Another violent night of protests in Ferguson, Missouri culminated with more police intimidation of journalists. Yesterday alone saw a Getty photograph get arrested, CNN anchor Don Lemon pushed on a sidewalk, and reporters with Al Jazeera America told that if they did not leave the tiny nearby town Kinloch, Missouri, that the officer would “bust your head right here.”
It’s a story of repeated police abuses against both protesters and members of the media right in the heartland of the United States of America. South Bend Voice has reported on the police intimidation tactics being used in Ferguson to deter reporters from doing their job. Past nights have had police in military uniforms firing rubber bullets and tear gas, including knowingly firing tear gas canisters at reporters doing live shots. Reporters from both the Washington Post and Huffington Post were arrested. It’s a blatantly unconstitutional abuse of power, drawing Vox.com to point out that the Washington Post has seen two of its journalists arrested in the past few months: one in Tehran, Iran and the other in Ferguson, Missouri.
As Al Jazeera America journalist Aaron Ernst writes of the encounter:
The incident began on Thursday night when Jung Park, America Tonight’s director of photography, anchor Joie Chen and I hopped in a taxi to interview Umar Lee, a cab driver and columnist who knows the racial history of north St. Louis County, which has become the focus of worldwide media attention.
As we drove near Ferguson’s border with the neighboring town of Kinloch, JP was recording Lee, while I was recording Joie. When the interview was over, we got out of the cab to record a shot of it driving by.
Two Kinloch officers in a patrol car stopped and asked what we were doing. I identified JP and myself as a cameraman and producer working for Al Jazeera America for the show America Tonight. The officer who was driving told us to leave the area. When we asked why, he only said that it wasn’t safe to be there and we had to leave. Puzzled, we got in the cab and did as requested. A little further down the road, we saw a sign that JP wanted to shoot for our story, so we stopped and again got out.
The same officers, who had been following our car, pulled up and joined us in the street. Lee got out and asked the officers what was wrong.
To be totally clear, we were on a public street. It was not blocked off and other cars occasionally passed. No curfew was in effect.
The officer threatened the film crew with arrest if they did not leave the town of Kinloch, which is a mostly black suburb of St. Louis just west of Ferguson, Missouri.
“I’m not saying you did anything wrong, I’m saying that I don’t want you here at this time of night,” the officer said. (Read the full transcript here.)
The crew, confused why they were being harassed on a rural road in the outskirts of Ferguson, continued to film the encounter as the officer verbally unloaded.
“Don’t resist. I’ll bust your ass. I’ll bust your head right here.”
When the crew pointed out that he was being reported, the officer simply said “film it and I’ll confiscate the film for evidence.”
The crew was not arrested and left the scene without further incident. But they did find it to be emblematic of what is going on in Ferguson.
Why would an officer so blatantly threaten a journalist for doing his job while cameras were rolling?
But the more I thought about it, the more the encounter seemed emblematic, albeit on a vastly smaller and, by comparison, almost insignificant scale, of the dynamics we’re reporting on in Ferguson.
The vast majority of the officers I met around St. Louis were doing the best they could in a difficult and dangerous situation. But the type of officer that we encountered – one who uses his authority to bully the public and press, simply because he is protected by the law and a gun – gives others a bad name. That kind of police impunity seems to be at the root of the anger and protests we witnessed.
If this is how police in and around Ferguson treat journalists that have cameras rolling, imagine how they treat their citizens every day of the week without cameras.
The tactics were not lost on CNN reporters who were live on the scene all day yesterday as police escalated the situation with extreme shows of force, prompting veteran reporter Jake Tapper to ask, “what is this?”
Tapper was dumbfounded at the police presence, which included armored vehicles, assault weapons and sniper teams. Police officers in riot gear pointed their weapons at the mostly peaceful demonstrators — in a way that military analysts say is even against protocol in an urban war zone. A former Boston police commissioner said on air that the tactics were inappropriate. Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, who presided over his department during that city’s 1999 WTO demonstrations, argues that de-militarizing the police would help restore order.
“Anything that we can do now to shift police officers out of that military mindset is vital,” Stamper said.
Even former New York City Police Chief Raymond Kelly — who has been roundly criticized for racially profiling New Yorkers with the former stop-and-frisk policy under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg and spying on the city’s Muslim community — said that “there [are] lots of things that should have been done differently”, such as releasing the information that the department knew immediately rather than dribbling nuggets that seemed to back their own officer.
Tapper went off script to describe the scene on Monday night:
I want to show you this, okay? To give you an idea of what’s going on. The protesters have moved all the way down there… they’re all the way down there. Nobody is threatening anything. Nobody is doing anything. None of the stores here that I can see are being looted. There is no violence.
Now I want you to look at what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri, in downtown America, okay? These are armed police, with — not machine guns — semi-automatic rifles, with batons, with shields, many of them dressed for combat. Now why they’re doing this? I don’t know. Because there is no threat going on here. None that merits this. There is none, okay? Absolutely there have been looters, absolutely over the last nine days there’s been violence, but there is nothing going on on this street right now that merits this scene out of Bagram. Nothing.
So if people wonder why the people of Ferguson, Missouri are so upset, this is part of the reason. What is this? This doesn’t make any sense.
It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s happening.