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Press freedom in Ferguson: Is this 1964 or 2014?

By Bob Butler
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Butler worries about arrests of two journalists covering the protests in Ferguson
  • Local police wearing full combat gear detained reporters at a McDonald's
  • Butler: What planet are these police officers on? Where did they get their training?

Editor's note: Bob Butler is the President of the National Association of Black Journalists and a freelance reporter for KCBS Radio in San Francisco. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Fifty years ago, America's living rooms were interrupted with images of peaceful protesters in Selma or Washington or Chicago being bitten by police dogs, sprayed with fire hoses and pummeled by batons.

Fifty years later, Americans again are witnessing similar images, this time from Ferguson, Missouri, near St. Louis. The shooting death of Michael Brown and the subsequent police clampdown on protests in 2014 is frighteningly similar to how law enforcement treated civil rights marchers and the media in 1964. This time, their tools are stun grenades and assault weapons.

Bob Butler
Bob Butler

And again, the press is not just the witness, we have also become the victims.

Wesley Lowery, a reporter from the Washington Post who just accepted the National Association of Black Journalists' Emerging Journalist Award, and Ryan J. Reilly of the Huffington Post, were camped out in a local McDonald's, simply recharging their phones and laptops, when several St. Louis County police officers dressed in full combat gear decided -- allegedly for safety reasons -- they had to go.

When Reilly and Lowery apparently did not move fast enough, they were arrested. They were released a short time later without charges.

Yes, law enforcement officers from America's heartland, sworn to protect American citizens -- black and white -- apparently saw it necessary to defy the first amendment by arresting reporters who were simply doing their jobs. And that is wrong.

2014, meet 1964.

Fifty years ago, the mainstream media failed miserably because its virtually all-white reporting corps did not have the life experience to explain the reasons behind the protest marches. And stories of the attacks on protesters too often were told from the viewpoint of the police.

This created an atmosphere of distrust and hostility and eventually it became unsafe for white reporters to venture into the black community.

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So media companies responded by hiring Black reporters to cover what became known as the "Long, Hot Summer" of 1967 -- where more than 100 race riots rocked the United States. By the way, that decision eventually led to the creation of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Fast-forward to 2014, when a police officer fired on an unarmed Brown -- who reportedly had his hands raised in surrender. He died of multiple gunshot wounds. The community erupted.

Ferguson police brought in St. Louis County Police to investigate the shooting and to handle the protests. And then all hell broke loose.

Wednesday night, the police used tear gas, smoke bombs and stun grenades to break up what reporters described as a peaceful crowd. Perhaps they were too busy with their assault weapons and tactical vehicles to get around to the dogs and fire hoses.

I have covered dozens of protests. I have always worn my press credentials. I have experienced the acrid, sweet smell of tear gas during the Occupy Oakland demonstrations in 2013. Police have manhandled me. Yet, I have never been arrested.

What planet are these police officers on? Where did they get their training? In what manual is it spelled out that it's OK to arrest and manhandle peaceful demonstrators, much less exhausted reporters simply trying to file their stories and recharge the cell phones at a McDonald's?

Journalists are there to report on the protests. We document those people who break into Foot Locker and beauty supply stores for whatever reason. We report on those protesters who bring backpacks filled with bottles, rocks, hammers and spray paint cans, as well as those who march peacefully through the streets to bring attention to a perceived injustice.

We also report on police behavior, some of which does not always comply with their own police policy. During Occupy Oakland, reporters documented violations of police procedure. The police department later used our reporting as justification for re-training officers.

We can't do our jobs if the police look at us the same as a guy wearing a ski mask throwing rocks. We can't do our job if we are arrested for shooting video of police behavior.

And one note to the St. Louis County Police: You do not have the right to tell reporters to turn off their video cameras. Read the law, please.

What is happening in Ferguson is disturbing for many reasons.

Forget that the police in Ferguson used chemical weapons and blunt force to break up a peaceful demonstration. Forget that Reilly and Lowery were released without charges after being detained. They also said they had been roughed up. Their arrests should send chills up and down the backs of every citizen ... and news manager.

If the police felt it was OK to arrest two reporters for not moving fast enough, you can only imagine how they are treating the residents of Ferguson when the reporters are not there and the cameras are not recording.

This is America in 2014. We can do better.

Complete coverage on the Ferguson shooting and protests

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