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Photo: Press Freedom + Constitutional Right > Police Attacking Journalist/Credit: Hollywood Insider
Since the beginning of the US-wide protests following George Floyd’s murder by the police in Minneapolis, MN, there has been at least 430 aggressions against the press during the Black Lives Matter protests as reported by US Press Freedom Tracker (data from June 15, 2020). 395 of the physical attacks and assault on press members reporting on the events were by police forces, in the form of rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, batons, direct physical assault, and arrests.
The documentation of a number of these attacks have been widely circulated, with the arrest of the CNN news crew on live TV while covering the protests becoming the most recognizable representation of the current climate regarding press freedom. As a consequence of the attacks, many reporters and journalists were injured, with some sustaining permanent bodily damage, becoming the subjects of the same police violence they were trying to cover, like Linda Tirado who lost the use of her left eye after being shot by Minneapolis police (Photo too graphic to post). Data on the attacks are publicly available.
Analysis of the incidents by The Guardian and Bellingcat clearly indicate the atrocities on the press that took place were not one-off or accidental with the journalists getting in the way of the police. The numbers as well as the collected data and video footage of the attacks prove the “systematic and conscious repression” of the press at [the protests,] in cities all across the country.
It seems clear that the members of the press were not prepared for these kinds of attacks, neither physically nor mentally, as they expressed their disbelief about their treatment both during and after being attacked, some reporting that they have felt safer reporting from war zones compared to their experiences during the protests. For many, what took place was unprecedented, unexpected, and unfathomable.
Moreover, in many instances, police members showed little to no concern regarding being captured on camera, even though their actions were clear violations of the constitutional right that comes with the First Amendment with regards to press freedom, the right to express or disseminate information without censorship or fear of reprisal from the government. Press freedom is also a fundamental human right protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, making the attacks not only unconstitutional but also a human rights violation.
How then are we to make sense of these attacks, which show an utter abuse by the police regarding the violation of fundamental rights, and what do they tell us about the current political moment in the US? Attacks on press freedom take place all over the world and media freedom deteriorates as democracies continue on their steady decline and authoritarian and populist regimes gain power. Freedom Press’ 2017 report had indicated that only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoy free press, meaning, “a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.”
The downward spiral of press freedom since then must have brought down that percentage even further.
After the events of the last couple of weeks, one can safely say that the US will see a significant move downward on global press freedom rankings. This moment provides another hit to US and Western exceptionalist thinking, showing that dangers to institutions of liberal democracy are not too far from home. It is important to recognize that what we currently witness is not the arrival of something completely novel, but the ultimate boiling point, the unleashing of tendencies already present before the protests, now let loose.
Can the USA still claim greatness when press freedom does not exist anymore?
Journalists reporting from authoritarian states were already aware of the seriously compromised and diminished protection of a press pass. It has been established that there is a direct reverse correlation between the authoritarianism of a state and how much press freedom there is. Now things are coming back home, and the authoritarian flare of the current government becomes all the more visible in the last weeks, where attacks on the press more than doubled the total numbers of 2019 within three weeks. With insight from the global developments, we’ll try to give a coherent interpretation of what’s going on.
NBC’s Ed Ou was pepper sprayed, hit with a baton and projectile fired by police in Minneapolis. Here’s what he looked like after the incident (Photo credit: Chandan Khanna/AFP) https://t.co/JZGn9F5Q5V pic.twitter.com/ZvSKxGC5FX
— Jeremy Diamond (@JDiamond1) June 3, 2020
Canadian photojournalist Ed Ou reflects on the power of the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis and his experience being attacked by police. pic.twitter.com/E0w4KDSL9N — CBC News: The National (@CBCTheNational) June 10, 2020
Why do the State and its forces repress press freedom?
One of the recurring sources of the repression of press freedom is the government’s desire to hold on to information about its secret operations, involving barring from public view facts that are proof of failure to protect lives, corruption, and targeting of civilian groups and individuals that have a strong voice against systematic oppression. The case of the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, exposing both the government knowledge that the Vietnam war would cost more lives than the public had been told and its campaign of systematically lying to and misleading the public with regard to US involvement in Vietnam, is one of the most famous examples of how the government tried to hide vital information and its attempts to create and control public knowledge and narrative. Daniel Ellsberg, the journalist behind the reports, was initially charged with conspiracy, espionage and theft of government property. In more recent history, we have seen how harshly whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were punished for disclosing information about the government’s extensive surveillance programs and the nature of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of Guantanamo Bay, respectively.
US policing institution evolved out of slave patrols, to uphold state power and property and control the working class and the poor
The kind of repression of press freedom we see on the streets today is of a different kind, however, not unrelated. Video evidence as well as written reports by journalists show how the police attacked the press, either in order to block their ability to cover the protests, or, what sometimes simply seems to be out of direct animosity towards the institution of the media. Before going on to a more detailed analysis, it is important to note the historical function of the police has not been to defend human rights, but to protect and uphold state power and property and control the working class and the poor. In the US, this function was intrinsically wedded to that of slavery, as some of the primary policing institutions evolved out of slave patrols tasked with chasing who ran away back to captivity and preventing riots by the enslaved. During Reconstruction, the primary function of the police was to enforce segregation and the disenfranchisement of freed slaves.
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Police just raided the gas station we were sheltering at. After shouting press multiple times and raising my press card in the air, I was thrown to the ground. Then another cop came up and peppered sprayed me in the face while I was being held down. pic.twitter.com/23EkZIMAFC
— Michael Anthony Adams (@MichaelAdams317) May 31, 2020
This month, a journalist yelled “I’m Press” – Police officer (thug) replied – “I Don’t Care” (About press freedom)
Back to today. A journalist is recorded trying to defend himself against the approaching police officer, telling him loudly “I’m press,” to be then replied by the officer, “I don’t care.” A world of information is present in this short sentence. Why doesn’t the police care whether someone is a member of the press and feels both comfortable and justified to proceed with the attack? On the most general level, someone doesn’t have to “care” for going along with their assumed responsibilities when they have a secure belief that they will not be held accountable for their transgression. On the one hand, one can argue that this belief is based upon the qualified immunity that the police enjoy. On the other, it goes beyond it. The reason lies in the militarized form that policing has taken in the 21st century, backed by a “law and order” president that not only disregards but condones and glorifies violence.
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The outcome is a police force that behaves like an invading army, an occupying force (and for the residents of poor, Black and Brown neighborhoods that are heavily policed, they indeed are), who see the “other side” as the enemy, thus as legitimate targets that stand in their way. With regards to the specificity of the attacks against the press, we witness a clear intimidation strategy, as well as a non-verbal proclamation that this is their streets. This is most apparent when press members, who are technically essential workers and therefore exempt from curfew regulations, are arrested for being outside after the declared curfews. This is not simply about dispersing crowds; it’s about controlling the territory with their physical omnipresence.
Related article: Unsung Heroes Series: We Refuse To Forget 15-Year-Old Black Revolutionary Claudette Colvin, Whose Refusal To Stand Up Inspired Rosa Parks Protest – Claudette is one of the original heroes of the black lives matter movement.
British photographer Adam Gray arrested in New York while taking photos of street protests. Showed his press pass, but thrown to the ground by cops, who climbed on top of him while handcuffing him. Charged with unlawful assembly. “The whole time that I was being arrested… pic.twitter.com/b1yxyePIEs
— Roy Greenslade (@GreensladeR) June 1, 2020
VIDEO: Listen to me yell “I’m press” at officers as they started to use pepper spray on demonstrators. They sprayed me in my face and covered my phone. Shortly after, I was thrown to ground my an officer I bumped into. pic.twitter.com/Z6JJ79TSdY — Andrew Ringle (@aeringle) June 22, 2020
US Police Officers Have Been Handed Power That Trumps Rights and Responsibilities
The officers caught on camera seemed fully aware of their transgression, but the codes regulating “normalcy” have already been broken for them. The police on the streets of the cities of the US feel endowed with a power that trumps rights and responsibilities, a power the limit of which they believe they get to define. At this point, it would be hard to say that the principles behind the right to free press is a factor they weigh in their calculations. Welcome to the nightmare that the poor and racialized subjects of capitalism have been going through for decades if not centuries: the “protectors” of the law, the forces of “security,” are entitled to make the decision between “caring” and not giving a f*ck.
By intimidating the press, by putting the doubt in the journalists’ minds whether it would be worth risking personal injury by covering the protests, the police are trying to take hold over a most valuable possession: the truth. They are not trying to hide the truth about their acts (remember Derek Chauvin’s nonchalance while being recorded as he slowly murdered George Floyd), but to control who gets to say (and show) what, when and why. They want to be the authoritative final voice about their deeds.
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The Police Force sees press freedom as their enemy
This is why it was strange to see the Police Union press conference on June 9 where Mike O’Meara complained of being portrayed as “animals and thugs” by the media. The heated plea rang uncanny with the word choice; as that is the representation of Black people that the police have and express when they target Black protestors (mainstream media is not entirely innocent of this either). In a surprising reversal of roles, the police now find themselves, with a sharp panic, at their seat, as people watch their brutality with no filter. No wonder the police see the media as an enemy. They want to have their cake and eat it too: Both have unrestrained use of violence and be perceived as the good guys. So begins another vicious circle, as they ramp up the violence to retaliate against their portrayals of being violent.
Can the United States of America still claim to be great while police attacks journalists, press freedom and the U.S. Constitution?
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