While a liquor store and a Minneapolis police precinct smoldered in the background, Minnesota state police arrested and handcuffed CNN reporter Omar Jimenez, along with a producer and a photojournalist, live on television.
Jimenez and the CNN crew were covering the overnight street protests over the death of George Floyd that boiled over for a second night.
Jimenez, still holding a microphone as police stood around him, asked police where they wanted his crew to move. They did not respond.
“We can move back to where you like. We are live on the air here. … Put us back where you want us. We are getting out of your way — wherever you want us (we’ll) get out of your way,” Jimenez said, while police wearing gas masks stood around him silently. “We were just getting out of your way when you were advancing through the intersection.”
Then one officer told him he was being arrested. Jimenez asked why and got no response as they led him away in front of stunned anchors. The police seized the live camera and the network aired a signal from that camera for more than an hour, not knowing where the camera was as it kept broadcasting.
A CNN reporter & his production team were arrested this morning in Minneapolis for doing their jobs, despite identifying themselves – a clear violation of their First Amendment rights. The authorities in Minnesota, incl. the Governor, must release the 3 CNN employees immediately.
— CNN Communications (@CNNPR) May 29, 2020
In addition to Jimenez, police arrested CNN producer Bill Kirkos and photojournalist Leonel Mendez.
About an hour after the arrest, CNN president Jeff Zucker said he spoke to Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, who “deeply apologized” for the arrest and said he was working to release the journalists. CNN said Walz described the arrests as “unacceptable,” and that the governor agreed that “CNN’s team clearly has the right to be there.” CNN also said the governor stated he wants the media to be in Minnesota to cover the protests.
— CNN (@CNN) May 29, 2020
CNN repeatedly pointed out that while Jimenez, who is a black Latino, was arrested, a white CNN reporter, Josh Campbell, who was nearby, was not arrested.
“I identified myself … they said, ‘OK, you’re permitted to be in the area,’” Campbell said. “I was treated much differently than (Jimenez) was.”
“I do think what happened to Omar is part of a general loss of control,” CNN anchor John Berman said.
Around 6:30 a.m. Central time, an hour and a half after the arrest, CNN’s camera was still sending a live signal. Viewers watched the camera ride an elevator then move down a corridor of a police station. Jimenez could be seen standing in front of the camera, free.
Jimenez later said, “Police who were leading me away were actually cordial.” He continued, “For us, it was a situation of ‘tell me who you are.’ They came back and said, ‘you are with CNN, correct?’ They left, came back, they let us out of a van, we were handcuffed at the time, then they came back with our belongings and we were let out.”
Omar Jimenez’s career has taken the “small-town journalist makes it to the network” trek that so many journalists aspire to. He started in Quincy, Illinois, at WGEM-TV, worked in Baltimore and moved three years ago to report for CNN’s affiliate news service. Along the way, he was on the ground reporting from the Las Vegas mass shooting and from the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in Paris and he covered the trial of the officers in the Freddie Gray case.
Jimenez was just as calm upon his release as he was at the moment officer put him in handcuffs. “There was a moment where this started to sink in,” he said. “We had been showing our credentials this entire week.”
He continued, “As we were walking away, it did cross my mind what is really happening here, and the one thing that gave me a little comfort is that it happened on live TV.”
He said the video documentation that has underpinned the entire story of George Floyd’s death erased any doubt about what happened, and he said he was comforted by the fact his own arrest was also on video.
“What is happening is not new, it is being filmed. That speaks to the power of it happening on camera,” Jimenez said. “You don’t have to doubt my story, you could see it with your own eyes, and that gave me a little bit of comfort.”
After police took Jimenez and the CNN crew out of the police van and removed their handcuffs, they told the crew to “get off the property.” In moments, TV viewers saw him back on the job, reporting on his own release.
“There was ‘no sorry this was a big misunderstanding,’” he said.
Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.