The spectre of the U.S. Justice Department coming down on the First Amendment
rights of reporter James Risen should have been bad enough. (See my blog post on
But as the Asian American Journalists Association convened in Washington, DC
this week, the situation in Ferguson, Missouri was degrading further after the
shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of police.
It was like a double shroud over a convention intended to herald journalism and
And then came the news that two journalists in Ferguson had been detained by
The aggressive policing against a young African American like Brown is one very
But when police start going after reporters, a prevailing “cowboy law and order”
mentality is out of hand.
Reporters Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the
Huffington Post tweeted they were told to stop reporting and were taken into
Reilly was told that they were arrested for “not packing their bags quick
SWAT just invade McDonald’s where I’m working/recharging. Asked for ID when I
took photo. pic.twitter.com/FOIsMnBwHy — Ryan J.
Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 13,
Officers slammed me into a fountain soda machine because I was confused about
which door they were asking me to walk out of — Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery)
August 14, 2014
Both reporters have now been released.
But I know what it’s like to be detained.
It’s happened to me three times in my career, twice on foreign soil. In the
Philippines, I was carrying my video gear from the airport to cover the
assassination of Benigno Aquino over 30 years ago. The police stopped and
questioned me and also checked my gear. Then they let me go.
The other time was in Hong Kong, where I gave my pocket knife/key chain to a
Chinese security guard at a metal detector at a function with Chou En-lai and
Bill Clinton. It was pre-9/11, early in 2001. I thought I was being proactive by
removing my keys before entering the screening process.
Not so fast.
It was serious enough to make the HK tab, The Standard, which dubbed me the
I was held in a small room, questioned, and then released.
These incidents made me appreciate my role as a journalist here in the states.
That kind of stuff never happens here, right?
Just ask Lowery and Reilly.
Suddenly, there are roadblocks to freedom.
Still, that’s minor when compared to what happened to Michael Brown, who was
gunned down. He paid with his life.
I’ve lived in St. Louis, Missouri, and have always known it as a place where
segregation has evolved. But not by much.
And when it comes to race and law enforcement, it doesn’t surprise me at all if
the cops had a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude.
Your freedoms are robbed when the police officer has a gun and you don’t.
Recently in Kentucky, I nearly was arrested. I was at a rental car facility in
Hebron, and a routine visit turned into a major debate.
An incompetent manager wasn’t aware of a special code to make a change in my
reservation. But my battle over consumer rights became a civil rights one when
he told me to wait.
He then came back with two sets of policemen and their squad cars, ready to do
These were airport cops, but they had guns and badges and were duly deputized to
shoot me at their discretion.
I asked them what I had done and if I were under arrest.
They said I wasn’t. But they did want to see my ID.
They could have said “Let me see your papers.” I was brown, but they could tell
by my non-accent that I didn’t sneak in over the Ohio border.
The situation was right up to the line. I could see any “false” move I made
could be misinterpreted and seen as a threat. Or in their eyes, “disorderly.”
At this point, I was only the uppity Filipino, possibly a Chinese man, or as
they would say, an “Oriental.”
It was four versus one. And besides, they had guns. Their interpretation wins.
Of course, I could have refused to give them my ID. But what would that have
done? Raise suspicion of my knowledge of freedom and the constitution?
So I handed it over. But I did again ask for clarity: Was I under arrest?
The officer said no.
But I wasn’t going anywhere. I was detained.
After a quick check of my driver’s license, they didn’t arrest me. But they
escorted me by publicly-paid taxi—the squad car, where I sat in the back of the
cage–to another rental car place.
I wasn’t arrested; I was removed.
So I understand Ferguson. Any person of color especially should understand
Law and order too often likes to take it right up to the line.
Then, any little thing makes the wrong thing happen.
It shouldn’t be that way, as President Obama responded on Thursday.
“There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use
this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting,” Obama said.
“There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful
protesters or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First
Amendment rights,” he said in remarks broadcast from Edgartown, Massachusetts,
near the location where the president is vacationing.
But he was adamant about the reporters.
“Here in the United States of America,” said the president, “Police should not
be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and
report to the American people what they see on the ground.”
The president went on to remind us that “We are all part of one American family,
we are united in common values, and that includes belief in equality under the
Somehow after Ferguson, it just sounded hollow.
With Risen, the death of Michael Brown, the aftermath in Ferguson, and the
militaristic police actions, including the arrests of journalists, is there any
question the First Amendment is in more trouble than we imagined?