The death of the Fairness Doctrine and the consolidation of media have left us in a sorry place. Newspapers are on the decline and we haven’t yet figured out how, exactly, electronic media will fill the void. We live in an age rife with communication possibilities, yet our ability to obtain actual news through conventional sources is increasingly stunted. Narratives have been created that are trotted out when they’re needed, to ensure stories are reported in line with the pre-approved narrative. Nowhere has this been more visible than in the coverage of the events still unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri.
An unarmed black teenager was shot repeatedly by a police officer and killed. His body was left for hours in the road in the hot sun. That much we know for sure. The members of his community were outraged by the young man’s death, and began protesting. The police responded to the outrage with a show of paramilitary equipment, tear gas, and violence. The media didn’t cover the story much at all for the first couple of days, but when the protests and the militarized response continued, the media couldn’t ignore it any longer.
That’s when the narrative kicked in. Whenever a young black man is killed, he’s put on trial for his own death. We saw it in the case of Trayvon Martin. We’re seeing it again in the death of Michael Brown. Eyewitness reports do not match the police story. A video was put out that purports to show the teen stealing some cheap cigars. The outrage! The horror! Suddenly the honor student became a thug and a thief and deserved the death penalty for his crimes. This is not a narrative that would ever be applied to a white kid, but hey, jury pools don’t taint themselves.
This story has unfolded for millions on Twitter. Some incredible people are on the ground in Ferguson, tweeting out the news as it happens. Several nights last week I was up till the wee hours, watching videos of a SWAT team arresting a couple of reporters at a McDonalds. St. Louis Alderman Antonio French was arrested one night. If there is ever a Pulitzer for tweeting, it should go to Antonio French, whose level-headed tweets have kept us informed about events almost as soon as they happened.
Sending in MRAPs and battle clad SWAT teams in to respond to an angry community was a declaration of war, right from the beginning. A highly militarized white police force waging war on unarmed black citizens. If you’ve been watching the news coverage, you know that the black folks of Ferguson aren’t getting the same sort of reverent coverage that Cliven Bundy received. We saw footage of armed thugs pointing weapons at law enforcement – and that was presented by the media as a sort of patriotism. That Cliven Bundy is essentially a welfare rancher who refused to pay his bills was not the story that was told. Black folks fighting back against injustice? Well, now, that’s covered as violent thugs burning and looting. That young black men stood in front of stores to prevent looting was not shown on your teevee news.
You haven’t seen the story of Kajieme Powell. Kajieme Powell was shot about 10 times by Ferguson police on Tuesday night. After they killed him, they handcuffed him. Several other police cars appeared, and other officers got pretty angry with folks who witnessed the killing. The police said that he was coming at them menacingly with a knife. They didn’t bother with pepper spray or a taser. They just pumped him full of lead. Kajieme Powell was known locally as someone with learning disabilities. An observer made a video on his phone of the entire sequence of events. The story the police tell is not the one that the video tells. You should watch the video. It’s disturbing and instructive.
A great deal of attention has been given to the increasing militarization of police departments. They get grants from the Dept. of Homeland Security to purchase military gear, like MRAPs; mine resistant ambush protected armored vehicles, built to withstand IEDs. Those are the big tank-like vehicles we see in the coverage of Ferguson, with camo clad officers peeking out from the top, guns trained on the crowd. Less attention has been given to the militarization of police training, which is equally, if not more important. If we train cops to be a paramilitary force instead of peace keepers, we get cops who view civilians as the enemy and are untroubled by using the tools of war to subdue the citizenry.
The drumbeat goes on about looting, because property is always more important than lives, especially black lives. We saw it in the aftermath of Katrina. People had no water or food. White folks foraged. Black folks looted. The best coverage of what is going on in Ferguson can be found in The Guardian (UK) and Al-Jazeera (America) and the twitter feed of folks like Antonio French, Wesley Lowery, and Elon James White. What you see on Morning Joe is cattle by-product. What you see on the nightly news is no better.
If the events in Ferguson were happening in another country, we’d be looking at them with scorn and a tinge of superiority. Instead, the Ferguson police kicked out a group of observers from Amnesty International a few nights ago. They’ve arrested journalists and cameramen. The police teargassed a news team from Al Jazeera. If this is how they behave when the whole world is watching, imagine what they do the rest of the time?