Guerrilla Video Journalists Unicorn Riot Focus on Homelessness and the Police

By the time the TV news teams showed up at Sustainability Park on October 24, most of the arrests had been made, and the city’s dump trucks were already in the process of hauling away five tiny houses that had been built there by dozens of homeless people and activists with the organization Denver Homeless Out Loud. Still, reporters lined people up in front of their cameras for interviews. One, from Fox31, asked a woman about the Denver Police Department riot police that had shown up.

“They were blockading the [park’s] entrance with men in full G.I. Joe suits of armor,” the woman said. “It was a rather traumatizing event for me, personally.”

But TV news stations weren’t the only ones filming this particular interview. A group called Unicorn Riot had been broadcasting everything via its channel. Using nothing but a headlamp and a Samsung smartphone, Unicorn Riot videographer Pat Boyle ended up broadcasting several hours’ worth of footage from the park, including the confrontation the woman was talking about.

Boyle also captured the moment when the dump trucks arrived. In archived footage, he points the camera ahead of him and runs around a corner to find a truck. “Okay, so they have a dump truck here now,” he narrates. “Seems like...this is the city’s plan for homelessness. They’re going to take the tiny homes that homeless people could live in and put them in a dump truck, and put [the homeless] in jail.
“Great job, City of Denver,” he concludes. “Denver Housing Authority, go fuck yourself!”

Later, Boyle sticks his camera phone right into the faces of riot-police officers, who have set up a perimeter around the property’s entrance. “How’s that, guys?” Boyle says to those listening and watching online. “That’s how Denver deals with the homeless problem, these fucking fascists.” Then he zooms his camera in on an American flag stitched into the side of one of the officers’ canvas-covered helmets.

[Below the Fox Interview can be seen at 1 hr 38 min; the riot police at 42 min, the dump truck at  50 min]

This wasn’t Unicorn Riot’s first live-stream coverage in Denver; the collective has been posting videos on its channel since May 2015, including prior protests against police brutality and interviews with activists at local forums and city council meetings. Coverage has also included breaking news — like the police sweep of homeless people sleeping in tents during the year’s first winter storm.

But Boyle says that his October 24 footage showing the destruction of the tiny houses was what made many people take notice of the work that Unicorn Riot is doing. Since then, media outlets including Westword have embedded some of the archived video that the group has made available.

“We can break stories to people on the Internet before the bigger outlets do because of the model we use,” explains Wendy Marlow, an editor and adviser for Unicorn Riot, which describes itself as “a volunteer-operated decentralized media collective comprised of multimedia artists and journalists.” (The name Unicorn Riot was chosen to attract attention, and doesn’t have any particular significance.)

Marlow teamed up with Boyle and Kenny White, who also narrates some of its broadcasts; she says that Unicorn Riot strives for raw streaming coverage that doesn’t rely on getting permission from bosses or scheduling air time, like on a TV station. With online and mobile technology, Unicorn members can simply show up to an event and start streaming whatever they’re able to capture on their phones.

One of the channel’s founders, Lorenzo Serna, who is based in Minneapolis, was reported to have been motivated to start Unicorn Riot in part from an experience doing reporting in Ferguson, Missouri, for the media company Fusion. Serna was frustrated with the delay in getting his videos published and with the top-down control of editors at the station.

Since May, Unicorn Riot has recruited ten core members, who stream live video from four cities: Denver, Boston, New York City and Minneapolis. The members explain that the collective is horizontally organized, and decisions are made by consensus.

From the beginning, the channel has walked a curious line between activism and journalism: Unlike those in traditional news media, Unicorn Riot’s videographers don’t just stand by during protests or police confrontations, showing what’s going on from the sidelines. In Denver, the group’s live streams have taken viewers right into the fray and feature plenty of subjective and profanity-laced narration from Boyle and White.

“We want to do news in a different way than what is usually done,” says Boyle, who joined the collective after meeting activists from Minneapolis, including Serna, at a 2013 protest against mining tar sands and tar shale in Green River, Utah. Later, other members, like Marlow and White, who were involved in the early stages of Occupy Denver, said they were interested in running Denver’s Unicorn Riot channel.

The group acknowledges that it’s not trying to be neutral. “We’re not objective, because we have a specific point,” says Boyle. “A couple of times there was concern about [my swearing], so I tried to tone it down. But when the city comes in and throws away people’s houses, it makes me mad, you know?”

Marlow points out that the commentary is not uninformed, and that it augments the live footage being streamed from the scene. “We are 100 percent on things being factual and not exaggerating, but without compromising any of the emotional response,” she says. “One of the things that I think causes so much complacency is the lack of emotion that people are expected to feel to be objective. What we’re doing is emotional, and no one is hiding that or covering that up for any reason.”

But their style doesn’t always earn them respect. “The police tell us we’re not real journalists,” Boyle says, especially since the videos feature so much commentary. It’s not uncommon to hear Boyle or White refer to police that they’re filming as “pigs,” or to criticize the city’s administration in colorful terms.

In one clip, Boyle criticizes an officer who had been telling homeless individuals that they have to take down their tents because it would be better for them to be in a shelter.

“Are you an expert in social change, or are you an expert in following orders?” asks Boyle, pointing his camera toward the officer in the cruiser.

The police officer bites his lip, then chuckles. “That’s not my job to change society,” the officer says.

“So then why are you giving advice [to the homeless].... Isn’t your job to be here and follow orders?” Boyle retorts.

Boyle believes his presence changes how officers act, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. It’s common now for officers to shine bright flashlights into his camera lens or pull away in their cruisers to avoid having their faces streamed to viewers online. He maintains that the police sometimes wait to do homeless sweeps until they believe there are no cameras around.

DPD commander Tony Lopez, whose District 6 officers have had numerous interactions with Unicorn Riot, declined to comment for this story, deferring to department spokesman Sonny Jackson.

Jackson says he isn’t familiar with Unicorn Riot specifically, but discussed citizens with cameras in general.

“Being filmed is not unusual, and it’s something we have no problem with. We also recognize everybody’s First Amendment rights to express themselves. We strongly believe that everyone has a right to free speech, and we respect that,” he says.

“There are people out there who are always going to take pictures, and we have no problem with that. We now have [body] cameras on ourselves. At the end of the day, we want to make sure that if they are taking our pictures, they do it in a safe manner that doesn’t impede on operations we’re taking. That’s the only thing we’d ask.”

Still, being so direct and confrontational with the police comes with its own risks. Both White and Boyle have been arrested for participating in protests, and Boyle was also arrested in July last year while filming for Unicorn Riot. He was charged with obstruction of streets and passageways and had his camera confiscated. While Boyle, who works for a local college as an A/V technician, didn’t want to comment on the arrest since his court case is ongoing, he feels he was targeted as a video journalist.

But that’s not going to stop him. Unicorn Riot plans to continue covering events in Denver and hopes to expand into more cities around the country. The group recently was approved as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in December, and will continue to accept donations to cover its expenses.

“People want something that’s more real,” White says. And Unicorn Riot’s members believe that means more than just documenting events. It means speaking their minds, as well.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker