Skip to main content

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.

Highway patrol to lend Ferguson security
Police tactics in question at US protests
Obama: Now is the time for peace, healing

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

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT