Ferguson: a fascinating and troubling study of visual politics, race, the police, and the media

But these images aren’t coming from Egypt or the Gaza Strip or Ukraine. These are our own, homegrown documents of social unrest and they can’t, like images from more distant lands, be kept safely at bay.”

-Philip Kennicott, Washington Post

There’s a lot to unpack as the ordeal in Ferguson, Missouri, continues on. It will be a fascinating case study in visual politics, race theory, and media law once the dust settles. I’ve been following the news as best I can and have been fascinated to see just how much of it has played out through visuals, and primarily still photography. Pictures embedded in tweets, instagram posts, vine videos, and facebook posts going viral have quickly made the confrontation between the community and its police a national issue. Buzzfeed has gotten in on the coverage with the clickbaity post: 32 Powerful Images From Ferguson After The Death Of Michael Brown. There even appears to be a tweeted picture of Michael Brown laying dead on the ground, by user @TheePharaoh. As with everything in the media, especially twitter and other social media, it’s hard to verify everything.

I’d like to focus on a few main topics in relation to the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown, a young unarmed black man: the representation of black men in the media, the “Don’t shoot me” extended arms pose, the look of militarized police, and police targeting of reporters. I’m not the only one that thinks some of the pictures coming out of Fergus recall images from the Civil Rights struggle.

Before we get to that, make sure you take a look at the Whitney Curtiswork for the New York Times, Alex Welsh‘s work for Fader (UPDATE 20 August 2014: Fader has published another set of Welsh’s photos, Personal History: Photographer Alex Welsh Walks Through Ferguson ), and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s chronological big-picture page Ferguson in Photos (as well as the rest of their coverage).

Black Men in the Media

Early on as protesters gathered in Ferguson after the shooting, images of Michael Brown emerged which showed him flashing hand signals which might look like stereotypical gang signs and apparently involved in a robbery. The Drudge Report led with an image of Michael Brown flipping off a camera, for instance. The Daily Beast (they have a screenshot of the Drudge Report) and Deadspin (there’s more worth reading in the Deadspin piece, titled America is Not For Black People) have good analysis about the demonization of Michael Brown with pictures, as does BagNewsNotes.

Black men are usually portrayed negatively in the media (← pdf), and these images and stories create negative stereotypes in the public’s mind. Police have released images of Michael Brown during an apparent convenience store robbery, though some argue that a video shows he paid for the items. In any case, Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown did not know about the robbery at the time of the shooting. Nevertheless, a twitter hashtag campaign, #If They Gunned Me Down, takes a critical look at how black men are portrayed in the media after they’ve been killed. Users post two images of themselves, one usually looking angry or holding a gun and one in which they’re dressed for work or in military uniform. It’s a powerful reminder that image is just a snapshot into a person’s story and that even truthful images (a person actually did hold a gun) can be misrepresentative. There’s a collection of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown pictures at this tumblr, but I can’t vouch for whether it’s comprehensive or not. Look at the difference between how Michael Brown was shown after his death and the image used by some news stations after the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting.

Southern California Public Radio dug into the hashtag campaign (which has been widely covered) a bit and asked some of the tweeters which image they posted best represents them. Al Jazeera dug even further into the effort. Duckrabbit has a typically thoughtful post, leading with an image that looks like young black men ready for mayhem but who are in fact protecting a store in Ferguson.

On The Media’s coverage of Ferguson (although I haven’t heard this portmanteau elsewhere, they dub it Fergustan, a reference to the similarity of images coming from Ferguson and those coming from, for instance, Afghanistan) is also worth a listen, touching on the portrayal of black men in the media and comparing it to coverage after the killing of Trayvon Martin. Their analysis of Trayvon Martin coverage is also required listening if you’re interested in this stuff.

DCTV, a Washington DC public access channel, just hosted a thoughtful panel called “Changing Coverage of Black Males in the Media” for their 25th Anniversary, and the moderator penned a short editorial in the Washington Times: Redeeming the image of Black Men in the Media. The National Association of Black Journalists is also a great resource for these issues, and they have a helpful style guide addressing usage questions relating to coverage of African-American issues.

Don’t Shoot Me

One of the most frequent visual refrains in both coverage of the protests and activism surrounding the events is black men standing with their arms extended up, often with signs that say “Don’t Shoot Me.” Above, you can see an image that went viral of Howard University (a revered historically black school) students joining together in the pose. It recalls another image in which men in Howard’s Medical School posed in hoodies and in their white doctor coats after the killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent criticism of young black men in hoodies.

The Washington Post has an in-depth look at how the Howard University photo happened, as does MLive.com the hometown newspaper of one of the organizers, Howard University Student Association president Leighton Watson.

BagNewsNotes looks at other images of men in Ferguson with their arms raised, which can be seen repeatedly in most coverage of the situation (← those links all go to the same InFocus post, but there are similar images in every Ferguson gallery I’ve seen.).

Unarmed black men are killed by police far too often in this country. MSNBC ran this moving segment by Melissa Harris-Perry on the subject, which includes this harrowing statistic: “From 2006 to 2012, a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in [the US].”

The Militarization of American Police

Be aware that following these links might lead to a rabbit hole of libertarian or right-wing nuttery. The links here are worth looking at, but if you google, for instance, the Department of Education SWAT team (which may or may not exist; a DOE law enforcement raid happened, but DOE says it was not a SWAT team and not related to an unpaid student loan), all bets are off.

I’ve been following the militarization of American Police for some time. I first became aware of the issue in college when my university police force purchased machine guns. But it’s been going on for decades. This 1986 New York Times piece by Nicholas Kristof leads with the oft-repeated maxim that police need heavier fire power because the criminals have heavy fire power. In Ferguson, there have been molotov cocktails thrown and pistol fire. Police have responded with military-grade weapons: teargas, sniper rifles, shotguns, and machine guns.

The image above (Ferguson police on left) comes from a fascinating collection of tweets from American military veterans and their responses to images of police in Ferguson. The whole thing is worth a read (and there’s a note at the bottom that says some veterans say the equipment is appropriate for situation).

For at least a decade, local police departments have been given or purchased unused military equipment. The New York Times has a great piece about the phenomenon. Both Salon and The Intercept have well-researched pieces on the history of weaponizing police and how that squares with police violence across the US. It’s all come to a head in Ferguson. Check out the Daily Dot’s illustrated guide to Ferguson’s police equipment.

After the first few nights of police and protestor violence, the heavily armed St. Louis County police were replaced by Missouri Highway Patrol. The first pictures to come out after the switch were not of sniper rifles and SWAT vehicles but hugs and kisses between community members the Highway Patrol Captain and Ferguson native Ronald Johnson. The hugs and kisses didn’t last long. On Monday, National Guard troops were deployed to Ferguson and there’s been a nightly curfew imposed on the community.

Peaceful protestors were targeted with laser sights. Police fired the same tear gas used in Egypt and Palestine.

A conversation has started about whether or not local police should be given military equipment. As the veterans linked above noted, military gear and combative stances often heighten tensions between protestors and peacekeepers. Arming police with military gear often leads to more deadly police interactions. The Wire chronicles the recent history of police militarization and the rise of 1033 programs after September 11. The CATO Institute (warning, they’re a thinktank with an agenda and have been beating the political drum against police militarization for a long time) maintains a map of hundreds of botched police raids over the past three decades.

Also, read these two excerpts from the book Rise of the Warrior Cop published by Salon while you’re at it: “Why did you shoot me; I was Reading a Book,” and “Oh God I thought they were going to shoot me next.” The book is by a libertarian activist, but has been well received across the spectrum.

For a counterpoint, read this opinion article in today’s Washington Post: I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.

The Onion and Clickhole have two particularly noteworthy posts relating to the militarization of police, by the way – Police or Army: Who Wore it Best? and The Pros And Cons Of Militarizing The Police, which includes the classic line, “Local photojournalists now able to capture fog of war at home.”

Police vs. Media

“Here in the United States of America, 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.” -Barack Obama, Aug. 14, 2014

I first learned about the situation in Ferguson when a St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer was attacked by looters (note: “looter” is a loaded term). Since then, I haven’t seen any more reports of protestors/looters/community members interfering with reporters in Ferguson. Be sure to read Poynter’s piece on how the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is covering the story.

We’ve covered the war on cameras many times before. A number of journalists have been arrested or injured in Ferguson (one friend was hit by a rubber bullet or bean bag over the weekend). As far as I can tell, no journalists have been charged with any crimes. Instead, they are interrupted from doing their jobs, taken away from the news event handcuffs, and detained for a few hours. The Poynter Institute has been keeping a running tally of journalists arrested in Ferguson.

The police continue to interfere with reporters and photographers trying to report the news in Ferguson. If you read no other links on this subject, read that last one from Vox. Here it is again.

Last week, it got so bad that President Obama weighed in on the subject, saying police shouldn’t harass reporters. Countless media organizations have written to the authorities in St. Louis and Missouri condemning the police’s actions against reporters and asking for freedom to operate in the area. On Aug. 15, 2014, a court order was signed that reinforces the right of the public and the press to record and photograph public events as they happen (embedded below):

But that court order hasn’t stopped police from arresting reports. Last night and early this morning, six journalists were arrested, including Getty Images photographer Scott Olson (video above) when he stepped outside of a designated media zone (designated free speech zones, etc., need to be discussed another time…). The National Journal put up a review of Olson’s work prior to his arrest. He has since been released. Getty released a statement condemning the arrest. The concurrent arrest of two German journalists for “Die Welt” is making headlines there, too (German links via reddit). The officer arresting the German reporters gave his name as “Donald Duck” when asked. Likewise, in the images of Olson getting arrested, the police officers are not wearing name tags or badges with numbers.

While some reporters say that not all Ferguson police interactions are bad, the fact remains that police have frequently used tear gas and other less-than-lethal force against reporters, prevented reporters from doing their jobs by detaining them or arresting them, and otherwise threatened reporters who have a legal right to be there. The police are likely breaking the law each time they prevent someone from filming their activities.

Make sure you read Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery’s account of his arrest.

It shouldn’t need to be repeated, but in the United States, it is legal in all 50 states to record police activity. Politico, the Atlantic, Huffington Post, and the New York Daily News have all recently published pieces about the public’s and press’s right to record police activity. I’ve written about the issue before on dvafoto many times.

It’s good to see the NPPA and other organizations pressing authorities on this issue as it happens.

(many links in the Police vs. Media section via the NPPA on Facebook)

There are a few odds and ends that didn’t fit anywhere else.

BagNewsNotes writes about the right’s obsession with an image of Obama dancing while events in Ferguson transpired. They also posted about images of looting early on in coverage: If it Loots, it Leads: Stereotyping the Police Shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The NPPA has a short interview with St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer and videographer David Carson about working in Ferguson. PhotoShelter’s Allen Murabayashi wrote some thoughtful observations on race in photography and the news.

I’ll leave you with John Oliver’s typically trenchant analysis of many of these topics on his Last Week Tonight.

2 Responses to “Ferguson: a fascinating and troubling study of visual politics, race, the police, and the media”

  1. Ferguson: a fascinating and troubling study of visual politics, race, the police, and the media | dvafoto – The Click

    […] Ferguson: a fascinating and troubling study of visual politics, race, the police, and the media […]

  2. Remembering James Foley and other journalists still missing | dvafoto

    […] There’s also a good discussion to be had about the ethics and effects of publishing images from militants’ propaganda videos. Many journalists, across our networks on Facebook and Twitter, have urged their colleagues to refrain from publishing any images of Foley’s execution contending that publishing images of this act only serves to perpetuate ISIS’ terror. Likewise, social media companies such as Facebook and Youtube have been actively working to block some images from the video from appearing on their networks. We should revisit this issue of visual representation and politics at a later date, along with other relevant discussions that we are having this week. […]

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