Australia Launches Probe Into U.S. Police Violence Against TV Crew

While live on air, a journalist and cameraman were attacked with tear gas along with crowds across from White House.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. police stand by a protest near the White House.
U.S. Park Police stand watch inside Lafayette Square during a protest near the White House in Washington, D.C. on June 1. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The Australian government will open an investigation into U.S. law enforcement assaulting an Australian news crew covering protests in Washington, D.C., highlighting the growing diplomatic fallout for the United States with its closest allies from its long-standing problems with police violence and racial injustice.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the country’s embassy in Washington was directed to open an investigation into police officers in riot gear striking an Australian 7NEWS journalist and cameraman while they were live on air. The footage appears to show they were attacked by U.S. Park Police during protests near the White House. Law enforcement used tear gas and flash-bang grenades to disperse protesters from the area ahead of a photo opportunity for President Donald Trump on Monday. 

“I want to get further advice on how we would go about registering Australia’s strong concerns with the responsible local authorities in Washington. This is obviously a very troubling period in the United States and a very tough period at so many levels,” Payne said in an interview on Tuesday with Australia’s ABC Radio National.

In a statement, Australia’s ambassador in Washington, Arthur Sinodinos, said the embassy was “in discussion with the State Department and they have offered assistance to identify where the complaint should be targeted.”

In the past week, forceful crackdowns against marchers protesting police violence and racial injustice have prompted a historic reversal, putting Washington on the defensive on an issue it has championed globally for decades: human rights.

Foreign diplomats told Foreign Policy that the footage of the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer while already detained and handcuffed, and the police response to subsequent protests are draining already declining reserves of American soft power abroad.

Senior European and African leaders condemned Floyd’s death and violence amid the U.S. protests, while abroad thousands of people demonstrated in front of U.S. embassies and consulates from Canada to Spain to New Zealand. Trump, meanwhile, denounced Floyd’s death as tragic but struck a defiant tone in response to the widespread protests, rebuking governors for their handling of the protests and threatening to call in the U.S. military to quell riots. 

Senior U.S. diplomats abroad have been forced to respond to the unrest at home, condemning Floyd’s death and insisting the United States continues to be a voice on human rights and press freedom in the world. 

“Freedom of the press is a right Australians and Americans hold dear,” Trump’s ambassador to Australia, Arthur Culvahouse Jr., said in a statement on Tuesday morning. “We take mistreatment of journalists seriously, as do all who take democracy seriously.”

Yet across the United States, press freedom advocacy groups have tracked more than 125 incidents in three days of journalists facing attacks from police and protesters and other press freedom violations, including incidents with foreign journalists from Germany, Britain, and Australia. “The reported arrests and incidents are very concerning – journalists all around the world must be free to do their job and to hold authorities to account without fear of arrest or violence,” a British Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson told Foreign Policy.

“We are horrified by the continued use of harsh and sometimes violent actions of police against journalists doing their jobs. These are direct violations of press freedom, a fundamental Constitutional value of the United States,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, a program director with the nonprofit advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser distanced local police from federal police forces involved in the surge against protesters on Monday evening near the White House, which came shortly before a citywide curfew. “I imposed a curfew at 7pm. A full 25 minutes before the curfew & w/o provocation, federal police used munitions on peaceful protestors in front of the White House, an act that will make the job of @DCPoliceDept officers more difficult. Shameful!” she wrote on Twitter. “DC residents — Go home. Be safe.”

Amelia Brace, the Australian 7NEWS correspondent targeted by police with her cameraman, Tim Myers, described to her news station their treatment at the hands of U.S. law enforcement. “You heard us yelling that we were media … but they don’t care. They are being indiscriminate at the moment,” she said. “They were quite violent, and they do not care who they’re targeting at the moment.”

Update, June 2, 2020: This article was updated with a statement from a British Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer