Protecting the Press
When the Columbus Dispatch and its sister publications began working from home, Phil Gilliland was left guarding an empty building. Then came last summer's racial justice protests.
Throughout my time at Dispatch Magazines, security officer Phil Gilliland has walked me to my car whenever I work at the Downtown office past dark. That doesn’t set me apart; Phil views this kind of protection as part of his job. During these walks, I learned about his time in the military; his college years in Israel; the death of his wife; his successful battle with cancer; his worries about each round of layoffs as the company downsized and went through a corporate merger.
Not long after most of the newspaper and magazine staff was sent to work from home last March, Phil’s 86-year-old mother was hospitalized with COVID-19. He updated us from time to time about her status. When one of the regular panhandlers outside our building died, Phil, knowing I often stopped to talk with the man, sent me a photo of the memorial someone had placed near his usual post. As time passed and those of us who could do so continued to stay away from 62 E. Broad St., I wondered what it was like to guard our nearly empty building. When protests roiled the streets outside, I worried about Phil. Eventually, I asked him to share his experiences. This essay is adapted from that interview. —Suzanne Goldsmith, senior editor, Columbus Monthly
I knew things were really bad when Louie, the food cart guy out front, pulled out. He’s been here for 20, 30 years. But when the state office building shut down, there was no business whatsoever. Then one day, he was gone.
With the building empty, we started trying to come up with things that we needed to keep on top of. We had a lot of older press cars that needed maintenance. So for about a week, each day I would take a car, drive it down to Grismer Tire Co. on Fourth Street and walk back because there was nobody to pick me up. I’d also try to drive them every few days so things didn’t seize up.
So many people left food in their desks, food in the refrigerators, food everywhere. The building staff went around throwing out stuff in the refrigerators that might spoil and looking for open snacks in the desks. We pulled everything out from underneath the desks so the janitorial staff could sweep. Mundane stuff, trying to keep from going crazy.
You’d see stuff on people’s desks, projects they were working on, and glance down at the date. It looked like something they wanted to work on the next day, but it was actually six weeks in the past. One of the sports reporters, his son was selling candy bars for a school trip to Washington, D.C. that never happened, and weeks later the sign was still there. The candy bars were still there. There was still money in the envelope. I took a picture of it and sent it to him. I said, “It looks just like every end-of-the-world movie you’ve seen.”
As it dragged on, sometimes I would come across people that weren’t supposed to be in the building, and the most common phrase I heard was, “I had to come in because my kids are driving me crazy.” We had to send them home.
Everything changed when we had the demonstrations. The night of May 29th, when we had the serious rioting, they threw a brick through our back window. I walked down the back alley, and they were looting everything. Some people smashed out what had been Jack’s Diner—it was getting ready to open with new owners—and I just watched people grabbing anything they could grab. They took chairs, and they had skateboards, and they were smashing out the windows.
I had a run-in with a group back there, but when I spoke with the riot police who were stationed on Broad Street, they told me I could stay with the officers who were resting beside the building, but they could not come around back to address the looting in the alley. I said, “They’re rioting!” And they said, “We can’t help you.”
I had a security radio on, and I was listening to people in the Downtown security network calling for help as people were smashing into their buildings and the general thing was, “Just get away from windows. Get as far back as you can, because help is not coming.”
I stayed in the building that night until 4 or 5 in the morning. With the windows smashed out, I was worried about somebody trying to come in the back. So I just waited it out. The next day, we boarded everything up.
They had me going out with some of the reporters and photographers to keep an eye on them. I was with photographer Barb Perenic and night reporter Jim Woods one night outside the Statehouse, and we all managed to get a good dose of tear gas.
I had to go and pick up a couple of reporters one night when they got stuck down near campus. We took my car, and the police had to let us through all these different checkpoints. It was like being in the military again. It was like doing an extract from a hot zone.
We were going through the roadblocks and the police cars, and Jim kept saying, “This is fine. We’re not gonna have any trouble. We’re not gonna have any trouble.” And then we pulled onto either Lane or High Street, and there was so much gas in the air. There were all these tactical vehicles and officers in full body armor. Jim started to get out, and they yelled over with the bullhorn, “Remain in the vehicle!” That’s when he said, “We might have some trouble.”
They did let us get the guys out, but it was the most surreal moment, watching all that gas, all the protesters, all the police and everything.
There were a couple days when I was just wondering what was going to happen next. We moved fire extinguishers up near the windows; I was afraid of a Molotov cocktail or something coming into the building. At the beginning, my understanding was that corporate was considering closing the building. There had been fires. An apartment building burned and there were trash cans going up, and they were worried that we were going to get burned out. I said, “I think you need to keep this building open. If you’re going to have people actually going out into this, they need a safe place to come back to.”
Once the curfew was declared and the National Guard was here, things quieted down quite a bit. But we could not get a clarification from any authority as to whether we would be able to drive past roadblocks. That first night, I parked my vehicle in German Village. Late that night, Barb, photographer Josh Bickel, crime reporter Bethany Bruner and I hoofed it out of here together through the mess to get to German Village.
It went on for a long time. I worked for 21 or 22 days without a day off.
I was worried too there for a little bit because a lot of people weren’t wearing masks. We were interacting with a lot of people at a very close range. At that time, the police were not wearing masks. They do now, but that kind of scared me, especially with my mom in the hospital with COVID.
She did get better. I guess she’s classified as a long-hauler, because she was in for 48 days until she was actually over it. It was a long haul.
People are trying to hang onto a sense of camaraderie. It’s stretched awful thin, but every now and then someone just reaches out. You get an email or text: “How are you doing?” And I think that means a lot to everybody. When stuff was going on here one night, I got a text from a former Dispatch employee who just reached out and said, “I’m thinking about you there at Broad Street.” That helped a lot.
When my mom was ill, every now and then I sent out an email blast to people because I was getting a lot of inquiries about how she was. But now, emails are generally few and far between, other than a few people.
Barb has been cutting my hair. We go and sit in her backyard and she puts a towel around my shoulders and cuts my hair. Little things like that keep you sane.
My army buddies always told me that they figured I’d work for a newspaper. I took a journalism class in ninth grade. And now I’m going on 30-plus years with the Dispatch. It wasn’t what I had intended. It was a great job to have while going to school, but then when my wife, Ann, got really sick, it was a great company. They took care of me. The insurance was great, and the Wolfe family bent over backward to help me out with my wife’s dialysis. I can’t complain. They’ve been very good to me.
I like to feel like I’m part of it. I actually got a photo credit a couple weeks ago, and it almost made me feel like a little kid. I don’t know what the future is. Several people have decided to retire or pursue other employment, and it seems strange to me that I may not even get to say goodbye to people that I’ve known for 20 years or so.
You know, journalism is changing in such a drastic way, but I just admire the people. What I saw when everything was crazy: that the important thing was getting out and covering this stuff. The professionalism. I think it’s so important to be able to do anything I can to make sure these people can do their job. Between the protests and the Householder scandal, and Dr. Amy Acton with the demonstrators, it’s so important to get that stuff out there, and I actually feel like I’m part of it now. Just to be a part of that makes me feel like I’m contributing.