On a personal level, it’s not a big deal.
We were a little roughed up at a protest last weekend. Our camera was broken and we were pushed around, but no one was injured.
What’s disappointing and disconcerting isn’t how it affects me personally. I’m concerned about what it means when journalists aren’t able to do their jobs. How can we cover marches and protests – or anything else – if we’re being harassed or targeted by mobs?
That’s a bigger problem than a broken camera and a few bruises.
Anyway, so what happened Sunday?
We were three people covering the protest and counter-protest in Quebec City. Our team was photojournalist Jean-Vincent Verville, videojournalist Dan Spector and me. Spector uses a smaller camera. It’s less imposing and doesn’t stand out in a crowd. Verville works with a bigger camera. You can’t really miss it.
WATCH: Clashes in Quebec City as counter-protesters rally against anti-immigration rally
When things started to escalate, it was decided that I’d work with Verville and watch his back.
The far-right group, La Meute, called on supporters to meet in the parking garage right behind the National Assembly. They started showing up in the morning and were supposed to start their march at 2 p.m.
The counter-protest was organized by several groups. The common theme was that they were against racism. While they appeared to share that idea, not all of the groups shared the same methods. There were families and local religious groups participating, but there were also more militant factions. Some of the crowd refer to themselves as antifa. There were also people in masks.
I’ve been covering protests in Quebec for 22 years. Seeing people in masks is absolutely not new. I’ve dealt with them at dozens of events including a Jean-Marie Le Pen visit to Montreal in 1996, the Summit of the Americas in 2001, Montebello in 2007, student protests in 2012. They don’t represent the majority of a crowd, but they tend to be at the front, and confrontational with both police and journalists.
The counter-protest forced La Meute to stay in the parking garage. It would have been chaos if they’d come out. But at some point, people started running to the west, around the building. It seemed as though people might have been exiting through another door. Quite a few of the people who went looking for another door were in masks.
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There had been some pushing with police prior to this point, but it escalated when that group came back around heading eastward. They met a line of police officers dressed in riot gear and holding shields and batons.
Verville and I were right in the middle. He shot as the crowd confronted police. People in masks threw bottles and rocks. They also had smoke bombs and fireworks. It was fairly tense. There were projectiles going over our heads. In fact, at one point, someone shot off fireworks and hit me in the leg.
WATCH: Counter-protesters clash with police in Quebec City
In a situation like that, I usually keep my hand on the cameraman’s back. Verville has one eye in his viewfinder and the other closed. He doesn’t see what’s going on around him. I watch his back.
After about 15 minutes, the police line moved forward and the crowd moved back. Verville and I moved to the side and to the top of a flight of stairs.
We were with people who weren’t even part of either rally – there was a woman with two young children staring mouths agape. I remember thinking “must be strange for them to see this.”
Well, it felt like we were out of the fray and I suppose I let my guard down.
Someone came running up behind me. He put both hands into the middle of my back and shoved me down the stairs. I fell face first, but luckily got my hands down. I was carrying a GoPro, a cellphone and a microphone. Everything went flying.
Right away, I knew it wasn’t an accident, and I turned in time to see the guy hit Verville in the back. He went forward and the camera tilted backwards. The guy who had hit us grabbed hold and wrestled the camera away. Verville tried to hold on, but his mono-pod broke and the masked person had the camera. He lifted it over his head and threw it straight down into the ground with all his force.
He then ran down the stairs and disappeared into the rest of the mask-wearing crowd. It lasted seconds, and he was gone.
The crowd yelled at us for a few minutes (as thought we’d done something wrong), and it was a little tense. But several photographers and reporters came around us and the crowd eventually lost interest.
There were other altercations with photographers. A freelance photographer, Steve Jolicoeur, came to our side when we were roughed up. Just a few minutes later, someone near him was grabbed and he tried to protect him. Then Jolicoeur himself was grabbed and thrown to the ground.
It was a disappointing day – not because we lost a camera or got pushed around. That’s not terrible. We aren’t injured. I put myself in a dangerous situation. If something happens, that’s on me.
What makes me nervous is whether this could happen more often.
Is distrust with the media going to lead to more attacks? I try to laugh it off when people yell “fake news,” but it’s getting harder and harder.
I’ve covered protests in Canada and in other parts of the world. You’re always nervous and careful, but things feel different.
Well, I hope I’m wrong.