The cops in Ferguson, Missouri, come across as a bunch of untrained, undisciplined bubbas, but that doesn't put the two reporters arrested in a McDonald's restaurant last night in the right.
These issues: The cops spoke first with the manager of the restaurant and then began to clear and shut down the restaurant, so we don't know if the manager acquiesced in the decision to clear the place. Probably he or she did agree to it.
If not, if it was a police decision alone to clear the place, the question whether the police have a right to shut down a restaurant is a good one for moot court in law school. But when the cops are dealing with a riot and they tell people to get out of a restaurant, everybody has to get out of the restaurant right now. Fast. Quick-step.
The reporters weren't asking the cops questions. They were arguing with them. "Please don't wave your gun at me." Oh, please. Shut up.
"You see me working," one reporter says.
Yeah? So what?
The cop says, "Let's go," and the reporter says, "I'm working on it." I'm working on it? You've got to be kidding me. The answer is, "Yes, sir." Feets don't fail me now.
Look, I argue with the cops at certain news scenes. I argued with them a couple months ago out in front of a car wash they were barricading for no good reason in South Dallas, but I was virtually the only person present. There was nothing going on, no action, no pressure on the cops to get things under control. They threatened to arrest me if I kept asking them why they were blockading the place. I said, "You got to do what you got to do."
Oh, wow, Mr. Wise-Ass, eh? But those circumstances afforded a little bit of wise-ass. By the way, that's what cops do, always, if you piss them off: They threaten to arrest you. If you piss them off enough, they do arrest you. Figure it out.
It's a judgment call on the part of a reporter in the middle of a police action, whether or not the circumstances allow the luxury of wise-ass. Last November when I covered protests outside the 50th anniversary at Dealey Plaza, a plainclothes cop told me to get out of his way. I was standing in his line of sight in the crowd and he wanted my position for himself. I asked if he was police. He said yes. I got the hell out of his way.
Things were happening, things were underway, the pressure was on the police to contain the situation right then and there. If you defy the police or impede them under those circumstances, I don't care if you've got a golden press badge on your chest, I don't care if you're the Prince of Wales with a crown on your head, they're going to clock you with a flashlight. That's just how it is.
The cop in one of the McDonald's videos asks the reporter for his ID and the reporter refuses to present it. Wrong answer, man. The question whether you can refuse to present ID when you're not doing anything is another good one for the moot court. If shit's happening, you give them the damned ID.
Out front of the car wash last June, we had a nice legal argument about my police press pass. I gave it to them. They told me it was expired. I may have been a bit of a jerk about it, possibly. I told them we make those stupid things ourselves at the Observer because right now in Dallas there is no such thing as an official police press pass. They asked to see my driver's license, so I gave it to them.
In a riot, I would have given them everything I had right away, the expired fake press pass and the driver's license along with a nice photo of my wife, right away, and I would have said, "I'm sorry officer, but the city is no longer issuing official press passes." No jerking around.
One reporter last night got his head bashed against a window when they were rousting him. Yup. The only way I know of in a roust not to get your head bashed or your pinkies mashed or plastic cuffs so tight you lose feeling in your hand for six months or forever is not to get rousted in the first place. Rousting is very imprecise.
My experiences, by the way, are penny ante. I have a friend who was in Afghanistan, not embedded with U.S. troops but on his own out on the road in some very bad mountains, when he got stopped at a checkpoint. My friend is a seasoned foreign and war correspondent. One look at the "police" at the checkpoint, and he knew he was dealing with police/drunk bandits. He was meek and mild and ready to offer gifts of cigarettes to one and all. Christmas came early in Afghanistan. Next car of reporters through the checkpoint, the "police" hauled them out of the car and shot them. No one knows why.
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I am not here defending the cops in Ferguson. Somebody gave them way too much Uncle Sam SWAT gear for Christmas and way too little training on how to use it. In other videotape, they fire tear gas at a film crew and then when the film crew runs off the cops go mess with their lights and cameras.
These are yahoos. These are undisciplined, out-of-control bubbas. But two things to say about that: One, undisciplined yahoos are very dangerous. Ask the people of Ferguson. If you snotty-voice defy them, you're going to get your head bashed against a window, just like everybody else on the street.
Secondly, more importantly, if you really want to stay out there and get the story, you need to signal in every way possible that you are not on a side, not for or against the people on either side. If you want to be treated as a neutral, act neutral. Way neutral. Act nice, in fact. Fake it.
The focus on the police treatment of media in Ferguson is interesting for what it tells us about the nature of that police department, but if we're supposed to stop and feel sorry for the reporters, then no. That's a huge swerve away from the real story.