Looks like police in Ferguson, Missouri, took it upon themselves to suspend the First Amendment last week.
It seems two reporters, Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, were working at a McDonald’s, which has been used as a staging ground by reporters covering the ongoing unrest following the Aug. 9 police shooting of an unarmed African-American man. According to their accounts, the two were accosted by police, some in militaristic riot gear, demanding identification and ordering them out. These officers refused to provide their badge numbers or names or a reason for the order and grew angry when one of the men attempted to take a video.
Both reporters were arrested. Reilly says a cop intentionally banged his head against the glass on the way out of the restaurant, then gave him a facetious “apology.”
The two were transported to a lockup. No mug shots were taken, no fingerprints collected, no paperwork done. After some minutes, they were released. The men were told they’d been arrested for “trespassing.”
At a McDonald’s. Where they were customers.
“Apparently, in America, in 2014,” tweeted Lowery, “police can manhandle you, take you into custody, put you in a cell and then open the door like it didn’t happen.”
Actually, both men had been treated with a heavy-handedness and official contempt that are apparently all too familiar to black people in Ferguson – and to black and poor people of whatever tribe all over America. In arresting reporters for reporting, Ferguson police raise a pressing question: Just what are they trying to hide?
The same night Reilly and Lowery were handcuffed, after all, a local alderman who had posted video of the protests to social media was arrested. All last week we had reports of news photographers being ordered to stop taking pictures and reporters being tear-gassed. One officer reportedly took a TV camera and pointed it to the ground. Add to this police refusal until six days after the incident to name the officer who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, and the picture that emerges is not one of transparency.
At least three witnesses have now disputed the official version of what happened, the tale of how Brown inexplicably shoved a police officer back inside the officer’s car, and they wrestled for the officer’s gun. One witness, Dorian Johnson, says he was walking in the street with Brown toward Brown’s grandmother’s apartment when the officer, who was in his car, commanded them to “get the eff” out of the street. The street in question, to judge from television images, is a quiet one. We’re not talking Broadway at rush hour.
Johnson says the officer reached out of the car and grabbed Brown and the struggle ensued, the two men wrestling through the car window as a shot was fired. Then the officer got out. Another witness, Tiffany Mitchell, says Brown had broken away and was facing the officer with hands up when he was shot.
Let us hope that between the time of this writing and the time of your reading, the fighting in the streets of Ferguson is done. It makes no sense to compound tragedy with tragedy.
But let us also understand: The mere restoration of order is not the same as peace.
If events in Ferguson prove nothing else, they prove the status quo of police harassment and no accountability is untenable and intolerable. And what happened to these two reporters should be instructive to those whose reflex in such matters is to accord police the benefit of even overwhelming doubt.
Such people might want to reconsider. If this is how some cops behave when the whole world is watching, can you imagine what they’re like when the whole world is not?
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize winner and is a columnist for the Miami Herald.