It’s 1984 in Ferguson

teargas journalistsOver the past week, eyes around the world have been on Fergson, Missouri. There have been protests and candle light vigils every night since August 9. Some of the protests have turned violent with police firing teargas and rubber bullets at both protesters and reporters, and looting by some of the protesters. The protests and vigils were sparked after police killed an unarmed teenager shortly after noon on Saturday, August 9 as the teen was walking away from the police with his hands in the air pleading, “Don’t shoot, I’m not armed.”

One week after the protests began, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and implemented a curfew. Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, speaking of the curfew, said, “We won’t enforce it with tanks. We won’t enforce it with teargas.”

It seems that Johnson’s pledge was quickly broken as several canisters of smoke and tear gas were used, and seven people were arrested for “failure to disperse” after the curfew took effect. He said police were trying to give protesters “every opportunity to comply with the curfew.”

One must wonder if the protesters arrested after the curfew began were given the same opportunities provided to the two reporters arrested last Wednesday in a Ferguson McDonald’s? During that incident, in which two reporters were arrested and released without charge, police told everyone to leave a McDonald’s and initially told the reporters they could stay. Wesley Lowery, a reporter for The Washington Post, said police returned a short time later, demanding that the reporters leave. Lowery says he was instructed to leave through one exit, then the other, as he turned his bag fell from his shoulder and he was arrested. Ryan J. Reilly from the Huffington Post was also arrested. The Washington Post reports, the pair of journalists “were then taken to the back of a police car, where they sat alongside a member of the clergy who had also been cuffed” for unknown reasons.

In a separate incident on the same night, police fired a “bean bag round” at a camera crew, apparently for getting too close to an altercation between police and an individual they were detaining. About 5 to 10 minutes later, police fired tear gas at another news crew. The first crew, from KSDK-TV, recorded this incident. KSDK reports the Al Jazeera America crew was yelling, “We’re the press,” and can be seen running away from the van. “Then two police officers can be seen taking down the crew’s television lights and tilting the TV camera toward the ground.” Police then approached the KSDK crew “with guns drawn” claiming to be responding to “a call that members of the media were in danger and in need of assistance.”

Clearly, the way you respond to media in need of assistance is to fire bean bags and tear gas at them, then come up to them with guns drawn. The incident takes another Orwellian turn. The next day, the St. Charles County Regional SWAT Team released a statement, which reads in part, “The position of the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department is that the media has the right to cover these events and supports the freedom of the press, and the SWAT Team has not been any part of attempting to prevent media coverage. In fact, last night the SWAT Team officers were assisting the media in moving their camera equipment and media personnel to a safer area with their consent so that they could continue to cover the event.”

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent a letter to officials in the Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments, as well as the Missouri Highway Patrol, stating, “Officers on the ground must understand that gathering news and recording police activities are not crimes. The actions in Ferguson demonstrate a lack of training among local law enforcement in the protections required by the First Amendment as well as the absence of respect for the role of newsgatherers.”

It can not be said enough that if there is to be a freedom of the press, which the U.S. Constitution supposedly recognizes, the freedoms and protections of the press should be extended to everyone who considers themselves a member of the media, and police should be consistently reminded that journalism is not a crime!

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