Inside the news-disrupting Unicorn Riot

The non-profit collective with the distinctive yellow microphones are changing the rules of reporting - here's how.

Two months after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police and the protests that followed, we visit the city of Minneapolis to speak to the individuals and collectives calling for action, lobbying for change and rebuilding the city brick by brick with the goal of a positive and inclusive future. Dive into a day of stories that look at the activism, music and culture bursting forth from the city.

It’s a dark night in May and Niko Georgiades is filming a news report during the George Floyd uprising. In a video we can faintly see a group of police officers – far away enough for them to become faceless – yell, You better not come over here, you’re gonna get baked” to which Georgiades replies with a single, Cool!” The same policeman shouts, You are part of the problem, if not the entire problem,” going silent when asked to say more. The exchange is the kind you rarely, if ever, see on traditional media outlets and is a neat encapsulation of why Unicorn Riot have received a boost of attention following the recent worldwide uprisings.

Founded in 2015, Unicorn Riot is a nonprofit collective based in Minneapolis that covers local communities in an intimate manner, focusing on long-lead features that national outlets would often overlook. It’s this intimacy that’s gained them trust within the communities they cover. Protestors feel uniquely human under its gaze, something often missing from news reports that focus on conflicts and flashpoints instead of finding out why people feel so moved to protest in the first place.

It’s amazing to be recognised because we’ve been thrown down for five years,” co-founder Georgiades remarks. The team volunteered for the first three years and some of the co-founders have left because they’d gone into debt to help keep the site running. These struggles looked to continue in 2020, with around $8,000 in the company checking account in March to last them the rest of the year. The group planned on a five year anniversary fundraiser with a $5,000 goal, which was at around the $3,000 mark until the time George Floyd’s killing became worldwide news, which led to a surge in donations.

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The Unicorn Riot organisational model comes from the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. One of the key components to Occupy Wall Street was that it was a leaderless movement, which, in theory, meant that outlets would have to grapple with its demands rather than picking apart the person at the top of the tree. It’s an approach that Unicorn Riot have adopted.

Everybody does work together to accomplish the goal,” Jenn Schreiter, a reporter for U.R. who joined in 2016, says. In a hierarchical structure where you have the owner at the apex, what they say goes and it doesn’t matter if somebody’s feelings are hurt or, in a more extreme situation, if someone is being oppressed or abused. If the owner can get away with overlooking it in the pursuit for profit for the small business [they will].”

It’s not lost on the journalists at Unicorn Riot that it’s often murder that garners the most attention for the outlet, so they take special care, gaining trust and giving interviewees agency. I take that really seriously,” says Jenn. If someone doesn’t want to be interviewed, then I don’t want to interview them, because that’s not what they want. So why would I try to force the issue?” 

If someone doesn’t want to be interviewed, then I don’t want to interview them. Why would I try to force the issue?”

Georgiades brings up an instance of this restraint while covering the protest of 23-year-old Isak Aden’s killing by Eagen and Bloomington police. He describes visiting a march protesting the killing and coming across Sumaya Aden, Isak’s sister, sitting in the exact spot where Isak was killed. I was like, Wow, this is intense. This is the shot, she’s sitting in that spot.’ I want her to talk about what it feels like,” he says. So he asked her if she’d be interested in talking, to which she declined, but later said she’d talk. That’s probably not what a corporate media outlet would do,” he notes. They would just swoop in, bring the mic straight to Sumaya’s face and ask, How are you feeling right now sitting there?’ putting them on the spot so intensely. That would be disrespectful.”

This approach stands in stark contrast to how traditional media covers these events. Dan Feidt refers to the use of helicopters to cover protests as an inadvertently dehumanising tactic. I think [helicopters are a] choice they make in terms of aesthetic distance that doesn’t really help their audience gain any insight into the underlying dynamics,” he says. It reminds him of a scene from the 1949 film The Third Man, where Orson Welles and the protagonist are at the apex of a ferris wheel looking down at a group of people and Welles refers to them as dots instead of people, suggesting that the protagonist wouldn’t care if a dot stopped moving, inferring that distance alone allows viewers to downplay humanity.

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While the recent protests saw police focus on traditional press, like when Australia’s Channel 7 News were struck by police or when a CNN reporter was arrested on air, Unicorn Riot has been singled out in the past. Law enforcement actually have gotten more testy with us,” says Jenn, who points out that the organisations increased reputation and distinctive yellow microphones makes them easy to target — something that has happened before to Unicorn Riot, with Niko Georgiades being arrested during the 2015 protests of Jamar Clark. 

For Dan Feidt, this testiness is reflective of an unspoken contract between the police and the media that Unicorn Riot are breaking. The police may not be comfortable with media outlets that talk to people in social movements but don’t treat them as strange outsiders, but rather as people that are part of the public conversation,” he says. The corporate media has a tendency not to do that. And that works pretty well from the perspective of the police and their interests.”

Law enforcement actually have gotten more testy with us.”

This relationship is commonly seen in the acceptance of the police report as an objective fact, even as the amount of cases showing this to be untrue continue to mount. It’s something that’s been questioned during the uprisings and has caused discussions at the likes of the New York Times. For Fieldt, it links back to the flaws of American journalism’s idea of objectivity: The conventional frames [of objectivity] are usually very friendly to power in terms of their unstated assumptions,” he says. 

The flood of recent donations has allowed Unicorn Riot to become stable and, more importantly, allowed the collective to think beyond survival and look at the bigger picture. Georgiades sees a future not where there’s Unicorn Riots everywhere, but where everyone has the tools to create their own local news site. What if there’s like 10 more Unicorn Riots in America, and they’re covering other protests?” he says. He plans to make a Create Your Own Unicorn Riot PDF guide and give it out online.

As Jenn notes, the goals of Unicorn Riot are relatively simple: To see more people empowered to use their voice and to uplift other voices in particular, to find ways to really listen to voices of targeted folks and uplift them.”


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