The biggest failure among all parties involved in the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, this week did not appear to stem from racism or the hyper-militarization of police, but a failure of communication. Police changed the rules about what actions would be permitted and where they could take place so frequently that even the most law-abiding citizens could not keep up.
The journalistic malpractice most widespread among media in Missouri, on the other hand, has been a failure to adequately and accurately represent the situation on the ground. The mob of protesters that gathered in Ferguson for several nights also had no direction, and the self-appointed leaders have shown little ability to control the masses when things have gotten heated or violent.
During the past week, officers changed the rules about how protesters could demonstrate and where they were allowed to do so without much warning. Some days protesters were allowed to run wild through the streets, but other days people were not allowed to stand still in a McDonald’s parking lot at 2 p.m. when the restaurant was still open. Some officers admitted to National Review Online that they did not know the plan for containing the large protests as they were developing, and were not sure which roads would be closed nor when the closures would happen.
When police advanced on protesters early Monday morning and appeared to be firing tear gas indiscriminately in the direction of any person who could not be identified as law enforcement, one officer returned from the scene of the altercation visibly frustrated. He told me he was confused about why police moved forward when they could not see protesters they believed to be hiding from them with weapons. “If it was my decision, we wouldn’t have even f****** gone down there,” the officer told me at the time. Police officers failed to communicate effectively with protesters, media, or each other.
Media in Missouri have consistently failed to provide necessary, accurate, and adequate context. Hours after first reporting live from Ferguson on Monday night, a CNN anchor stood near the center of a tense standoff between police and protesters and rushed to portray the developments as an excessive use of force by police.
“Now I want you to look at what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri, in downtown America, okay?” Jake Tapper said. “These are armed police, with machine — not machine guns — with semi-automatic rifles, with batons, with shields, many of them dressed for combat. Now why they’re doing this? I don’t know because there is no threat going on here — none that merits this. There is none, okay?” Tapper went on to acknowledge violence had occurred in the spot where he stood on previous nights, but he insisted nothing happening at that moment warranted the response.
But moments before Tapper’s live shot, protesters stood in the street hurling things at police. Regardless of whether police needed to arrive on scene looking like soldiers, the context of what had just happened was relevant and necessary. If the anchor had stood in the same spot the previous night at approximately the same time, he would have been hit with tear gas fired by police in response to protesters’ attacks.
At times, reporters with nothing to report seemed to want to provoke an altercation with police. While police restrictions on journalists sometimes did seem unreasonable and inconvenient, some journalists sought to get arrested after reporters from the Huffington Post and The Washington Post were arrested earlier in the week. Two photographers directly defied police orders to keep walking on West Florissant Street Monday afternoon and were arrested. An officer told me they failed to continue walking after repeated requests made by police officers. If the men had taken a few steps in any direction, or paced back and forth, they would likely not have had any problem. The idea that police were targeting media for arrest is largely false. It was possible to cover the events in Ferguson without getting arrested.
The mob of protesters that gathered in the streets for several nights functioned without any formal leadership and this allowed the anger among protesters to grow unchecked for quite some time. When drive-by activists such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton arrived in town, they did little to provide guidance or communicate a message of peace. Instead, a Sharpton-led rally on Sunday whipped some protesters into frenzy before opening the doors of Greater Grace Church and sending people back into the streets of Ferguson. The crowd inside the church was so raucous that one light fell and hung loose in the balcony. When protesters mobbed the streets, riding on the tops of cars and screaming “F*** the police,” Jackson and Sharpton were nowhere to be found. One group of protesters sitting in a parking lot appeared disenfranchised and complained that they had not seen Jackson on West Florissant Street marching with the people. Jackson did appear at the protests in Ferguson, but he stayed away from the center of the protests where the scene appeared most confrontational.
Some misconceptions appear prevalent among all parties involved in the Ferguson protests. Media, police, and protesters have referred to the protests and protesters as peaceful, but this does not appear appropriate. While the protests often devolved into violence at night, the protests during the day were not peaceful either — they were non-violent. Protesters who blocked the streets, shouted obscenities at police, and rode erratically down the street presented a danger to others around them could hardly be characterized as peaceful. And while police gathered in the streets in an intimidating show of force and some officers threatened me with arrest and shot tear gas in my direction in the press parking lot, most officers were personable with reporters and several sought out pleasant interactions with demonstrators. Perhaps police knew they needed to appear welcoming in the presence of reporters, but much of their conduct did not seem as threatening as it was portrayed by many in the media. The police did not appear to be rounding up and arresting journalists just for the sake of doing so.
As the investigation into Michael Brown’s death moves forward, all parties will need to choose their words wisely. Even after the protests shrank in number in recent days, a group of protesters who all identified themselves as Mike Brown told me they do not view this as a black and white racial issue, but instead said, “Police [are] their own race and they hate blacks.” The men said police needed to leave and let the protesters take over and settle the matter on their own. While police may finally have gained control of Ferguson and prevented mob rule, the large and violent protests could still return. In order to prevent the violent protests from recurring in Ferguson and elsewhere across the country, people on all sides of the issue — including media — will need to be proactive and work to avoid raising the tension.
— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.