Monday, September 25, 2017

Return of the Muscle

In 2015, during anti-racism protests at the University of Missouri, a journalism professor named Melissa Click gained notoriety by calling for "muscle" to expel student journalists attempting to cover the proceedings. Click was widely censured and eventually fired.

I'm not convinced on the "firing" part (there are substantial due process questions that have yet to be answered persuasively), but the censure portion was entirely appropriate. A free press is essential to an open society. Seeking to block, obstruct, or threaten journalists for doing their jobs is utterly incompatible with a commitment to free speech. What Click did was utterly contemptible.

Yesterday, a Missouri journalism student who was covering the Jason Stockley verdict protests published his account of what happened to journalists at the scene. He is not doe-eyed about the protesters -- while most were non-violent, a few were not and particularly as the main protest died down some were engaging in destruction of property (and were, unsurprisingly, not thrilled to be filmed in the act of destruction of property). But the journalist was also quite clear and emphatic in his ultimate verdict:

At this event, the police officers were far more threatening to journalists than were the protesters.
The SWAT truck stopped, and heavily armored officers carrying assault rifles poured out, screaming at us. Thinking that they would likely ignore the journalists and go after the demonstrators, we stopped and put our hands and cameras in the air. Most of the demonstrators were wearing black, their faces covered with bandanas, and some had weapons. The journalists, on the other hand, were dressed the way we often are — in button-down shirts, with press credentials and cameras plain to see. The difference was obvious. 
And yet most of the demonstrators escaped while nearly all of the SWAT officers grabbed the journalists by our necks and forced us against a brick wall. An officer pulled my respirator off my face and threw it into the street and then pulled my helmet back so tightly that the fastened strap began to cut off my air supply. Our hands were immediately zip-tied tightly behind our backs, and I was unable to breathe or remove my helmet. I tried in vain to choke out the words — “I can’t breathe.” A photographer next to me noticed and loudly said to an officer behind us, “You need to take off his helmet, he’s choking.” The officer looked at him, then at me, and said “I can’t hear you” and walked away. 
I was eventually able to use the wall next to me to nudge my helmet back onto my head. Now able to speak, I turned to the officer in charge and asked, “Am I under arrest?” His reply was: “Shut up, mother------.” 
The SWAT officers then yanked us onto our feet and walked us toward a police van. As we were being shoved into the van, the officer in charge stopped us. “All of you dumbasses are going to jail tonight. Stupid mother-------.” Then he turned to one of the other officers and said: “Throw these stupid b------ on the van.”
Everyone who censured Melissa Click should be equally loud in denouncing the actions of these St. Louis Police officers (arguably, they should be more emphatic -- there is special danger in such assaults on the free press occurring under color of law -- but I'll settle for "equally"). They won't, of course. As always, free speech has many fair-weather friends, and in a world where a guy can body slam a journalist and then cruise into the House of Representatives it's hard to speak of the health of our commitment to an open press.

But principles are principles, even in their breach. Sometimes, the "muscle" is a wild-eyed academic thinking she's "protecting" student activists. Sometimes, it's police officers claiming to be "protecting" the streets. Both are contemptible. But there's no doubt that only one will become a national story.

No comments: