Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ferguson Cops Give Protesters Free Ammo

Unwarranted police harassment.

It's what demonstrators in suburban St. Louis are claiming as they protest the shooting by police of an unarmed black teenager this past weekend in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the wake of that shooting, things got so violent, a Quick Trip convenience store was brazenly looted and torched.  Other shops along West Florissant Avenue, a commercial district, were also vandalized and looted.  Suddenly, what most of the media had been treating as an ordinary cop killing in a southern town became a national and international headline, buttressed by plenty of video feed and photos on social media of blacks acting like lawless thugs.

"Police brutality?" the media seemed to be mocking, probably to propel webpage hits.  "Naw, just look at the pictures from the scene!"

It's the stuff that foments racial anxiety, pitting one skin color against another, and projecting the police as being caught between a rock and a hard place.  Exacerbating matters has been the media's focus on the violence that followed the initial shooting, while reports showing black residents in the community voluntarily cleaning up the aftermath received scant attention.  And when news reporters did mention the clean-up, they treated it like a token gesture, as if only a minority of minorities believe that violence is no way to repay violence.

For every night following last Saturday's tragedy, protesters have held demonstrations in Ferguson, and the city's police* have displayed an impressive display of force and authority.  They've brought in massive SWAT trucks, fired tear gas into the crowds, and peppered some folks with rubber bullets, almost as if they want to keep everybody on edge.

Keeps the adrenaline rushing, don't you know.

Then comes some disturbing video from last night's protests that shows a news crew from the Al Jazeera network, no less, apparently being harassed by the cops.  In the video, shot by another news crew down the block, police fire tear gas towards three Al Jazeera staffers who are merely monitoring the goings-on from a quiet street, some distance away from the action, it would seem, since no noise from any demonstration can be heard.

As the tear gas envelops their equipment, the news crew is forced to remove their headsets and abandon their lights and cameras, running away in the opposite direction, and leaving their parked Chevrolet SUV to idle, with its lights on.

Then, in an eerie display of Big Brother control, some police officers in tactical gear, complete with breathing masks - and somebody lugging some sort of machine gun like a soldier in Afghanistan - trot over to the equipment left behind by the Al Jazeera crew, and begin to dismantle it.  At first, they try to take apart the light stands, but then they simply tip them down towards the ground, and tip down the camera, too.

That's when the cops apparently notice the other news crew filming their unwarranted power play.  An officer comes over and tells the second camera crew to leave the area, and when a member of the second crew asks why, they're told it's for their own safety.

"We don't want you here," a cop can be heard telling the news crew.

Elsewhere near last night's demonstrations, two other reporters complained of being roughed-up and detained by police.  Staffers with the Washington Post and Huffington Post were at a McDonald's close to the action, and did not vacate the premises when cops ordered them to.  They were released after the personal intervention of Ferguson's police chief.

On the one hand, of course, it's understandable for the police to be concerned about the peril that private citizens face when something as unpredictable as a racially-charged protest is taking place.  But aren't news reporters something of a different breed, apart from private citizens like ordinary McDonald's customers, or residents of the houses on the street where Al Jazeera's crew was harassed?  Sure, reporters have been known to get in the way, be arrogant of their ability to avoid harm, and simply take foolish risks.  And we don't know if, before the point at which the video recording of the Al Jazeera crew begins, cops had been asking the reporters to leave, and they simply refused to do so.  Eventually, according to photos from the New York Times last night, some demonstrators apparently did wander into a quiet residential neighborhood, and maybe the police were simply anticipating that, and hoping to minimize any conflict in such an environment.

Maybe the cops can only be faulted for improperly or ineffectively conveying their concerns to the news media.

But on the other hand, with these reports of heavy-handed police tactics continuing to trickle out of Ferguson, it's getting easier and easier to believe the protesters' side of things.  Might the police not want the press around to verify what the city's blacks are complaining about - namely, the unnecessarily aggressive tactics of local law enforcement?

According to the Fox News affiliate in St. Louis, the demonstration last night consisted of approximately 60 people.

Sixty people?  Out Ferguson's total population of 21,000?  And the cops were afraid? 

Witnesses to the original killing of the unarmed teenager Saturday night say he was shot while his hands were in the air.  They say unwarranted aggression on the part of the police department has become commonplace in their community, and that they feel as though their concerns are not treated as valid by the broader St. Louis region.

Meanwhile, if that video last night showing what clearly looks like police harassment of a news crew is any indication, Ferguson's civil rights advocates may just have won a major endorsement.

I am usually big on law enforcement and respecting authority.  Even when I'm getting a speeding ticket!  Yet none of us should ignore whatever injustices we may perceive being perpetrated by those vested with authority in our society.  I'm not naive enough to dismiss the heavy emphasis on violence that exists in much of America's black culture, and I can understand when police departments feel the need to protect themselves from what seems to be an increasingly hostile public.  But if the police want the public to believe that they're acting in our best interests, shouldn't the media be their friend?

If the cops weren't planning on doing anything that was even borderline illegal, or unnecessarily intimidating last night, why fire tear gas on a group of media personnel?  If you didn't want to be responsible for their safety, why not send an officer over to them with a waiver for them to sign?  Did cops fear that having news crews on the scene might foment that crowd of 60 people to act belligerently in front of the cameras?  Then, again, why not talk with the media and ask them to be more discrete about how they cover the demonstration?

As it is, the cops may have ended up giving themselves a black eye.  Sure, they may not have liked having journalists videotaping their every move, because journalists can be incredibly biased.

But they're paid to be.  Cops aren't.

Neither are cops supposed to be giving ammunition to the press.

* Update 8/16/14:  Missouri's governor replaced Ferguson's municipal police with the state's highway patrol, headed by an African-American man who grew up in the area.  Last night's demonstrations were violence-free.

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