Roughed Up, Shot With Projectiles, Threatened: The Life Of An 'Activist Journalist'
They've become fixtures at political protests: "citizen journalists" unaffiliated with traditional news organizations who document the causes they support.
Some are backers of Donald Trump, providing material to Murder the Media, a California-based right-wing company that posts video and livestreams.
A number of leftist activists have also taken on this role, many of them motivated by the protests against systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Vishal Singh of Los Angeles is in the latter group.
He said he was radicalized by what he considered to be the LAPD's heavy-handed response to a massive protest on May 30 last year in the Fairfax District.
"I pretty much decided on that day [that] I am going to come at least to two to four protests a week," he said, describing himself as "a volunteer citizen/activist journalist."
'YOU'RE F----- ANTIFA'
Sometimes the 27-year-old Singh has worn a helmet and flak jacket, with homemade "press" signs on each, to protests. Other times he's outfitted with a bicycle helmet, goggles, and a credential from the National Press Photographers Association hanging around his neck.
He's always got his iPhone 11 as he wades into the thick of the action, shooting video.
Singh typically edits down what he shoots and posts the videos on social media.
Lately he's been documenting rallies in support of President Trump.
A couple of hours before a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol last week, Singh was on the scene when more than 200 people gathered on the steps of L.A. City Hall for their own "Stop The Steal" rally.
People were suspicious of him.
"You're f------ Antifa," one man said. "We see you. We know who you are."
Singh's video shows a half dozen men moving towards him. One had flashed the "OK" sign of the far-right group Proud Boys earlier.
Singh, who stands 5' 6" and only weighs about 100 pounds, sharply tells the men to back up before jumping in the car of a friend who had driven up.
WARNING: This Instagram post contains offensive language.
Singh, who works for Netflix editing documentaries, said he's always been politically aware -- his parents were part of an ethnic Indian minority that fled Fiji in the 1980's. He hung out with punk rockers growing up in Silicon Valley.
"I think it's my opportunity and responsibility to use my skills to show a really honest, embedded perspective of what these protests are like from the protesters' perspective," he said.
Singh's been roughed up by Trump supporters, hit with police batons, and shot with non-lethal projectiles. He's been arrested once, during a demonstration last November.
Singh had his foot run over by someone trying to drive past a protest in Hollywood. That put him on crutches for a few weeks.
He said when police opened fire with non-lethal projectiles during a protest last August in the 2nd Street Tunnel in downtown L.A., he was hit in the leg.
A few days later, Singh was playing video games that had the sound of gunshots.
"I started screaming," Singh said. "I tore off my headphones, I ducked under my bed. At that moment I said, oh this is something pretty severe."
But that didn't stop him from continuing to do what's become his passion.
People like Singh raise the question of who really is a journalist. There's no doubt they sometimes serve the cause of journalism when their video helps reporters figure out what's happened at an event they didn't cover.
But no traditional journalist would publicly express support for defunding the police -- as Singh does -- or advocate for protesters, as Singh did when he issued this call to action after demonstrators were arrested in West Hollywood last September.
Neither would a traditional journalist stand as close to officers as Singh does during tense standoffs with demonstrators.
Singh's Instagram following has grown from a few hundred to near 10,000. One video he helped edit of LAPD officers appearing to push a Black man out of his wheelchair received about 250,000 views.
Even some police know him, as you see in this video from a series of protests. At one point, Singh playfully asks if the officers are fans.
WARNING: The comments posted on Twitter underneath this video contain offensive language.
BHPD released an email to its supporters bragging that their surveillance program scans social media and communicates directly with federal agencies. Not to fight crime/terror. By the department’s own boasting and admission: this intelligence unit is targeting PROTESTERS. pic.twitter.com/g1klaMZI65— Vishal P Singh (@VPS_Reports) November 3, 2020
A TEXTED THREAT
Singh's notoriety has seriously disrupted his personal life. He got a call one day last September from his older brother, who lived at the time with his parents.
"He told me that he, my mother and my father all simultaneously received text messages from an unknown phone number."
The texts included their address. It said: "I want to let you know Vishal has been involved in the riots and mayhem in Los Angeles ... we will honor you with the same courtesy."
His family put in a security system at their home and filed a police report.
Singh stopped going to protests for nearly a month and considered stopping altogether -- but decided against it. "In a way, that kind of motivated me more," he said.
Singh did take one big precaution -- he moved from one part of L.A. to another.
This weekend, he and some of his fellow videographers who came of age in the George Floyd protests plan to go to Sacramento to document any protests by supporters of President Trump.