Last night we wrote briefly about the police in Ferguson, Missouri, detaining
two journalists -- Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post. The situation in Ferguson was already a mess in terms of the police killing an unarmed teenager, responding poorly to that situation, and then making things worse by challenging citizens' rights to free speech and to assemble. Taking it a step further and targeting journalists further shows that the police in Ferguson, beyond having little plan on what to do, were looking to suppress the flow of information about what was happening. Soon after that post went up, the police went even further in teargassing a reporting team from Al Jazeera America
. Living in the US, the idea that reporters from Al Jazeera might face teargassing from "security forces" may not seem that strange... if it were in the Middle East. But this is in Missouri, which should say something about how much we've lost the plot here in America.
It's pretty clear from the video that the teargas was shot directly at the press -- who were obviously members of the press getting their lights ready for a live shot. There were further reports that the police also fired rubber bullets at those same reporters
But of course, in this day and age, focusing just on the "professional" press is kind of meaningless. Anyone can be a part of the press, and that's happening quite frequently. Local Alderman Antonio French went out into Ferguson and was doing plenty of reporting
, even if he wasn't professional media. Here were some of his tweets from last night:
Wesley Lowery, the Washington Post reporter who was detained, noted that French provided the "biggest public service"
he'd seen so far in covering what was happening... and that he was "appalled" to find out that, of course, French was arrested. Unlike with Lowery and Reilly, who were detained and not charged, French was charged with "unlawful assembly"
and was thrown in jail. While police said he would be in jail for 24 hours, after protests emerged around the arrest, French was released this morning
The whole thing highlights just how dangerous this situation has become and how police in Ferguson appear to be trampling over basically every constitutional right they can come up with (there was a joke on Twitter last night -- and forgive me for not being able to track down where it originated -- that before too long, police in Ferguson will be demanding to be quartered in residents' houses...).
We've been covering the ridiculous trend of militarizing the police for quite some time (though nowhere near as long as Radley Balco, who has been warning about this for ages
, with very few people paying attention...), and just last month highlighted just how ridiculous
it has become. In many, many cases, the militarization is actually driven by the Department of Homeland Security giving local police forces cast off military equipment for free. In the past 12 years, DHS has given $35 billion (with a b) in grants and equipment to local police forces. I recently found out that the local police in the small sleepy suburb where Techdirt's offices are located got themselves an MRAP
, and it scares me silly.
Glenn Greenwald is noting that the events in Ferguson are finally dragging the horrors of a militarized police force into the limelight
, and I hope it leads to a severe about-face. Ryan Cooper, at The Week, has a similar piece, saying that what's happening in Ferguson shows why you don't militarize police
. Another comment (again, sorry for the lack of attribution as I can't find it now) that flew by on Twitter was something to the effect of that the military is trained to take out an enemy, while the police are supposed to be the public's servants. But when you militarize the police, the public becomes the enemy.
Given all this, Trevor Timm, of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, rightly notes that the militarization of the police is now a press freedom issue
But until now, this issue has not really reached the mainstream, or if it has, it's been thought of as something that happens in a foreign authoritarian country and not the United States. Besides the arrests yesterday, you can watch video of Al Jazeera journalists being tear-gassed by these police forces (and perhaps mistake it for footage from Tahrir Square in Egypt). Or you listen to a brave citizen journalist operating a livestream describe events as police demand people to turn off their cameras, just as the tear gas and rubber bullets start to fly. Or you can think about citizen journalist Antonio French who was not as lucky as the other two reporters and is still sitting in jail.
In response to the travesty in Ferguson, the Justice Department indicated it may re-open a broad review of local police tactics around the country to investigate some of these issues. That is the least they should do. The rights of countless lawful citizens have been trampled on in Ferguson and around the country thanks to these police tactics, and something needs to be done soon.
But reporters should take note: these issues don't just affect protesters, but also affect those who cover the protest. It creates an environment where police think they can disregard the law and tell reporters to stop filming, despite their legal right to do so, or fire tear gas directly at them to prevent them from doing their job. And if the rights of journalists are being trampled on, you can almost guarantee it's even worse for those who don't have such a platform to protect themselves. Mr. Lowery said it best after he was released from jail yesterday:
“I knew I was going to be fine,” he said. “But the thing is, so many people here in Ferguson don’t have as many Twitter followers as I have and don’t have [Washington Post owner] Jeff Bezos or whoever to call and bail them out of jail.”
And, of course, what that really shows is that this is not just a freedom of the press issue, but a freedom of speech issue -- and, more broadly, a freedom issue
, period. By militarizing the police, DHS and the federal government have set up a situation that is designed to snuff out free speech, freedom of assembly and the rights of everyone. It is trampling the very constitution it is supposedly defending. It's a complete travesty. It's been going on for a while, but the events in Ferguson only serve to highlight just how ridiculous and dangerous the situation has become.