“The State Always Arrests Journalists”: Unicorn Riot and Breaking the News

Unicorn Riot (UR) is a noncommercial, volunteer-run news collective established in 2015. Having covered everything from Black Lives Matter and the drug war to the fight for a higher minimum wage and the White Power movement, collective members captured dramatic video of clashes between anti-Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) water protectors opposing what they call the “black snake” and state police in south-central North Dakota in October and November 2016. Recently, UR correspondent and Occupy Wall Street veteran Lorenzo Serna sat down with agricouture to discuss the protests against DAPL, the current state and future of the American news media, and Occupy. We spoke less than a week before the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would refuse to grant Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) an easement allowing them to proceed with construction of the pipeline—a major victory for environmentalists and indigenous rights advocates around the world. Despite the refusal to acquire an easement, ETP and Enbridge Energy announced they intended to move forward on pipeline construction in any case.

Interview conducted in person in Grand Forks, North Dakota: 29 November 2016.

Photos Brian James Schill

You’re just coming back from the Oceti Sakowin/Sacred Stone “No Dakota Access Pipeline” protest camp near Standing Rock, North Dakota—what can you tell us about the situation there at this time?

You’re hearing a bunch of different statements from the Army Corps of Engineers, statements from the Governor, from different heads of state of North Dakota. And I think what they’re trying to do is push off any legal ramifications that may be coming their way. So all these statements basically are: “Now it’s your responsibility. We told you to leave.” All of it’s just a facade. And they’re just trying to protect themselves legally, because they’re well aware that people don’t intend on leaving, and that more than likely death is going to occur. The situation is such that if people keep going out and meeting police and trying to take space, the police are responding with such force and almost killing them—on Sunday they almost killed a bunch of people—that eventually people are going to die.  And the State and Government are only trying to insulate themselves from any legal ramifications if anything like that happens.

And you were at Standing Rock even before Energy Transfer Partners security released dogs on protectors in September, if I recall. The footage from that specific day captured by Democracy Now! resulted in Morton County issuing an arrest warrant for Amy Goodman. But you’ve had members of the collective arrested too, right?


Do you want to speak to that—this idea that there’s a coordinated effort by the state, if not private firms, to silence journalists, particularly those such as yourself who operate in a less “establishment” sort of way, regardless of first amendment protections?

Right. So early on the state was targeting everybody regardless of credential. The state said there’s “real” journalists and not real journalists. The real journalists are the ones who feed out the state’s line and report from the police briefings [as opposed to giving the water protectors’ point of view]. And this is all well documented. And so early on it seemed like that was how the police were conducting things, but and they got smashed a little bit in the media for the overreach [with Democracy Now!]. So now they’re holding back the hammer a bit—although one of our journalists got hit by a rubber bullet right in the press pass the other day. I don’t know if they were aiming for it or what…. In any case, I don’t think they like us, but they have to deal with us. We’re there and we’re asking questions.

So, what it comes down to is they deem everybody as trespassing, regardless of credential. They expect you, even as a journalist, to leave that space, because legally you should. If you don’t, you’ll be arrested. And to me that’s absurd. I was arrested for following a group of 300-400 people who were doing a prayer walk. Maybe they happened to be trespassing, but this was as a group of 400 people in rural North Dakota who were off to a work site to pray and are part of the hundreds of indigenous tribes who have come together to air their grievances. As journalists we should be there. Why? Because I don’t believe the police. I don’t think they tell the truth all the time. In my experience, they don’t tell the truth all the time. So who is going to report what is actually going on, especially when the police side that says they tell the truth doesn’t? And it seems to be up to the independent media maker or journalist who is willing to go there and report that regardless of the ramifications.

When I was arrested I told the sheriff, “Look, this is an historic event. And these people may be trespassing, but the world deserves to know what’s happening, and wants to know. So how do I do that work as a journalist without trespassing?” And he couldn’t give me an answer [shrugs]. So, I don’t know how that’s going to play out in the future, but if people are going to take action that may be illegal, how does a journalist cover that if they stay behind in a safe place or the press room where they’re not going to see what happens and only rely on reports from the police? So, you have to go. And maybe you end up in jail sometimes.

“The state always arrests journalists. The idea of your ‘constitutional rights’ is irrelevant in the street—that does not matter to the police.”

Yes—and the reaction to the charges files against Amy Goodman, here at least, was one of shock or anger that the state went over the line. But you’re suggesting that this happens all the time.

The state always arrests journalists. The idea of your “constitutional rights” is irrelevant in the street—that does not matter to the police. They don’t care. The moment they decide to arrest you, they’ll arrest you. And maybe it comes out later that you were within your rights and they say, “Oops. Sorry about that…you had the right to do that.” So, it’s a really interesting space to work in when you know that regardless of the rights you have—I have a camera, I’m not shouting at the police or holding the line or building barricades, I’m just sitting there observing—if they feel like it, they could at any moment decide to arrest me. And so trying to work in that environment is really difficult. It’s hard. There is no real “freedom of the press” in the end. The only way that exists is if you’re willing to push it to exist, to make it a reality.

And not just the state, but you’ve been censored by “private” entities like Facebook too, right? Describe what happened there and is that troubling in a different way than the state arresting journalists?

So there are these algorithms that crawl what users post that can help determine what stays or gets taken down based on the words used in a post or whatever. And of course users can report posts as malicious, and it seems like that’s what was happening. We were live streaming a confrontation between protectors and cops and the link we’d posted to our Unicorn Riot page on Facebook, which people were sharing, just vanished. It was taken down. We don’t think there was anything intentional where the company was targeting us—it was just that the link was called “offensive” or whatever by some users.

The assumption being that “reporting” of the live stream was done by those in support of the pipeline, whether Enbridge or folks in Bismarck, or even the cops…


Have you talked to the company about the incident?

Yeah. And they gave us this line about a technical issue and the content being reported. But that kind of thing has always happened too, where private firms limit how their software or services are used. But Facebook has no responsibility to my first amendment rights. That’s not their job. The company decides how it’ll work. It’s annoying, but it’s not the same as the state arresting us.

Is there a sense in the camp now or among the community of independent journalists that the situation you just described will be better or worse under Donald Trump?

I think it’s obvious that it’s going to get worse. Under the current president, the situation is that a for-profit company has created a military fortification in North Dakota with armed mercenaries backed by the Sheriffs who are shooting water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas…. That’s Obama. That’s not going to be any different under Trump. That exists. People should be aware of that first—regardless of who is in power, it’s always ridiculous. But I think that words do have power, words build the world around us. And whatever words are being elevated are going to affect everything. And when you have someone in power who doesn’t believe in journalists and actively attacks them—you know his followers wear tee-shirts with images of hung journalists—I think it’s obvious it’ll get worse and more dangerous for journalists. The confrontations in the streets are going to get worse. And harder. It’s opening the door to police to use all their police might, which will be awful. So—worse, but it’s been bad already anyway.

Which is to say there’s been a change in the mood of camp on some level since Nov 8—knowing what’s coming?

I think for the people in the camp there’s been a change, yeah. There has been a lot more racist slurs thrown by people in cars at protectors since the election. After the election you had the guy pull out his gun and aim it at protesters’ heads at a construction site outside of Mandan, shooting in the air. The private security was armed with baseball bats. All this happened after the election. In the cities now—Bismarck and Mandan—when protectors go there, groups of people come out to harass them—slash tires and things like that. It’s not that those sentiments didn’t exist before or that residents suddenly woke up that way, but now with somebody in power who is willing to allow that sort of language to exist, a lot of this stuff comes out of the woodwork, like: “What’s up—I’ve always wanted to attack you people. And now I get to…” They don’t have to pretend. One of the things I think people will have to focus on after this is the race relations in that area after this camp is gone. The people in Standing Rock will have to live there and they’re going to be facing a whole lot more racism, which was already there, but now the door has been opened to even more.

And there’s tension within the camp about how to respond to all of this—and tactics more generally, yes?

It’s a living thing. The truth is that Oceti Sakowin is just one part of it. You have the Pawnee there, the Navajo, and all these other camps there living in this space. One group believes very literally that you have to pray in that space—that’s how you’re going to win and you should never go outside the camp to do action. Another group thinks you should pray and then afterwards go do action—an orchestrated nonviolent “arrest-fest” with the cops where you tell the cops who is going to get arrested, they have these special arm bands and all that and fly these really good banners. Media spectacle—great “visuals.” Another group believes that the only way you’re going to stop this is by putting bodies in front of it and physically stopping the machines from working. And all these groups believe they’re right and that their way is the answer. So there has been constant friction.


But that’s common for things like this, right, and that was your experience at Occupy too?

The biggest difference was that Occupy had no culture—it was trying to create culture. Occupy was a bunch of white kids who had no idea about themselves and they came to that space to create a thing, but it was based on nothing but this vast emptiness of no identity and trying to gobble up identity from everything around them. I know that sounds really brutal…. But it’s the opposite here in the sense that there’s nothing but culture. There’s hundreds of cultures, and they’re all in this space where they collide and work in these traditional frameworks of meeting and talking to each other. I watched tribe after tribe hold their traditional meetings when they came in and it was different every time—language was different, spirituality was different. But in the end they have this grounded understanding of their culture. And so that’s the biggest difference. But in the end, I would say the breakdown that happens in all movements is the debate over what is violence or nonviolence and how do you win. At Occupy we just thought, “We’ll put a lot of these pictures up and we’ll win.” Media spectacle. But you make an encampment to do something. You make an encampment to organize in the space and to go out and do stuff. And what seems to happen all the time is the camp becomes the action itself.

In Standing Rock, the encampment is illegal, it’s an arrestable thing. But if in the end the goal was to stop the pipeline, it’s not doing that by just being an encampment. And with Occupy Wall Street, if the goal was to occupy Wall Street, the encampment outside Wall Street wasn’t doing that. And then people start to protect the encampment over doing actions. That happened in New York and I think it’s happening here on some level. Also, I feel it’s an orchestrated thing—all these eviction notices make people stop thinking “We’re here to stop this pipeline!” and start thinking “Oh—we gotta defend the camp!” But why is the camp there? And that conversation among all these factions about what is violent versus nonviolent is playing out in a very visceral way there. One group wants to do this in a peaceful way and believes that walking across the line is violent. And the middle group is very concerned about media perception. It’s the same thing that happened in Occupy. I’ve been in many encampments and they all seems to fall into these patterns: there’s a galvanizing moment and everyone is excited to be there, then the work emerges, and then it turns into this support system and that’s all you find yourself doing is supporting the services for the people in the camp. But that hasn’t happened so much at Standing Rock yet.

How does the labor side of covering such events for Unicorn Riot differ from the work you were doing as #UneditedCamera back in 2011-12? Are you finding this more effective?

Before Unicorn Riot there was Unedited Media and before that I was doing a solo show called #UneditedCamera. That was a Twitter handle I had for tweeting live updates from the street at Occupy. At the G20 in Pittsburgh I thought it was really effective—I was following Twitter feeds there and was able to get information so quickly. I thought that was a very effective thing to do, so I started #UneditedCamera and was tweeting basically: “We’re heading north from here…20 police vehicles here…there’s a line of riot cops here.” Just giving very factual information. And then I started live streaming video. But the problem when I was running around as a solo media person living on donations was that it was completely unsustainable. I’d show up to an unfolding event and get some donations, and first thought, “Wow, this is so possible.” But as soon as that ebbed off, I couldn’t get to the next point—I didn’t have enough money to leave. You could maybe get a few sandwiches, but you were sort of screwed, really. It wasn’t working very well. And there were all these people doing it, but it was unsustainable and really ineffective in the end. People felt it was effective—people were telling us “Wow, you’re out streaming, you’re there doing it! You have a sense of the truth.” But the fact was, there wasn’t copy coming out of it—no examination about what was going on. There wasn’t anything being done with the media being created, which is super problematic in my opinion.

So I worked with a bunch of different groups and eventually made Unedited Media. And the goal there was to provide a social media platform and management for movements. What we’d do is try to run groups’ media feeds, asking them, “What do you need? We can do camera work here, we can do Facebook here, here’s what you should do for Twitter.” We tried to make a system for movements to use. What ended up happening there was, again, we couldn’t get anywhere because our brand, our “face,” would disappear as soon as we went to work. So we’d get to a place or go somewhere and run the feed, but then nothing would come out as “Unedited Media.” Then we’d return and try to do different stories locally, but it was ineffective and we kept running into the same problem of unsustainability.

And Unicorn Riot has proven more sustainable…

Definitely so. When we went to Standing Rock on back on April 1 [2016] we were still young and didn’t have a lot of money, but we had enough to send two people to pay for their food and their fuel out at Fort Yates, North Dakota, and stay there. And, I was never able to do that before, as sad as it sounds. I didn’t have to ask people for money or beg for money on the internet. We already had the money because these people had been supporting what we did in the past. And that never happened before. And we still have no budget, but through the collective we’ve been able to do it. If we hadn’t created this organization, we wouldn’t have been able to get there as easily. It was still hard, but it’s more sustainable. And every day it gets more sustainable such that people in the collective can quit their day jobs and just do this. And that’s the goal. As once we do that the whole thing will just get better. Half the people are struggling and half the people in the collective are working jobs—and it’s really hard. And so the closer we get to our goal the more people can just focus on Unicorn Riot and it will get even better.

And how many of you are there out doing this work on a given day? Is there an editorial process?

So, there are loosely 10-13 of us. We are a horizontally organized media collective, 501(c)3 educational nonprofit. I always tell people were located on the internet. Everything we do is through the internet; all our meetings are on the internet. We’re in Minneapolis, Boston, Denver, and New York. And the only time we come together is when we have a meeting on the internet. The functionality is different from other media organizations so far as we do our best to allow our members the freedom to do what they most want to do. The editorial processes are very flattened. There isn’t an editor who is assigning people stories and in the end checking them off. These are people who are active in their communities and see what’s happening and want to do something on an issue. Like, this morning there was someone out filming a “Fight for 15” [minimum wage] thing in Minneapolis. I didn’t have anything to do with that. Someone else cared enough to cover that, so they covered it. And we have a group of people who are active on the internet interested in our organization who heard about us and help in whatever fashion they’re able to in that moment. That’s the difference—we allow people to do what they’re passionate about and focus on their skill sets and use their skills to the best of their abilities to create what they create.

And you rely on donations pretty much exclusively?

We’re completely viewer supported—people donate us money for what we’re doing. That allows us to keep people on the ground at Standing Rock. And that got us to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions for “free” this year. We don’t make any money, though. The collective has members, but the people on the ground are all volunteers. I’m technically a volunteer at Standing Rock—I don’t have an hourly wage or anything. I’m just there. And Unicorn Riot is like: “Here’s some money so you can eat some food…here’s some gas money. Good luck” [laughs].

“Newsrooms now are interns who are watching social media and trying to get pieces of media for their corporation for free.”

We’re basically doing breaking news every day. So while we could have a structure of intentionally trying to accomplish A, B, C, D each day, instead what usually happens is, say, we’re told that something might happen at six in the morning, so we’re up for hours then nothing happens. So, it’s this really draining situation where we’re always trying to be ready for whatever may happen because things just do. That past Sunday, with the water cannons, that wasn’t like there was an alert on the internet telling us, “Today this is going to happen.” We were driving back from Bismarck and we ran into two Riot collective members and asked them, “Hey, have you seen the blockade yet? Let’s go show you.” We drove up there and that’s when everything was going on. We end up doing this breaking news in a really rural environment and trying to keep our team working. When things aren’t super active we do a lot of research. We’ll sit up on a hill with the internet and scour what’s going on outside the camp. We have a few journalists constantly doing Freedom of Information Act Requests at the state—at different state institutions all over the country. So it’s a mixture of everything, but in the end we are falling into this thing of being prepared to create media at any moment.

And that’s different from how the establishment media tends to operate in the 21st Century….

Newsrooms now are interns who are watching social media and trying to get pieces of media for their corporation for free. So, mainstream media is less concerned with putting people on the ground and more concerned with pulling things off the internet. And while that’s effective in some ways, it’s also ineffective because you don’t really know what’s going on or really have anybody on the ground to answer questions for you when you’re just trying to get the free content to create the article that has an advertisement on it. Our organization is constantly contacted by people trying to use our content for their media—MSNBC, CNN, RT—all these people who constantly say, “We really liked your clip and we’d love to be able to use it, with credit, on our news show!” It’s absurd. It’s not journalism. It’s sort of vampire work.

What’s the origin of the name—this melding of massive or collective action with a mythical creature?

Everyone in the collective has their own version of the story, but for me, as I recall, we were trying to come up with a name early on and I remember Unicorn Riot was one of the first names someone offered, almost on a whim. At first we were obviously concerned with the problem of whether such a name would allow us to be taken seriously. I mean, imagine trying to call up the Morton County Sheriff’s office and saying, “Hey, this is whomever from Unicorn Riot, and I was wondering….” So we considered other more “media company”-type names that were mostly pretty bland. We talked about it and then just went with it. It seemed kind of absurd, of course, and I like that because in this social media environment, the name is almost irrelevant. It’s the work you do that creates the meaning of the name or people’s response to it. The work makes the name serious or it doesn’t. So we just try to do serious work. In any case, it makes some sense to have an absurd name—the world is absurd.

You’re a product of the University of North Dakota and the punk rock and Students for A Democratic Society (SDS) scenes here. How did those specific experiences in North Dakota contribute to what you ended up doing with critical media?

I think back to the papers I was writing on narrative building around protests, and how before the [2008] RNC or DNC, for example, there are all these narratives created by the state that allow those events to fall within their particular story line [for the media]. And I was doing all this writing to examine how these things are being created. And I think that fed into what I’m doing now, in a way. And SDS was a foray into working with people who I hadn’t worked with before, and working in a different framework—which I don’t think we did well. But we tried it, and were able to organize and get involved in movements and the ideas of movements. But even my education—I have a Master’s degree in English—is a product of movements. Plus I’m a product of the Chicano movement, a product of my mother going on strike from high schools and walking out with students. That led to me being here.

When I went to Occupy, after experiencing RNC and DNC protests and all this work that I’d been doing with movements and protests, I saw that we always lost to the media [narrative]. We had no chance. Everything they said about us was taken for truth by viewers or readers—everything seemed to be “true.” For example, in 2008 I was in a house that was raided by the police. For three hours I’m surrounded by officers with automatic weapons. I was there the whole time and afterward when I read all the stories that came out about the raid, and I was like “Wow—this is crazy.” All these news stories said that we were “violent anarchists” who may have had bomb-making materials. But the truth was that there was just a media collective, my sorry ass, and a bunch of boxes of pamphlets, right? But that was never corrected [in the press]. It was never: “Oh, actually it was these people in the house,” later. They had the story they wanted to run.

So when I got to Occupy I was very interested in media and media-making, even though I didn’t know how to do any of that then. I could write a paper or story, but didn’t know how to run a camera. But I got involved with the media group there. And I was really lucky because that group was made up of media makers who were at Tahrir Square who were also involved with the M15 movement in Spain, media makers who had been rolling around since 1980—all these old-new world folks from the independent media world who had come to this place to do the work. Then there was me who was there to learn, and I did. I just listened to them and learned what to do. I was also sort of just charging batteries in a way. That was important too. So Occupy gave me the chance to learn how to do media and experiment in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I was just at home.

I bring up UND and SDS in part because it seems to me that a lot of those folks we both know who were doing that organizing in Grand Forks, of all places, went on to do some pretty amazing things—were very instrumental in Occupy or at Standing Rock or wherever.

Yeah. I run into folks from SDS all the time. When I joined SDS, I was sort of a nihilist and I didn’t want to work with groups, I thought groups were ridiculous, and I thought trying to change things was ridiculous. I was, like, “This is what we have to deal with—Fuck it, let’s deal with it.” But working with these people I got introduced to the idea of horizontal organizing and structuring societies in different ways. I got introduced to the idea of trying to just throw down somehow, like—let’s do something together. We did a lot of things. And I usually tell people: “I know you don’t know what to do, but who’s around you? Look at them and just do something together. I don’t care what it is, just do it.” You know, make a little plan and go execute it. In SDS, that’s what we did a lot. We had conversations. We took things seriously, we took the world and university community seriously. We thought: “This is a place that we’re engaged in and we should try to change it.” And I think we did that. And it was a good experience. ⍟