MINNEAPOLIS — Niko Georgiades, like so many youths, wanted to be a pro athlete when he grew up. If not that, a sportscaster, he thought, narrating jump shots and three-pointers while practicing basketball at his home near Albert Lea.
Instead, at 38, Georgiades provides play-by-play of a different sort, while livestreaming protest marches, sit-ins, mass evictions and civil unrest for Unicorn Riot, an alternative media group he co-founded.
In late August, three short months after George Floyd was killed, he was filming the unrest in downtown Minneapolis spurred by rumor that a Black man — yet another Black man — had been unjustly killed by police. “People are rummaging through many stores down here,” he said, describing the scene to thousands of viewers watching his continuous, first-person video via social media.
The tall, bearded Georgiades framed his shot on a large broken window of Saks Off 5th as police shoved intruders back onto the street. “They’re pushing people, Why, dude?” he hollered to the police. “They do not practice de-escalation,” he said of the officers’ actions.
Georgiades filmed police arresting people. He panned his camera across several storefronts, reading the fresh graffiti (“keep looting” “more dead cops”). He offered the mic to passersby. He sneezed his way through a cloud of chemical irritant, revealing the visceral realities of boots-on-the-ground reporting.
“The anger is palpable,” Georgiades said, describing the mood of the crowd. Then he dodged a projectile law enforcement shot his way. “Getting hit from those marking rounds does not feel good,” he added.
In the five years since Unicorn Riot incorporated as a nonprofit in Minneapolis, the organization has drawn praise from journalistic institutions as lofty as the New Yorker for its thorough, intimate coverage of social and environmental conflicts, while also spurring some controversy.
In 2015, Unicorn Riot exhaustively livestreamed the 18-day occupation of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Fourth Precinct following the death of Jamar Clark, who was killed by police. A year later, several Unicorn Riot reporters spent months embedded with opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline project, camping alongside them in blizzards and getting arrested in the process.
But it was the media collective’s coverage of the unrest following Floyd’s May 25 death, at the hands of Minneapolis police, that brought a surge of attention. Suddenly Unicorn Riot’s feeds were being watched by people across the Twin Cities, and well beyond, who wanted an immediate, uninterrupted view from the front line.
BORN OF DISCONTENT
Georgiades talks the way a lot of people talk, using vocabulary and elocutions you’d be hard-pressed to hear on a mainstream news broadcast. Colleagues are “cats,” something unjust is “super whack,” someone out of control is “off the chain,” and “police” is pronounced with a long, drawn-out “o.” Which is to say, he doesn’t present the traditional demeanor of the hyper-groomed, helmet-haired TV reporter.
Georgiades also doesn’t have the same background as most mainstream journalists.
At age 12, he broke his neck playing basketball, and losing his athletic identity sent Georgiades into a tailspin. He started acting out, got arrested, and cycled in and out of various juvenile detention centers for the remainder of his teenage years. “My life was up in turmoil,” he said. “But there’s a lot I learned — I wouldn’t take back anything.”
In his early 20s, Georgiades got a fresh start. His girlfriend (now ex-wife) connected him to a job as a van driver with the We Win Institute, a Minneapolis nonprofit that supports underprivileged youth, where he has worked, in various roles, ever since.
Around that time, Georgiades became involved with various social-justice movements, including those protesting police killings and the FBI’s raiding of Midwestern antiwar activists’ homes, as well as Occupy. He first picked up a camera in 2008 when the Republican National Convention came to St. Paul, just to film the protests for himself.
Georgiades started freelancing for online independent media outlets, including the grassroots collective Indymedia, filming protests of the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago and those surrounding Michael Brown’s killing by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer. But Georgiades soon became frustrated with lack of control in how his work was published, and he began meeting with a small group of like-minded independent journalists.
The collective became Unicorn Riot, an educational nonprofit funded by grants and donations. Its members, who lived in cities across the country, would operate with a horizontal structure, make decisions via consensus, and offer their footage free for noncommercial use. Their mission was to bring to the surface the underlying causes of social and environmental issues while amplifying often marginalized perspectives. “We are a platform that was created for the community,” Georgiades explained. “Mostly for the people who don’t have a voice in the mainstream media.”
A UNIQUE NICHE
While Unicorn Riot may be best known for its livestreams, the collective also produces edited videos, documentaries, articles and investigations. It reports on a wide range of issues, from homelessness to climate change to white supremacist groups, posting videos and stories several times a week.
Georgiades and another local member, Georgia Fort, are at work on a long-form project about the families of people who have been killed by police.
Though Unicorn Riot’s most dramatic work gets the most eyeballs (Georgiades’ livestreamed footage from inside Minneapolis’ burning Third Precinct, following Floyd’s death, drew nearly 2 million views), much of its coverage involves patiently gathering the perspectives, grievances and motivations of protesters demanding change.
Over the years, the organization’s size has ebbed and flowed. It currently has eight members, many of whom also work day jobs, based in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Boston, Denver, Washington, D.C., and South Africa. (Georgiades is the only remaining co-founder in Minneapolis.) Members don’t have prescribed roles and instead share duties of filming, editing and writing as well as production and administrative tasks.
Jenn Schreiter, who joined Unicorn Riot shortly after its founding, calls it a “leaderful” organization, because everyone takes responsibility for guiding coverage. What Georgiades brings to the group, she said, is being driven, organized and “deeply concerned about other people’s freedom.”
Early on, Unicorn Riot struggled to find an audience, and members basically volunteered their time for the first two or three years. “We were lucky to have 30 people watch,” Georgiades said of a weekly live show he co-hosted. “We would get super excited if we got a $5 donation.” After the group’s anniversary fundraiser this March, it had only a few thousand dollars in the bank.
But coverage of the Floyd-related unrest sent viewership soaring, along with donations. In recent months Georgiades said Unicorn Riot has pulled in more than a million dollars, a sum he calls “amazing but frightening,” that will allow the group to sustain itself and grow.
A PLACE IN THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE
It’s easy to see how Unicorn Riot’s coverage looks different from the major television networks.
During the late-August unrest, Georgiades’ livestream had the gutsy, first-person feel of a GoPro action camera compared with TV’s omniscient helicopter shots. He broadcast unedited interviews instead of condensing them to clipped sound bites. When the Twin Cities’ three major television stations simultaneously aired Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s news conference, Georgiades stuck to the streets, streaming for hours without interruption for weather reports or commercials.
But defining precisely where Unicorn Riot sits on the media landscape is more complicated.
Journalists aren’t as easy to distinguish from the general public as they once were, now that anyone with a smartphone and a social media account can document and publish news. In the United States, journalists aren’t licensed, nor must they abide by a universal code of ethics.
Unicorn Riot has been referred to as “activist journalists” or “citizen journalists,” vague terms that cause Georgiades to bristle at the dismissive connotations. (He admits that while the name Unicorn Riot, chosen on a bit of a lark, is certainly memorable, it also can be polarizing.)
While Unicorn Riot’s work fits the basic definition of journalism — collecting and presenting news — its reporters have crossed lines that most mainstream news outlets would prohibit. For example, Georgiades captured dramatic footage inside the Third Precinct by trespassing.
He and the other Unicorn Riot reporters also tend to avoid filming the faces of protesters engaged in criminal activity, knowing that law enforcement could use the footage to implicate them. And the group has used the word “murder” to describe George Floyd’s death, a term other news media would refrain from using without a criminal conviction.
Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law in the University of Minnesota’s journalism school, said she appreciates how Unicorn Riot covers stories that don’t get the attention they deserve. But she said the reporters’ decision to shield protesters engaged in lawbreaking creates an edited narrative that benefits one group.
This approach conflicts with the journalistic fundamental of maintaining an independent perspective, and neutrally capturing what happens, she said. “It’s not what I would consider to be journalism,” Kirtley said.
But longtime Unicorn Riot member Schreiter argues that the choice not to identify people who may be breaking the law isn’t necessarily distorting the truth. “I think our responsibility is actually to document what’s happening without exposing our subjects to unnecessary additional risk,” she said.
Georgiades said that any favoritism Unicorn Riot may show protesters is a response to the preferential treatment he said mainstream media gives the police, and that Unicorn Riot can be an equalizing force in an unbalanced power dynamic.
“If the corporate media is biased toward the police and the state-run narrative, Unicorn Riot is biased toward the community narrative,” he said, citing the initial misinformation about George Floyd’s death, disseminated by the Minneapolis Police Department and reported by mainstream media, as an example.
Fort, who joined Unicorn Riot about two years ago, said that when she worked as a reporter/anchor for commercial television stations in Georgia and Duluth, she saw police subjected to less scrutiny than community sources. In one story Fort reported, she said that the criminal history of a man shot by police made the five o’clock news while complaints filed against the officer were omitted.
This reflects what Danielle Kilgo, an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s journalism school, has found in her research on protest coverage, that mainstream media has not been neutral, especially when it comes to anti-racism issues. Mainstream coverage tends to pay more attention to sensational aspects of protests vs. the substance, she said, focusing on the spectacle or disruption protesters are causing instead of the change they seek.
Kilgo notes how Unicorn Riot’s coverage doesn’t prioritize “official” sources and considers the citizens most immersed in a situation as those closest to its truth. “Because it is raw and unfiltered, it does have a different feel and a different vibe than perhaps mainstream journalists would be willing to produce,” she said.
That’s why you might see a Unicorn Riot reporter give a hug or high-five to a source after an interview — something many mainstream news organizations would not construe as impartial. But Kilgo suggests that ethical boundary doesn’t account for different social norms, that a reporter high-fiving a protester can simply be a polite sign of respect, street culture’s equivalent to saying to a government official, “Thanks for your time.”
While neither alternative nor mainstream press is perfect, Kilgo said, they should be seen as complementary. “We need both to be able to get to the heart of this representation,” she said.
Regardless of how, exactly, Unicorn Riot is defined, there’s a growing appetite for its work — an appreciation of which is occasionally caught on camera.
“Niko, we love you,” a man shouted into a megaphone during Minneapolis’ late-August unrest. “Thank you for being here.”
©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)