.” “Ah, no response,” he says. A male officer steps forward and asks Mitchell to explain.

“Here’s a scenario I like to paint,” he begins. “Take this block, from Jefferson and Fifth to Liberty and Fifth and picture if there was residential. There’s 10 houses. You built those houses, and you have your hands on your waist, and you say, ‘Oh, my gosh, all these houses matter.’ So, one day, I don’t know, an arsonist comes by, and he decides to light three of these houses on fire. So, three of the houses are burning down. You walk over there, and you say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I need to put those three houses out.’

“All of those houses are not on fire, but three of them are on fire. So, do you see how it would be silly if you’re standing there trying to put one of those three fires out and someone walked over and said, ‘All houses matter, why are you just focusing on those three houses?’ Those three houses are on fire, and that person is like, ‘But all houses matter. Get away from those three houses.’
“It’s that type of scenario, right?”
The cop nods.
“So you understand?”
“Yeah.”
“That’ll do it,” Mitchell says, turning to walk back toward Jefferson Square where a handful of police, not dressed in riot gear, talk with protesters and explain they can stay on the sidewalk but not the park.

The camera pans down Liberty Street toward Seventh Street, where a group of about 30 officers in riot gear are staged. They eventually fall back and the night ends peacefully.

That’s about to change.

John Doemain. | Photo by Kathryn Harrington.

MONDAY, JUNE 30
The day begins with protesters sneaking onto the Second Street Bridge to unfurl a large banner honoring Breonna Taylor. The demonstration leads to about 30 arrests and the towing of several vehicles, as well as impassioned exchanges between protesters and police at a barricade near Second and Main streets. The protesters are still angry about having their belongings thrown away after police cleared the park on Saturday night. Several livestreamers are on hand.

Later, as the sun sets, the protesters head out for their nightly march before returning to Jefferson Square. Closing time again approaches. Broadcasting live, Mitchell intones: “What I’m growing to understand from yesterday, my conclusion is at 11 p.m. they’re not going to rush in here and arrest everyone, it seems. But if they’re camping out in the park, they’ll arrest them. … That’s just what I’m noticing from yesterday and today, but of course, we shall see. And here comes the rain.”

He notices police blocking the intersection at Fifth and Jefferson streets. “I wonder what they’re doing. I guess I’ll go ask.”

His slow approach toward a handful of officers creates a sort of Ken Burns effect. Standing behind four unmarked vehicles, the police look slightly startled by the approach. Ten feet out, Mitchell says, “I just had a question. … What is the plan tonight? Is it blocking off Fifth and Jefferson and allowing cars to get through Liberty?”

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An officer responds in the affirmative. “OK. Thank you for answering the question.”

MilkyMess TV (Steph Townsell) in white recording. | Photo by Jon Cherry.

He turns and moves quickly toward the park. Just past the Chase Bank sign he senses commotion. “And, of course I walk away for a second and everyone’s running down the street.” He sighs. “What’s going on?” Someone tells him the riot cops just came out. “Tear gas, rubber bullets?” It doesn’t appear that’s happened yet, and he walks past the Hall of Justice toward Metro Corrections where roughly dozens of riot officers are arrayed, with more behind an armored truck called a Bearcat, angled in the Sixth and Liberty intersection with more cops behind — maybe 100 overall. “Wow,” Mitchell says.

He shows the intersection and overhears a comment. “Which one are they saying is a good cop?” he asks. “This one here.” Maj. Paul Humphrey, sans riot gear, comes into view, speaking with a female protester.

At that point, the police fall back.

Which leads to a little clapping. A lot of taunting. Mitchell walks slowly toward Jefferson Street and swings around to catch a group of protesters trailing the police. It’s a rare opportunity to talk back to power and vent their deepest disgust — what UofL professor Jones calls the “get even.”

Mitchell answers a comment: “As far as the battery is concerned on the phone, when I am on live, it drains really quickly, so it’s really the external battery that’s doing the job, and I’m very thankful for it. … The police have gone backward, to I assume change their clothes and go to their own home. Who knows?”

Antonio T-Made Taylor, John Doemain and Tara Bassett. | Photo by Kathryn Harrington.

TUESDAY, JULY 1
Tonight’s protest is a driving march that begins near Waterfront Park before police shunt the caravan onto the interstate toward The East End. Things get a little wild.

Back at the park, police make a more pointed showing at closing time — dozens of officers in riot gear line up face-to-face with protesters along Sixth Street from Liberty to Jefferson. Word filters through the crowd that a vehicle has been towed — it’s a van driven by Chaunda Lee, who’s known as the food lady. (Lee later told LEO she was double parked on Sixth Street because a truck was in her usual spot. She said she was packed up to leave when riot cops surrounded her van and forced her and her 12-year-old son out. LMPD’s Halladay told LEO the van had been parked in the driving lane for “quite some time” and was deemed to be in violation.)

Mitchell walks along Jefferson, capturing John Doemain doing his own Live. “They supposedly want to make peace with the community,” Doemain narrates. “They say they wanna repair things and then they do some bullshit like this. Destroyed our shit the other day … and they wanna repair the community?”

The rain has stopped and police have vacated Sixth Street. Mitchell walks toward Metro Corrections. The area is nearly empty. He swivels back toward Jefferson Street. “Ah, don’t do this. Don’t do this,” he says, amid the distinct sound of dumping trash. Someone says “no Live,” and Mitchell points his camera away. A few minutes later, as riot police begin moving toward the park from Sixth and Market streets, he defends the decision to a commenter. “I can assure you I’m down for videoing the truth … I was asked for privacy, to not show a certain action, because once again, some things just shouldn’t be videoed. But, as a result of what happened, police are rioting here in the street on Jefferson.”

Meanwhile, over at MilkyMess’s channel, there’s a different view of the same event. Standing near Sixth and Liberty streets, Townsell comes on at 11:47 p.m., purses her lips and looks at the camera: “So, I wasn’t gonna go live, y’all. I was just gonna hang out. I was legit just about to hang out. Wasn’t gonna go live, but I gotta show y’all something real quick,” she says, and points the camera over her shoulder to show two trash piles in the middle of Sixth Street.

A couple minutes later, the riot cops advance. Mitchell is loath to be arrested, and he’s seen this before, so he’s moved down Jefferson Street toward Fifth Street by the time they swoop. His camera captures Downey walking backward with hands up (and livestream running). Three or four cops, including one who seems to take a quick look at a phone, tackle Downey and drive him into a row of portable toilets. Mitchell runs across Jefferson Street to Fifth Street and stops to think. Hearing the blaring horns of cars returning from the caravan, he decides he must warn them about what’s just happened. He catches a ride in a Jeep, jumps out and runs down Jefferson Street warning cars, cuts through the Chase parking lot to Liberty Street and jumps in another car that’s soon cut off by the Bearcat, which then rams the Jeep Mitchell had ridden in moments before. “Jesus,” he says, now on foot and running, his camera recording only the pavement and the sound of his breath. He bolts through Fourth Street Live and past the Seelbach Hilton hotel, where he cuts through the valet parking chute and runs toward the hotel garage, where he’s greeted by friends. The Live cuts off.

Townsell is still on.

She walks back, past the trash piles, stopping to notice her favorite pillow that had disappeared (but opting not to take it). She moves south on Liberty Street to hook up with friends and starts to tell them the pillow story, but stops when a red laser beam dances on her white tank top. “Like, is that a gun?” she says. “These motherfuckers got a red dot on me! Wow! Take me out. Wow. They literally had a red dot on my chest. Wow. Wow. They’re trying to take me out, y’all.”

The cops give chase. She escapes through a parking garage and jumps into a friend’s waiting car. They’re reading comments in the stream about Downey’s arrest. Woolfolk has been arrested, too. They read about Mitchell’s escape and drive past the Seelbach to see if they can find him, but there are too many cops.

She reads a comment: “’They’re trying to get the streamers.’ Oh, yeah absolutely. I know that we have been a target since week one. We’ve literally been a target since week one.”

It is a charge spokesperson Halladay strongly denied. “These livestreamers are part of the crowd and participate in the protest. When they don’t follow rules to disperse, it creates issues,” she said. “We respect the First Amendment right to protest. Our job is ensure that activity is as safe as can possibly be.

“We have made efforts to keep everyone safe while balancing the rights of free speech and expression. We tried to set boundaries, including that the park closes at 11.”

Near Sixth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, Townsell points the phone at police vehicles in a parking lot. “I kinda regret going out that window,” she says. “Now they know what car I’m in.” She ends the broadcast and lives to fight another day.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 2
The mood near 11 p.m. is lighter than the night before. On Antonio T-Made Taylor’s Live, a man on a megaphone addresses the police.

“You gotta speak up to each other. Why? I’m Black forever. That’s just a job. Why? For a pension?” A group of protesters pray with police. A few officers carry cases of water from the park to the sidewalk. Someone suggests it’s a trap to deliver projectiles.

WDRB’s Chad Mills, who’s done several Facebook Lives during the protests, is on the scene. After the police fall back, the group decides to march to Founders Square park. “We gonna chill,” protestor Kris Smith says into a megaphone. “If they come, they have to tell us to leave. It’s on the sidewalk. Same stuff every day. Don’t throw anything. You can say whatever you want to, and I mean whatever. Whenever they come, eventually they will, maybe they won’t — we never know — when they come and tell you to leave, stay on the sidewalk.”

Chea K. Woolfolk. | Photo by John O’Haver.

One night after their arrests, Woolfolk and Downey are taking mental health breaks at home. One night after his dramatic escape, Mitchell is present but not streaming. Townsell is Live. “We’re gonna move around to keep them on their toes,” she says. “I like the way this is working out right now. This is new — we haven’t tried this technique before. … So far, so good. I had a long day at school today. I’m yawning.”

In an instant, three police officers appear, shedding other protesters like linebackers breaching a backfield as they surround Townsell on the sidewalk and tackle her to the ground. An officer puts his knee in her back and spits twice on the ground beside her.

“Officers said she was trespassing in this park,” says Mills, who captured the takedown on his Live. “We had talked to her moments before, and she characterized the protest as peaceful tonight.”

The arrest further fuels speculation that LMPD has targeted streamers.

WHAT NOW?
The arrests of four prominent livestreamers over two days creates an outcry about suppression of free speech. The ACLU speaks out. WAVE 3 reporter Kaitlin Rust, whom police shot at with pepper balls while she covered the May 29 disturbance, conducts an hour-long interview with Bassett, Doemain, Mitchell and Taylor (Downey joins late). RiotHeart livestreams the entire interview, which runs on TV as an edited package.

Mitchell had hinted at getting an interview with interim LMPD Chief Rob Schroeder, and sure enough, a meeting is arranged on Friday to include Schroeder plus a handful of others from both parties. After initial resistance, LMPD agrees Mitchell can livestream the meeting. The issue of citizen journalism arises. Police deny targeting the streamers for arrest and point out it’s impossible to determine who’s who with so many cell phones present. An idea is raised to provide vests for the streamers, and some begin wearing them on the streets.

On Saturday, the streamers announced the formation of the Independent Media Guild, to provide information and First Amendment support. The group hopes to acquire media credentials, according to a news release. The arrests haven’t stopped the livestreaming.

Townsell has maintained a lower profile and hasn’t gone Live at night since. LEO was unable to reach her.

In an interview, Woolfolk told LEO she will keep streaming, though she admits her arrest and her subsequent felony charge shook her. When she was arrested Tuesday, not far from where Downey was taken down, she said police surrounded and menaced her and three younger women, with one officer claiming another officer had been shot and killed that night. “He told this girl, ‘I could charge you with murder.’ I was like, ‘Who was murdered?’ I’m no fool — when he said that, the entire night shifted. I thought, ‘Oh, hell, I’m not making it out of here.’ You know how that goes.”

Jason Downey. | Photo by John O’Haver.

The LMPD’s Halladay has not responded to an email requesting a comment.

Louisville attorney David Mour, who’s helping arrange legal representation for protesters, believes the streamers were targeted to shut them up. During the meeting with police Friday, he argued on their behalf.

“Livestreamers are very important in my opinion, because what mainstream media portray isn’t very accurate,” Mour told LEO. “A perfect example is when the Bearcat — I call it a tank — rammed a protester’s car on Tuesday night, and LMPD put out that [a protester] rammed the bearcat. That turned out to be a lie, and they only admitted it when video surfaced that proved it.”

Halladay said LMPD issued a correction.

Mour continued: “I told them, if you arrest one more livestreamer, I will have your ass in federal court first thing Monday morning.”

For his part, Mitchell doesn’t plan to stop livestreaming. He was initially skeptical of being targeted by LMPD, but after being chased and seeing the others arrested, he’s changed his mind.

“Police denied that that was happening,” he said during a Sunday morning press conference organized by the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Reppression at The Carl Braden Memorial Center. “But you could see the truth in those livestreams, the faces of the police officers literally looking through the crowds for a specific person. How could you deny that when, once again, the livestreaming is showing the truth?”

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