Update: On May 4, Morton County prosecutors dismissed the charges against Unicorn Riot’s Lorenzo Serna. He may, however, be charged again in connection with his reporting at Standing Rock.
On a November morning at the height of the Standing Rock standoff, dozens of anti-pipeline protesters stripped off their parkas and dog-paddled in their underwear across the Cantapeta Creek, an icy ribbon of water that wends into the Missouri River. Their goal was to reach sacred Sioux burial grounds on the creek’s far side before the cops and security guards could evict or arrest them.
As police assembled on the opposite bank, fingering rifles and tear-gas canisters, Lorenzo Serna, a co-founder of the media collective Unicorn Riot, leaped into the water. He wore black shorts and a helmet with a GoPro4 Plus camera mounted on it. The scene he captured was emblematic of the confrontation in North Dakota: When the protesters had nearly reached the shore, the police unleashed torrents of tear gas into their eyes as they shivered in waist-deep waves. Serna’s footage was viewed by thousands of people on Unicorn Riot’s Facebook page. But what you can’t see is that, behind the lens, Serna shivered with the protesters, swallowing mouthfuls of water and tear gas to get the perfect shot from, literally, a fish-eye view.
Unicorn Riot has been around since 2015, but it found its voice—and its audience—at Standing Rock. It also found trouble: Serna will stand trial in North Dakota on May 5 for trespassing and rioting charges stemming from his coverage. Founded by a half-dozen friends and acquaintances from Minneapolis, New York, Boston, and Denver, the group was born as an effort to cover Black Lives Matter protests in Baltimore and Ferguson from “the movement’s perspective, but with some critical distance,” filming guerilla interviews and footage of demonstrations with cheap camcorders, GoPros, and livestreams. Serna had experience as a producer at Fusion, his co-founders were anarchists and media activists, and together they wanted to create “narratives from the street” with an aesthetic that mixed agitprop grittiness and new-media slickness. They would be “video ninjas…jumping in and out of things…without getting caught.” The name Unicorn Riot captured the absurdity of their ambitions.
Equal parts Vice and Democracy Now!, its hosted segments featured Serna, who is 36, holding a goofy yellow ice-cream-cone microphone and cracking jokes while tear-gas canisters soared overhead and police snipers pointed rifles at them. In one video from November 2015, co-founder Niko Georgiades interviewed white supremacist Allen Scarsella at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Minneapolis. Scarsella had heard about the protest by watching Unicorn Riot’s livestream before showing up and demanding to be on camera. “It’s almost as if they expect one of us to do something,” Scarsella told Georgiades on the livestream. “It’s boiling.” Four days later Scarsella returned and shot five African American protesters.
Today, the collective has a revolving cast of about 18 producers and writers who swap hosting duties. “It can be stressful and scary,” Serna said, “but there’s a lot of joy that comes with reporting. Being able to tell the story in the way that we want to brings me joy. It makes me happy, and humor is an expression of that.”
I first met Serna a few days after the confrontation at Cantapeta Creek. I was in Cannonball, North Dakota, covering the #NoDAPL protests, but I’d fled my tent at one of the austere camps of the “water protectors” and holed up in a warm room with wifi at the Prairie Knights Casino. Serna, who met me there, wore his black coils of hair tamped down beneath a ball cap. He explained that he’d been living and working mostly out of his tent since April, interrupted by occasional sojourns back home to Minneapolis and reporting trips to Iowa to cover other protests. He’d initially found the desolate Dakota prairie a daunting place to film, and one of the first things he did was to make a map of every spot where he could receive a cellphone signal. “I’d run around, looking at this map, trying to send out tweets or video footage of actions as they were happening,” he said. He sometimes used a car battery to charge his video camera. “It was insane.”
Since then, Serna had been joined by another Unicorn Riot member, Chris Schiano, and the two men shared a tent and production duties, though on slow days they’d hunker down at Prairie Knights’ bar to smoke cigarettes, drink water, file dispatches, and upload footage. Schiano, who is 26, ran the group’s Twitter and Facebook streams, in addition to shooting video and photos, running livestreams, and filing as many as 30 public-records requests per day. The documents he obtained provided indispensable context to Unicorn Riot’s more action-driven offerings.
Serna and Schiano’s collaborative work had paid off: The week we met, 20,000 new fans had followed Unicorn Riot’s Facebook page. Their latest video had garnered nearly 4 million views. They’d received enough in donations—their only source of revenue—to pay themselves stipends of $16 per day, which covered food, gas, living, and shooting expenses. Their most recent film cost about $100 to produce, including labor. “My life at home is in shambles,” said Schiano. Back in Denver, he worked as a temp and stagehand when he wasn’t writing and producing for Unicorn Riot. “I haven’t been back in a while and a friend is paying my rent. But it’s amazing that I can be here to cover this.”
Less hearty journalists had a more difficult time handling the harsh conditions at Standing Rock. The only place to reliably recharge was “Facebook Hill,” a little ridge rising above the teepees and tents that looked out onto Cantapeta Creek. On the hill, solar panels powered a couple dozen outlets reserved for credentialed journalists, who were mostly white, and mostly just dropping in for the weekend. Native American activists who’d been camping for months stood outside the cordon, accusatorily holding up their lifeless phones. “You let the white people in there,” a man said one day to the woman responsible for granting access to the chargers. “What about the natives? How do I charge my phone?”
Unicorn Riot was accepted within the camp to a degree few non-Native journalists were. One morning I happened upon Serna as he climbed out of his tent. As he parted the canvas flaps and blinked his eyes in the morning sun—he’s husky and wears a shaggy walrus mustache—he called out “Good morning!” to a large man wearing denim overalls and a red bandanna over his face. The man was on guard duty at Red Warrior Camp, a fenced compound of militant activists that journalists were forbidden to enter. Legend had it that the Red Warriors held boxing matches as training for confrontations with police, and some people claimed they’d run a reporter out of camp at knifepoint. The proximity of Serna’s tent to Red Warrior Camp, and his acquaintance with its inhabitants, was a demonstration of the trust and respect the native activists had for him.
The peculiarities and challenges of reporting at Standing Rock made it the perfect environment in which Unicorn Riot could thrive. Because their costs were so low, its reporters could stay put even when things were calm and the mainstream media had left. This in turn engendered activists’ trust in the journalists. Rather than hindering them, the Unicorn Riot reporters’ miniscule budget perfectly positioned them to cover the protests more consistently than almost anyone else. “People just go with the highlights and leave,” Serna told me. “But we need people to go in and stay there. It’s hard and terrible and we’re poor because of it, but it’s something we as an organization decided was important.” The only way to effectively cover Standing Rock, they’d discovered, was to occupy it.
Yet in the eyes of the police, to do so erased the distinction between journalist and protester. More than a dozen reporters were arrested or issued warrants for trespassing and “rioting” at Standing Rock, including Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, despite the majority of them clearly identifying themselves as press at the time of their arrests. The police’s failure to distinguish between activists and journalists, however, simply blurred a line Unicorn Riot had never really respected anyway. “Our whole mission was to report from inside the movements,” Serna said. From the outset, they’d anticipated and prepared for their work to be criminalized. And when it was, it made for great video.
“We both had our press passes out,” Schiano told me about his arrest on September 13, when he and Georgiades, who had arrived from Minneapolis to help out, were filming activists who’d locked themselves to bulldozers digging the pipeline route. The police “were specifically pointing at me and Niko,” Schiano said, “and I think one or two other people who had cameras, targeting us for arrest. We have them doing that on the livestream footage.” Schiano and Georgiades were charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass, but the charges were dismissed on March 2 after a police witness stated that he couldn’t identify them specifically as the people he’d seen on private land.
— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) September 14, 2016
Serna was arrested on October 22 while filming a Prayer Walk. “I showed [the police officer] my press pass,” he said, “and I was like, ‘Hey, you’re arresting a journalist. Does that matter at all to you?'” He faces trial this Friday for engaging in a riot and misdemeanor criminal trespass, which carries a penalty of 30 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. (In January, North Dakota state Rep. Todd Porter sponsored a bill that would upgrade engaging in a riot from a misdemeanor to a felony carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.) “Most of the journalists facing charges are freelancers or from smaller, independent outlets that lack the resources to pay attorney fees or mount a public defense,” a spokesperson for the Committee to Protect journalists wrote in a March 2 letter to the Morton County state’s attorney. “The fact that these journalists do not have the backing of large media companies may make them more vulnerable—but it does not lessen their First Amendment protected right to report the news.”
When the #NoDAPL camps were evicted in the wake of Trump’s election, on February 23, Morton County police announced with little warning that any journalist planning to cover the removal had to be “accredited.” Schiano called the press number given out by the county, but no one answered. Those outlets that did manage to get accredited—CNN, Fox, MSNBC—signed agreements limiting their access to film and report to a designated “media area.” The media area was more than 100 yards from the entrance to the main protest camp, and far from view of the arrests that local, state and federal police carried out.
Unicorn Riot was inside the camp, filming as plywood shacks and tents were set aflame by activists unwilling to let police demolish what had been their homes for months, as cops in full riot gear pointed loaded guns at men holding a sage-burning ceremony, and as officers chased and tackled a man, allegedly breaking his hip. It was a bitter moment: For 10 months, Unicorn Riot had helped show the world what was going on at Standing Rock; in its final days, Standing Rock helped show the world what Unicorn Riot was capable of as a media organization.
Today, Serna, Schiano, and the collective are pursuing new projects while trekking back to North Dakota for court dates. They’re crowdfunding their first feature-length documentary, Black Snake Killaz, culled from thousands of hours of footage from Standing Rock. Serna is spending time on the US-Mexico border reporting on immigration. One correspondent is in Chile covering clashes between university students and police. Georgiades is in Minneapolis covering the trial of the white supremacist Scarsella—and testifying against him. Unicorn Riot’s 2015 interview was used by the prosecution as evidence, and last week, Scarsella was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Going forward, Unicorn Riot’s plans are ambitious but humble. They’d like to be able to pay their contributors more. They plan to reach out more into music and cultural coverage. They entertain the idea of having a Unicorn Riot collective in every American city. When I asked Serna and Schiano if they ever dreamed of getting really huge—like another scrappy video-driven website that unexpectedly became a billion-dollar media giant in recent years—they laughed but dismissed the notion.
“It’s more important to see where we’re at now and move at a steady pace,” Serna said. “The last year’s been so exhausting, but so exciting. Our mission is to find those people out there who are dreaming, and to just keep going out there and hearing the stories of why they’re dreaming.”