I’m off the grid today – an August dog day, as it were – so rather than pretend that I can operate at full cognition, I’ll instead suggest you read this piece about Ferguson. Because it deftly connects the dots about a police town at war with the First Amendment.
The debate about the circumstances of Michael Brown’s death will continue for months. I look forward to hearing how an armed cop felt that his life was imperiled even after repeatedly shooting an unarmed teen who was 35 feet away. (Under prevailing legal standards, the cop’s actions might not pass muster.) But almost as troubling is the police reaction to the journalists who’ve had the temerity to do their jobs, and to members of the public who’ve had the gall to record the cops’ militarization.
Key passages from the piece I’ve recommended:
Police repeatedly ordered protesters to turn off cameras and cell phones recording law enforcement. In response, the ACLU of Missouri had to go into court to seek an emergency agreement reminding the police that photographing them is a constitutionally protected right. Roving SWAT teams, perplexingly, raided a McDonald’s and arrested two journalists engaged in the suspicious act of recharging their phones. Police aimed tear gas canisters directly at members of the press. A local news crew caughtpolice riding up afterwards and disassembling another crew’s media equipment…
Each of these tactics [including the arrest of a photojournalist who dared stray from the distant “press pen”; including a dubious “no standing” rule, under which police threatened the arrest of anyone who stood still for more than five seconds] is an unconstitutional restriction on the rights of speech and assembly in its own right. But this constantly changing whirlwind of restrictions further deepens the constitutional sinkhole Ferguson has become. When residents are bewildered as to when, where, and how they can gather and speak without risking arrest, that uncertainty itself casts a shadow of intimidation and self-censorship across the right of free speech. And of course, that uncertainty is often happening at the business end of a high-powered rifle.
So why, especially in light of our strong First Amendment traditions regularly upheld by the courts, has Ferguson discarded the First Amendment? Perhaps it’s because the stakes are so high.
The more news and images we see streaming out of Ferguson, the more we have visceral evidence of the systemic problems of race, inequality, militarization and an us-versus-them cop mentality that are fueling continued protest and righteous outrage. And the more we know about Ferguson, the more concern we should have. An astoundingly non-diverse police department. Financial incentives to over-enforce minor infractions. Charging a victim of police brutality for getting blood on officers’ clothing. These aren’t mere anecdotes. They are threads in the fabric of a truth we the people have a right – a duty – to reveal and unravel.
And despite the cops’ most censorious efforts, all ultimately will be revealed.
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