It’s unlikely this new report on police harassment of journalists at the Ferguson, Missouri, protests will generate much sympathy from the public. And that’s a shame, considering that anyone seeking a fact-based discussion about Michael Brown’s death and the aftermath depends on the work of those journalists. But, at the very least, I hope its findings get heard where they count most: in police commands nationwide.
As Noam Cohen reports in today’s New York Times, the PEN American Center found dozens of violations of press freedoms, going beyond the most obvious, the arrests of journalists (of which there were 21, not just the handful that news reports at the time suggested). Threats, interference, and hostility pepper the anecdotes collected by PEN. Consider this one from the report:
In the early morning hours of August 19, reporters Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept and Lukas Hermsmeier of the German newspaper Bild were driving near the area of the protests, making their way towards a “command center” that had been set up for journalists. Crossing W. Florissant Ave., they heard police megaphones tell protestors that it was their “final warning.” The pair stopped the car and got out to see what was happening. While talking to a group of peaceful protestors, police fired tear gas in their direction. The interviewees left, and the two reporters returned to W. Florissant to document what munitions the police were using.
At this point, the police were patrolling W. Florissant in armored vehicles and intermittently firing tear gas canisters. The two reporters needed to cross W. Florissant to return to their car, and intended to walk along a street running parallel to W. Florissant until they could cross the avenue in an area not filled with tear gas. Devereaux described the ensuing situation:
“At one point the police vehicle takes a left into the neighborhood we’re in. If they take another left they’ll be on the street we’re on. We decided we should identify ourselves as press as they’re coming into neighborhood, to make sure they know we’re journalists. We come out from the shadows with our hands up. I have a press ID card in my hand, yelling, ‘Press! Press! Press! We’re journalists! Media! Media! Media!’”
Police in one vehicle shone a light on the pair and directed them forward. They advanced, still shouting “Press!” and were directed towards another armored vehicle. As they were approaching that vehicle, the group of officers in the vehicle that had initially directed them to move forward began to fire rubber bullets at them. Devereaux was struck once in the back and Hermsmeier was shot twice. According to Devereaux, the police had “made no verbal commands that we had heard” before beginning to shoot.
The reporters dove behind a car to get out of the line of fire, at which point police swarmed around them. They repeatedly told police that they were press just trying to get to their car. Police arrested them using plastic flex cuffs and put them in the back of an armored car. Devereaux stated, “They didn’t tell us we were under arrest, and didn’t tell us why. They asked us why we were out, and I said the same reason you are- we’re working, we’re journalists.”
Police defenders will claim that journalists who overstep their bounds at a dangerous scene like the Ferguson protests should expect to land in trouble. Fair enough, if that’s what happens. But, as the report makes clear, time and again police shot first (metaphorically or actually) and asked questions later.
By its very nature, a report cataloging abuses overlooks the many instances when things worked as they should. Indeed, the report carries this important caveat:
This report is not a blanket condemnation of the law enforcement officers who policed the Ferguson protests. Many of the officers no doubt acted in good faith and were trying to protect the safety of their fellow officers and those present at the protests under difficult circumstances. At some points during the protests, individuals present in the crowds were armed and fired weapons. Several of the journalists interviewed for this report acknowledged that some police officers allowed them to do their jobs without interference, and that the police attitude towards the press varied depending on who was on duty and was generally more hostile at night than during the day.
But the PEN report, in summaries of multiple confrontations, makes plain what really motivated many arrests and other harassment: The police didn’t want witnesses to their extreme overreactions as they made war on residents and protestors. And good luck with that tactic. When every cellphone and Twitter account can be used to “report” the news, shutting down professional newsgathering fails at its primary mission, to conceal, while at the same time guaranteeing an over-reliance on amateur reports that probably lack verification and might only repeat rumors.
Contrary to myth, the press is not naturally antagonistic to police. In fact, the real problem is that journalists usually report police allegations against crime suspects without skepticism and regularly hype violent crime, feeding a perception that we live in an out-of-control, predatory world. Reporters and police can be personal allies, sharing a common experience of exposure (albeit in different ways and to differing degrees) to trauma that most people would find intolerable.
But, when the press actually does its job as a public watchdog, police must respect and accommodate that — and remember that their authority is not absolute in a free society.