You’ve probably heard the stories and the rallying cries crying foul about the police presence (or state, as protesters would like to call it) to quell protesters during the RNC. You may have also heard that some journalists were arrested too, 19 in fact. That’s 19 out of over 800 people arrested. That’s 19 out of the estimated 10,000-15,000 journalists in town to cover the convention. You may have also heard the “horrible injustice” against Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, another ridiculously overblown incident. Needless to say, I’m more than a little annoyed at how this is being spun. Even going so far as Amnesty International slamming the treatment of protesters and journalists at the RNC.
First, some transparency of course. I live and work in St. Paul. I was on the ground with media credentials at several of the protests, including the huge one Monday and the last one on Thursday that involved nearly 400 arrests. I took tons of pictures of both days.
The supposed “targeting” of journalists that happened is total fabrication, and here’s why. First, almost everyone had a camera, journalist, ‘citizen’ journalist and protesters alike. Nothing distinguished them from one another, especially in the midst of some melee. I understand that journalists want to get the best photos and the story, but several times I saw journalists crossing police lines and standing right in the thick of the protesters. That’s fine, but in my opinion you do so at your own risk. It should also be noted that a majority of the journalists arrested have already had their charges dropped.
During the Shepard Rd. incident on Monday, one of the most heavily documented group arrests of the protests, the police did in fact target journalists. When they had everyone on the ground and were arresting people, they had journalists show their press passes…in order to let them leave the area. Wow, what evil Gestapo. Several times throughout both events, I walked (slowly) toward police lines, showed them my press pass and they let me go through to get to my destination. Even when there was an altercation right up the street, they would respect the credential.
The disconnect here is that journalists expect that same respect in the middle of a melee when force is being used and pepper spray is flying wildly about. I’m sorry folks, press pass or no, that is a luxury that just can’t be afforded. It’s not “suppressing the media”, it’s police doing their job.
You may have heard the story of Marcus Washington, a documentary filmmaker from Tennessee who was sprayed with pepper spray. If you watch the video of the incident, you can see Washington at the end. He is right in the middle of the fracas trying to take video and gets sprayed with pepper spray. Just because you have media credentials doesn’t mean the police are supposed to aim pepper spray around you. You take certain risks as a journalist, Mr. Washington learned that. I feel bad that he got sprayed, as I’m sure it hurt, but it’s all a part of the risk of covering protest politics.
What is funny about the video is that if you think about it, the guy who got the better story and video of the event was well out of the reach of police and kept themselves out of danger. You can cover a story without becoming the story (and this coming from a huge Hunter S. Thompson fan).
And about those credentials. Looking at the pictures it appears Mr. Washington, like many of the journalists on Monday, had the media credentials from the event, not from a legitimate media company. Those credentials meant even less than real press credentials that day. Anyone with a point-and-shoot camera could have walked up to the media tent at the event and got some “credentials.” They are what a colleague of mine called, Kinko’s journalists. If you watch one of Washington’s videos an interviewer asks him who he is with. His answer: “I’m with myself.”
In addition to that, cops aren’t mind readers. When things are getting hairy, protesters are fighting back and adrenaline is flowing, the police have to react and make a quick decision to use their crowd control devices (i.e. pepper spray) or get bowled over by an unruly mob that wants to smash windows and break stuff. They don’t have time to spot out media credentials and look out for journalists. If you are in the mob, you’re essentially part of the mob. The solution, know what you’re doing and get yourself out of harm’s way.
So many journalists have such an inflated sense of self-importance and ego they expect the police to know exactly who they are and what they are doing there. Sorry, no. The police have a job to do and that doesn’t include massaging your ego.
Which, brings us to Amy Goodman. I love Amy, she’s done great work in journalism. But, often she incites these sort of things herself. The day before she was arrested she jumped a fence to get right in the middle of a police investigation. Legitimate or not, at the time the house was the site of police investigating potential criminal activity. You wouldn’t just barge into a murder scene or a robbery scene to ask questions. Why would you do it in this case? By doing so she incites the police to react, and yes often overreact, and makes herself the story instead of actually finding the FACTS of the story. And I’m sorry, watching the video Amy clearly could have handled that better.
Now, I couldn’t be everywhere at once so I am sure there are perhaps a few incidences of overreaction by police or police brutality. But those have to be viewed on a case-by-case basis. To drape this blanket of Gestapo, evil police over every police officer there, is just inaccurate and dishonest. The majority of police that I saw were doing their jobs, some even smiling and waving at the parade and spectators.
My point is that this claim that journalists were targeted is bull. Doing the math of jailed versus non-jailed journalists and taking a scan of the wealth of coverage these protests got, it is clear that the police gave journalists a fairly wide berth. Those unfortunate few who were caught up in the mayhem are no different than catching a bullet covering a war. That sounds harsh but it is the truth. It comes with the territory. If you don’t like it Wal-Mart is always hiring and there are a ton of other journalists (more and more everyday) that would love to have your job.
I’m not saying the police were 100 percent correct in their behavior, nor am I saying that every protester and/or journalist was 100 percent incorrect in theirs, I’m just making an assessment of what I saw happening on the ground contrasted with what I am reading in the news. I’m sure someone has some episode that contradicts my assessment. However, in my experience, usually when someone says, “I wasn’t doing anything…,” the common defense in these cases, they were usually doing something.
I open the floor for discussion and if someone has evidence to prove me wrong please present it.