Last night, at least two journalists were arrested by local police in Ferguson, Missouri: Wesley Lowery, of the Washington Post, and Ryan J. Reilly, of the Huffington Post. Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, who had been reporting from the scene, was also arrested, for unlawful assembly. Both Lowery and Reilly were arrested reportedly while exercising their First Amendment rights to record the police in public. Both were later released without being charged. The hashtag #Ferguson lit up Twitter late into the night, at least for those who were watching; many users claimed #Ferguson was not showing up in their trending list or on their Facebook newsfeeds, and wondered whether Twitter or Facebook might suppressing the topic.
In recent years, witnesses’ video recordings and instantaneous, on-the-ground reporting have allowed the wider public to see public protests and confrontations from more than the official side. Recordings in particular can play a pivotal role in the pursuit of justice for victims of state brutality and coercion. Predictably, this has been an unwelcome development for police officers used to acting off the record, so to speak. Only last month, the man who videotaped Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police officers in Staten Island was arrested on charges of gun possession, which he has disputed, suggesting his arrest could be retribution for videotaping Garner’s murder.
Last night in Ferguson, several livestreams broadcast the scene on the ground while journalists and protestors tweeted updates on the deteriorating situation.
— Complex (@ComplexMag) August 12, 2014
— Jackie Summers (@jackfrombkln) August 13, 2014
— Michael Calhoun (@michaelcalhoun) August 14, 2014
— Chicago Sun-Times (@Suntimes) August 14, 2014
— Paul Szoldra (@PaulSzoldra) August 14, 2014
— Complex (@ComplexMag) August 14, 2014
Ferguson is yet another unconscionable chapter in the story of America’s police, and one long from over. The police force in Ferguson is 94 percent white (50 of 53 cops), while Ferguson itself is 67 percent Black. What began as nonviolent protests over the killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown, by a police officer whose name has not yet been released, has spun out into martial law in riot gear. Many local elected officials have pledged a visit to the city “first thing” this morning, and it will be interesting to hear the political response to the events of last night, and those of the past several days.
Ferguson represents a critical moment in deciding what kind of police force we want on our streets. Twitter and other social media have democratized information, and pre-discredited whatever official story Ferguson PD may offer up now. When a handful of cell phone videos is enough to reveal a pattern of institutionalized brutality, and unarmed Black teenage boys aren’t safe from the people whose job it is to protect them, something is deeply broken. We have seen the photos and videos from Ferguson and elsewhere. We have read the tweets. We cannot ignore what they have shown us.
Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.