How Police Are Keeping Journalists From Doing Their Jobs in Ferguson

Two National Journal reporters were threatened with arrest and repeatedly blocked from witnessing demonstrations in Ferguson late Wednesday night.

FERGUSON, Mo. —"I want to get you out of here," a St. Louis County police officer tells me and my colleague Reena Flores as we try to walk down the sidewalk to cover Wednesday night's protests for National Journal.

"No," I reply.

"Come forward please for your safety," he says again.

"Where would we be going?" asks Reena Flores, a video journalist for National Journal.

"You're not going anywhere. I want to take you out of here. Do you want out?" he asks more forcefully. We weren't in obvious danger: No rubber bullets were flying through the air, and we couldn't hear or see the protest.

"No," says Flores. "We want to get to the protests." We had identified ourselves as members of the press in an earlier conversation with these officers.

"We're willing to take you out if you want me to get you to safety," he says.

"No, that's OK. We're fine."

This was the third time police had blocked us from trying to get to West Florissant Avenue, the main artery that cuts through Dellwood and Ferguson and where people had been protesting since Saturday, when 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer. Later, when we finally got there, we were threatened with arrest.

"The whole situation is not good at this point," Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said early Thursday, saying that the police would look to change their tactics going forward. "We need everybody to tone it down," he said.

Police had used intimidation, threats of arrest, and claims of impending violence to keep us away from covering the news.

At one point, police tried to tell us that the demonstration was over when it wasn't.

"Where's this demonstration supposed to be at now?" a St. Louis County police officer asked us earlier, after he blocked us from accessing Florissant Avenue at the intersection of Canfield Drive. "It's all pretty much gone."

"That's not what we heard," I said, again identifying myself and Flores as journalists.

And if the protests were indeed finished, Flores interjected, "Can we go through then?"

"We just want to walk down the street." I said. "That's all we're asking to do."

Another officer asked us to wait and called a supervisor. After a few minutes, he came back and told us this was a "hot zone" and that he couldn't guarantee our safety. We thanked him and said that we didn't expect him to, and yet we still wanted to reach the protest site. He said we couldn't walk down the street and that we would have to get there some other way.

"What would happen if we walked down the street?" Flores asked.

"You're not going to walk down the street. If you insist on going down here, and you want to disobey the orders of the police that have been given to you, thoroughly and fairly, you'll most likely be placed under arrest."

"On what charges?" I ask.

"Disobeying the directions of a police officer," he answers.

At that point, we walked back toward the neighborhood—where we had climbed a fence to reach West Florissant Avenue because police had already blocked off every street and sidewalk—which is when police tried to push us away to somewhere "safe."

When we refused, an officer dressed in riot gear approached and discouraged us from walking back into the neighborhood.

"Are you familiar with this neighborhood?" he asked. Then he added, "We're telling you it's not safe for you to be in this neighborhood after dark."

This is what a media blackout looks like. Earlier in the day, officers in combat fatigues arrested Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly while they were sitting in a nearby McDonald's. They had been charging their cell phones, with Lowery tweeting responses to questions about the demonstrations, when police instructed them to leave the restaurant.

The sequence of events that followed is enough to make any reporter hesitant about entering the media-averse St. Louis County.

The Post journalist turned on his camera. And when he turned to grab his bags, multiple officers grabbed him, shoved him into the side of a soda dispenser, and took him into custody.

"That was when I was most afraid," Lowery wrote, after his release later that day. "More afraid than of the tear gas and rubber bullets."

Lowery and Reilly weren't the only journalists police harassed.

Photos, videos, and tweets showed police teargassing Al Jazeera reporters and then tampering with their camera equipment. There were several reports of journalists and their camera crews being told to leave protest areas.

I had never witnessed police treat journalists like this in the four years I worked as a crime reporter in South Florida. Some officers have tried to keep me away from crime scenes, but never stopped me from covering a story altogether.

It was also the first time I had ever felt afraid of a police officer. Flores and I felt far more afraid of them than we did of any protesters.

What the Ferguson police have done to journalists and demonstrators brings up First Amendment issues, said John Watson, a lawyer and a media law professor at American University in Washington.

"You generally have the right to view police as they do any of their official duties in public," he said. However, journalists cannot impede their efforts to perform these duties, he adds.

Using safety as a reason to stop journalists from covering a protest is a weak argument, said Watson, who previously worked as a journalist for 21 years. Police hostility is always highest when journalists are covering protests against something an officer has done, he says, such as the shooting of Michael Brown.

"This is a demonstration against police behavior and they see it as 'us against them.' That changes the dynamic," he said.

By the time Flores and I made it to the protest site late Wednesday night after four-and-a-half hours, police had dispersed most of the demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets. They were lining up a few protesters they had arrested when we arrived.

Flores filmed the scene from the sidewalk across the street. A group of police in riot gear and armed with rifles approached us and ordered us to leave.

"We're gonna put you under arrest if you don't leave the area. This is your final warning," an officer told us.

"We don't want to have to take you to jail but we definitely will, OK?" one said.

We didn't go to jail, we didn't get arrested, but we also didn't get the story.