The sight of uniformed police officers standing at the escalator ascending to the 2019 Excellence in Journalism conference sent an unsettling message: attendees may be at risk.
Nearly one month after a shooter in El Paso killed 22 people and injured 24, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists decided to boost security at its annual conference.
As a result, dozens of off-duty police officers descended on the grounds of the Grand Hyatt hotel in downtown San Antonio.
“We know we’re targets as journalists. But we’re also a target as Hispanic(s)/Latinos. The event in El Paso is very specific to that,” NAHJ President Hugo Balta said during a press conference in the Latino Reporter newsroom Thursday afternoon.
Friends and family of attendees buzzed with worry, too. New England NAHJ chapter president Karina Cuevas said her parents questioned her decision to attend after the El Paso shooting.
“I’m coming to this conference in this state where these people have already committed all these crimes. Are we going to be next?” Cuevas said.
This year, conference organizers sent out an email to attendees letting them know that armed and uniformed off-duty police officers would patrol the hotel. According to the email, members and sponsors had raised “security concerns” to organizers.
“I’ve never been in a situation like that unless it was covering some sort of political rally,” she said.
Three organizations who co-hosted this year’s conference—NAHJ, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association—shared the cost of extra security.
Sgt. Richard Radzinski and his partner chatted with attendees as they descended down the escalator onto the third floor and explained his presence.
“Due to the two recent shootings here in Texas,” Radzinski said, “it was believed that there were general, genuine fears that people had about people coming here from out of state.”
He stressed that the request for more security was precautionary.
“There was no increased threats or anything like that,” he said. “There were no alerts that we were made aware of.”
The NAHJ email elaborates extra security “was not a planned expense, but one that is necessary.” It also explains that the Hyatt restricts private weapons due to their policies as a private property.
“I wasn’t concerned coming here until we got a message from the conference itself of amped up security most likely because of those concerns,” said Belen Dumont, a student from Emerson College. “That made me realize that we are a pretty big target and we do have a lot of minorities.”
KSAT12 news reporter Tiffany Huertas understood the general concern, but said she felt safe in her city.
“Anytime there’s a lot of people in once space, it’s always good to have security nowadays because you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Huertas said. “But overall I definitely didn’t feel fear coming to this conference.”
Robert Barba, the deputy spot news editor for The Wall Street Journal, said he thinks many people today fear mass violence.
“It’s not a Hispanic fear, it’s not a journalist fear,” Barba said. “It’s an anxiety that exists on a much more human level.”
Officers at the conference were stationed at escalators, the job expo, and throughout workshops as attendees strolled by.
When asked whether he considered the historically tense relationship between law enforcement and people of color before increasing police presence, Balta cited security concerns as his primary objective.
Barbas felt at ease.
“The note that the conference organizers sent out about heightened security perhaps brought it more to the forefront of my mind,” Barbas said. “(It) also made me feel good.”
But Cuevas said the presence of police at the conference was difficult.
“It’s a fine line when it’s your life on the line, but at the same time, you’re trying to hold these people accountable, especially law enforcement and government for everything they continue doing towards people of color,” Cuevas said.
Dumont stood next to the convention’s Disney/ESPN booth and gazed at conference attendees.
“The biggest thing is that we continue with our jobs,” she said. “That’s what we’re here for, and people who would want to stop us, they’re trying to restrain our voices.”
Inside the job expo on the fourth floor of the Hyatt, journalists swapped business cards over the loud hum of the conference. Under a welcome sign a few feet away, two police officers stood on guard.
Stefania Lugli is a 2019 NAHJ Student Project participant. She is a journalism student at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, where she is also the school’s NAHJ chapter president. Lugli is an intern for the GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit news organization. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @steflugli.