12 min read

We spoke with Linda Tirado, the freelancer partially blinded by police at a Black Lives Matter…

Over the last few years, President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to journalists and the media in general as “the enemy of the…
We spoke with Linda Tirado, the freelancer partially blinded by police at a Black Lives Matter…

We spoke with Linda Tirado, the freelancer partially blinded by police at a Black Lives Matter protest.

Over the last few years, President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to journalists and the media in general as “the enemy of the people”. This has manifested into a climate in which being a journalist in the United States is more dangerous than ever. Recently, the situation has become even more grim, with more than 500 attacks on members of the press occurring in the two months since George Floyd’s murder. Linda Tirado is one of those 500 journalists who have unfortunately become part of the story they’re trying to cover.

Linda Tirado’s career in journalism began in 2013. She was going to school, working two jobs, and raising two daughters with her husband. One night, she responded to an online forum where someone posed the question: “Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?” Her response, explaining her own situation, went viral, being read by over 6 million people. She extended her response into a book called Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. Since then, she’s worked as a freelance writer and photographer. Her work has been published in ELLE, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the Huffington Post to name a few.

Our CEO Jaron Gilinsky chatted with Linda about why she chose to cover the Black Lives Matter protests, what exactly happened to her in Minneapolis, the senseless attacks on journalists throughout the United States, and how other journalists can stay safe while documenting these protests.

Below are some excerpts from Jaron and Linda’s conversation.

Jaron: What inspired you to cover Black Lives Matter?

Linda: Honestly, it was Ferguson. I had worked two or three jobs at a time since I was 16 years old. After I wrote the book, I had nothing to do in between when you hit send and they start editing and printing and when they actually deliver those books. There’s a six month lag time and I’d never not had a job before. So I was just kicking around DC waiting on this book to come out and some friends of mine who were activists asked if they could hitch a ride because I had a car. And I said sure.

I grew up in St. Louis. One thing led to another and I wound up supporting a streaming team. And it’s one of those things where, you know, once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Ever since then, I’ve had a real, and I want to be careful with the words here because you can say it so wrongly, but just a real understanding of how the civil liberties about violations work, and a real urge to understand how our society works and to do something that helps shine a light on that and helps people make sense of it so that we can find a better way forward.

Jaron: Could you just paint a picture of what it was like when you drove up to Minneapolis? Where did you go first?

Linda: Obviously I saw the video of George Floyd being killed with the same horror that the rest of the world did. But I do live with an immunocompromised person and I have two little kids. So I wasn’t immediately ready to just hop in my car the way I would have been outside of a pandemic. I would have been leaving on Monday night, had there not been COVID. On Tuesday I saw the protests starting, and I kinda thought, this is going to kick. This is going to take hold. This was too blatant and too much that I think it might even cut through a pandemic. By Wednesday I was convinced of it.

I got up there on Thursday evening at about eight. I was out on location by 8:30, and until about two o’clock in the morning just taking photos. The National Guard was there. There were a lot of structure fires. It was a lot of chaos. Friday night was the first night of curfew. I went out on location at around five and we saw protesters about 15 minutes before the curfew. We saw protesters coming from the direction of the third precinct saying, “They’re gassing, they’re gassing early.” I asked a couple of them if there was a dispersal order, and they said they didn’t hear one. So I put on my mask, respirator, and goggles, and I went down towards the third precinct.

I started lining up my establishing shot. In these scenarios, and it’s one of those horribly beautiful things that comes out of conflict, there are particulates in the air, and depending on the sort of gas and the particulate that’s being used as a crowd control, it shows up orange or purple against the blue and red police lights.

I was setting that shot up when I felt myself get hit and my goggles came off. I threw my hands up. I started yelling, “I’m press I’m press.” Protesters came, took my arms and said “We’re taking you to the medics”. Somebody patched up my eyebrow a little bit and then they took me to the ER. I was in surgery within an hour.

Jaron: Did you get the shot that you were describing before?

Linda: Unfortunately not, it’s just a big green fuzz. Which I think in and of itself is, is interesting. I do have a bunch of really good shots from earlier in the evening, but again, this only happened a week ago. It’s been under two weeks since I’ve been injured and trying to review video and photos has been difficult while I’m trying to relearn to focus with my right eye. It’s really tiring. I can only really edit two or three photos at a time before I’ve got to take a substantial break. I’ve got a friend of mine who’s a photo editor. They went through everything for me and kind of pulled out the shots that I might want to put up for my portfolio. But I haven’t even really had a chance to seriously focus on those yet.

Jaron: Obviously it’s chaotic, but did you have any visible identifying things that say “I’m a journalist” besides the camera?

Linda: You don’t take your best equipment out into tear gas, but I still had a professional on body camera with a professional flash and pro lenses. My goggles and respirator were pro-level, not what you see on every protester. And of course I had my credentials around my neck that loudly say “press”. In fact, I swung through Chicago and a mate of mine got a fresh badge for me because my old one was faded. Protesters throughout the night had been asking me, who are you with? What outlet are you with? They certainly identified me as a journalist which, you know, leads me to believe that anybody would reasonably have seen me as a working journalist. I was not in a protest or scrum, like I wasn’t on the protesters line when I got hit. I was in between the protesters and the police who were at some distance from each other. I think that it would have been very difficult not to look at me and think “That’s probably a journalist”.

Jaron: What was the medical prognosis for your eye?

Linda: Well, I won’t recover vision. They say I’ll have light and shadow. If there’s a bright light source, like a TV or something, and somebody walks in front of it I’ll know that because I’ll see the blocking of that light source. But it’ll be hard for me to distinguish a small tree from a large dog, for instance. So the prognosis is the organ itself can be fixed so that it’s not a chronic health problem, but the vision probably won’t come back.

Jaron: Do you need to do more surgeries or was that the last of it?

Linda: They say it’s probably going to be at least one or two more. Every time they do one, they’re going to have to come back a week later, see how it went and see if there needs to be another one. The last one they gave me they pumped a bunch of silicone into my eye to help the organ hold its shape internally. Next week I have to go back in. They may have to put more in, or they might have to take some out. They’re not really sure. It depends on how my eye heals. They’re also telling me that I may need cosmetic surgery so I’m able to open my eyelid fully. But we’re not sure about that either.

It’s also a question of just waiting for the swelling to completely go down to see if I have muscle control of the eyelid, or am I going to need additional surgery for that? So it’s a really dynamic situation. Nobody’s really sure what’s happening. I do have really good surgeons and I have full faith in them. Whatever they tell me I need to do is what we’re going to be doing. Specialty eye stuff is a little out of my lane, so they keep telling me all of the words and I’m like, “Cool, does that mean surgery or no surgery?”

My retina was pushing on my cornea or possibly my lens was pushing on my cornea. When they tell you these things, it’s always very quick and matter of fact, and then you go into the operating room or then the doctor goes away and they’ve done their due diligence in explaining it to you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you get it in any real layman’s way.

Jaron: So now that you’ve become part of this story, what do you hope for the ending of this story? Do you want to see justice for yourself? Do you want to see the Minnesota Police, the National Guard or whoever is responsible get punished for this? How do you want it to play out?

Linda: I’m very disinterested in punishment. I mean, not to put too fine a point on it and eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind, eh? But I’m very disinterested in punishment. I am incredibly interested in reform. I want to see it reiterated that these sorts of things are unacceptable to any civilian but particularly to the press. I think I’m the only member of the press who lost an eye, but my last count, there have been 14 blinding injuries in the last two weeks.

We need to have a serious discussion about what weapons we’re using on the civilian population. What do we consider to be adequate crowd control, because whatever your opinions on this new movement to defund police or to restructure police departments, how do we handle flashpoints? How do we handle moments of crises and the American public and the American psyche? How do we make it so that we don’t have these hashtags so that people don’t have to come out and protest? I think that what’s happened to me as part of a much broader discussion than just, “what do I want to have happen next”? I’m mostly focused on healing and getting through these surgeries and re-imagining my career.

Jaron: It’s remarkable that you’re not more angry and that you’ve been able to kind of gather your emotions in such a way. How has that been for you?

Linda: I think that it wouldn’t be like this had I not been covering these things for so long. I have seen people publicly mourning the needless deaths of their brothers and sisters and sons and fathers. And it’s very hard for me to say “I lost an eye at the protest for this guy who lost his life”. For me to feel as though I’m the one that needs to be focused and centered there… I’m angry about the things that are breaking society. There’s no point being angry about the things that happen to me. Me extrapolating that rage out to include the situation and all of the causes that led us here is where I think that that anger is helpful and that’s absolutely where I’m directing it. So when you ask me about me, you’re not gonna see rage, but if you ask me about people being killed in the streets for the crime of being black, that’s where you’re going to see me kind of start to steam out my ears a little bit.

Because those things are unacceptable. The thing that happened to me was a nearly inevitable consequence of those unacceptable things. I just happened to be the photographer. They stepped in front of the projectiles, but it was going to happen to one of us. And that’s that whole part.

Jaron: You mentioned that you have a lawsuit. I know you can’t get into the details, but can you just explain generally what it’s all about?

Linda: It was filed yesterday in the US district court in Minnesota on. We’re filing specifically so that the courts have to say they can’t do this. We’re, we’re filing to get the courts to, to, you know, acknowledge and reiterate what everybody already should know. Because I think that that’s a good starting point to have a discussion about, you know, what are we doing here and why are we doing it? And is it justified? Is it legally, ethically, morally justified?

We’re going to get a judge to tell you that you can’t shoot journalists or protesters in the face. Obviously I’m going to have expenses that I can’t cover. I’m a freelancer, you know, I don’t have a ton of money and these surgeries are not cheap. But you know, more to the point, the reason that I filed suit was specifically because we need it reiterated. I think in this new moment, because there’s lots of laws on the books and there’s lots of, you know, things like that. But I think for a court to say this was unacceptable and this cannot happen again. And for that to be reiterated is no bad thing.

Jaron: Any last words to our community of journalists?

Linda: If you don’t mind, I’ll take a few minutes actually.

What I’ve learned over five years of doing this is that if I’m knocked out of the field, somebody is going to come up behind me. So to that person that is still thinking about doing it, make sure that you’re running lean and mean. Your backpack needs to be as light as possible because you will have to run and you do not want to be bulky. That’s bad in a crowded, close-combat situation. And I do talk about this in combat terms just because I come from a military family. You want to make sure that you got extra water. Make sure you’ve got a med kit. Make sure you’ve got a cliff bar or something.

Always carry a couple of sweets. Somebody around you might be diabetic and it might be lifesaving. Do not bring your best gear where you’re going to have tear gas. It will absolutely screw up your camera. Make sure you’ve got a respirator, goggles, and a helmet. Make sure that you’re paying attention to everything around you. As soon as you get on location, identify yourself to local folks, protesters, protest organizers. Tell them who you are, where you’re from, and make sure that they know that you’re going to be filming. Develop as many networks as you can as soon as you get there. Document everything. I tend to have an audio recorder running at all times just so that if I miss something, I can go back and review that audio later.

Make sure that you identify yourself to the police. There wasn’t a chance to speak to the police because the tear gas had already commenced and it was already that part of the night. Turn off your facial recognition and fingerprint recognition on your phone. Police can’t force you to open up any phone or editing equipment that requires a passcode, but they can use your face or your fingerprints without you wanting them to. I make sure that I’ve got a backup phone, a backup battery pack. Those things are super handy. I tend to take an old broken iPhone 5 out if I’m going to be doing any streaming or a video because when you’re holding those things up, it’s very easy for you to lose them if your hands are sweaty or someone snatchwa them out of your hands. I never use my actual phone.

When I’m out on location, I always have a crappy backup that doesn’t have anyone’s numbers on it, that doesn’t have any of my personal information on it. All they would be able to get was that night’s recording. So even if I lose the phone, I only lose one night of footage.

Secondly, set up a fail safe. If you can’t be out with a pro partner, if you are out by yourself, set up a fail safe, where if you don’t text someone every half an hour, they start calling around to jails and they start calling around to hospitals to make sure that you’re okay. Set a reminder on your phone to make sure that you’re sending that text out.

Before I went out in Minneapolis, I had a criminal defense attorney because I knew that it was very likely I would be arrested, mistaken for a protestor, or whatever the case might have been. They just arrest everybody that’s on the inside of a certain perimeter and sort everybody out later. You need to write your attorney or emergency contact’s name and number on your arm in Sharpie and cover it with liquid bandage or clear nail Polish or something so that it doesn’t rub off.

What you don’t want is to get put in jail and not be able to read the number that you wrote on your arm. All of those things I think are really important. It’s really just about being well prepared and understanding that you don’t know what you’re walking into. I’m a five-year veteran and have seen these sorts of things. I embedded myself in Ferguson. I embedded myself out in Oregon when the Bundys took over the wildlife refuge and I was embedded in the FBI standoff. I’ve been doing this for a while and I still wound up losing an eye. So just walk into it, understanding that you never know what that situation is going to be until you get there. Even once you get there, you might not have a full beat on it, so the more precautions you can take, the better off you’re going to be.

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Interviewed by Jaron Gilinsky, CEO