MSNBC's Ali Velshi on Covering Protests Amid Press Attacks: "We Exist to Hold Power to Account"

Breaking News - MSNBC’s Ali?Velshi Screen Shot -Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of MSNBC

The anchor gives a minute-by-minute account of getting shot by a rubber bullet fired by police in Minneapolis on Saturday night.

MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi has covered conflict zones around the world throughout his lengthy career in broadcast journalism, but he never expected one of those places to be Minneapolis, Minnesota.

That's where Velshi was shot by a rubber bullet on Saturday night while covering the protests stemming from the killing of George Floyd.

"I have never prior to this assignment worn my ballistic vest in the United States," he said. "I've never carried a gas mask in the United States."

Velshi, who relocated from Minnesota to Chicago on Monday before heading back to New York, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about being targeted by the police and the larger climate of anti-press violence around the country.

Because I'm an anchor and a reporter, I'm constantly in conversation with my immediate supervisors and those who cover the news. So we had started talking on Tuesday about the fact that even though my primary responsibilities tend to be later into the week, I thought it would make sense if I went, and the bosses thought it would make sense if I went as well. So, I deployed on Thursday to Minneapolis.

We did stay at a hotel downtown, and not only were things normally closed for coronavirus, but the restaurants, for instance, that were offering service or the hotel that had some food, that was suspended as well because of the protests. It was surreal. No one was in the streets. The hotel was offering no services. We literally slept there, and then spent our time out in the streets with the protesters.

We had had some people on the ground. One of the good things about NBC is we've got affiliate relationships as well. So we had a very good sense of what was happening in Minneapolis, including with our own reporters. So I went right to the scene of the Third Precinct police station, which is where most of the protests had been centered. The crowd had been gathering there. By Thursday evening, even prior to my getting there, it had been fairly tense and fairly hot. By 9 p.m. ET that night, it was clear that the protestors were going to defy the barriers and try to get to the police station.

The attempt to invoke a curfew failed on Friday night. Now we get to Saturday night. Again, it was peaceful protests all day — speeches, chants, things like that. As the curfew approached on Saturday, the protestors, who had been entirely peaceful, sat down. Shortly thereafter, everybody stood up and started walking away from the police station in a march. So, we walked with them. We stayed in the back third of the group. And we walked for a while. It was maybe a mile and a half or more. So we're walking and walking. But in the intersection in front of where we where, all of a sudden police cars, lights and sirens, come into the intersection and block it. The crowd did stop, and some started to turn back. Then the police started firing tear gas in our direction. My team and I started to move back because we had masks and we were able to largely maintain our position to cover the story. But the police continued to shoot, and they added projectiles, which appeared to be rubber bullets, in the mix.

One round hit a man next to me and on air you can hear me say, "He's hit. You've been hit. Get back." You can also hear me say, "They're shooting. Move back, guys." Our security team was pulling us back. I was reporting all of this live on TV. And then suddenly something hit my shin. It wasn't a marker round, because I would have seen it if it were, and it wasn't gas, because there was no gas there. It bounced off me. It penetrated my jeans and my skin, and then bounced off. We were able to retreat in a relatively orderly fashion.

We're walking back — we took a break from TV — we turned around to continue walking, when suddenly the intersection that was in front of us as we were walking the opposite direction was entered by police and National Guard. Having just encountered what we did, we raised our hands and yelled out, "We're media," to which they responded, "We don't care" and they fired projectiles at us. We didn't get hit in that encounter. We're 100 percent clear that they knew we were media because there was no one else around and we announced it very clearly, very specifically.

It was surprising and somewhat confusing. I've covered a lot of hostile environments around the world. I have never, prior to this assignment, worn my ballistic vest in the United States. I've never carried a gas mask in the United States. I've always been amazed by the idea that in America, journalists are allowed by law, under almost any circumstances, to bear witness to anything. I don't know whether we were targeted that first time around, but the concept of not taking care to prevent harm or intimidation to journalists surprised me.

When I got hit, it was so painful that you don't know what it is. It could have been a bullet, but I hadn't seen any live fire. It hurt in the moment, but the sting went away fairly quickly and became a bruise. The skin was cut, so it's scarred over. I'm probably lucky that if I was going to get hit, that's where I got hit.

I will say this: In fairness, the way you cover these stories is to be there. If you want to bear witness, you actually have to be there. It is not always possible, whether you're covering a protest or a hurricane, to establish a position in which you are able to tell a story and yet be safely enough removed that you're not in the mix. If you're in a crowd and the crowd's getting tear-gassed, that's the nature of the business. So, it's not that reporters never get injured incidentally in these things. But, as you saw, the flavor of this one was a little bit different. There was something indisciplined about the way the authorities were operating, and there was definitely something in the air that allowed the police to believe this kind of behavior was OK.

I believe that we exist to bear witness and to hold power to account, and that's it. And if you're not prepared to do that, then don't be a reporter. So, it only redoubled my commitment to be there.

My employers were great about it, as were most people in mainstream media, where immediately security was on the phone with me and the bosses were on the phone and I was fairly insistent that, "We're here, we're covering the story until someone is not prepared to do so or unable to do so."

They were insistent that we reevaluate safety and well-being over continued coverage of the story. And I agreed with them, obviously, that that's important, and it doesn't help us if we're injured and not able to cover the story. But I felt that we were there and we were covering the story and this wasn't a reason for us to downgrade any of the way we were doing it. We all came to the conclusion that we would continue to cover the story, but do whatever we had to do to try to not be in the way of projectiles.

The number of my own colleagues who have been hit in the last few days, I have trouble getting my head around why this is happening. You don't have to like us, and this shouldn't be about who we are and what are opinions are: This should be about the fact that one of the greatest things about America is liberty and freedom of the press.  

A version of this story appears in the June 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.