Just after 1:00 AM on Aug. 19, there was a moment of panic when law enforcement on West Florissant Avenue—the flashpoint of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri—corralled journalists into their designated “playpen.”
Protesters seeking cover from the cops fled into the swarm of photographers. A standoff followed as, for half an hour, the press and the police stared at each other across the street, neither camp knowing quite what to do.
Several photographers standing next to me put on gas masks. It seemed possible the police might fire military-grade tear gas into our group, even if we were press. Cops already have arrested 14 journalists in Ferguson.
But last night the police demurred. They seem to have figured out—albeit a bit late—that all those beautiful photos of peaceful protesters in shrouds of harmful smoke were making law enforcement look bad.
Eventually officers—wielding shotguns with LESS LETHAL stamped on their stocks—stormed into the press area and made several arrests, dragging protesters out before handcuffing them face-down on the ground.
The fatal shooting of 18-year-old Ferguson man Michael Brown by a St. Louis county policeman on Aug. 9 elicited outrage, provoked mass demonstrations and police brutality … and drew an army of journalists to the suburban community, population 21,000.
News crews from Germany, France, Japan, Russia and the Middle East are here. On Aug. 19 there were more journalists on the streets than actual protesters. Many of the reporters wore military-style flak jackets and helmets, whether or not they actually needed such protection.
The militarization of local law enforcement has put heavy weaponry into the hands of poorly-trained police in Ferguson and across America. Escalation of force has been a problem during the protests—the cops are struggling to know how tough to get, and when.
The media have complicated this problem. The police utterly were baffled by the herds of journalists on the streets on Aug. 19.
Authorities permitted most media to stand in place, but ordered protesters to keep moving down the sidewalk. Generally, the cops treated journalists and protesters with respect.
But there were exceptions, including a nasty confrontation between a young blogger and a policeman armed with an M-16.
Ferguson is fertile ground for reporters. But there’s pressure for some journalists steadily to broadcast content for hours. During the lulls, some reporters silently hope for the tear gas to start flying. Audiences presumably are hoping for the same thing.
Ultimately the police cordoned the street, moving protesters and journalists south in one big group. Floodlights from a helicopter trained on the crowd until it finally thinned out onto side streets.
“Same time, same place tomorrow,” some of the protestors said before they got in their cars and went home.