All Eyes on Ferguson

Truth in the Face of Mainstream Media

By Monet Harris

Originally published in the November 2014 issue.

On August 9th 2014, Emmanuel Freeman, under the handle @TheePharaoh, tweeted “I JUST SAW SOMEONE DIE OMFG”. Watching from a basement level window that looked out onto the adjacent street, he was providing the first eyewitness account to the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

OMFGNeighborhood reaction to the shooting was immediate, and it belied the overall indifference shown by the Ferguson Police Department and especially Governor Jay Nixon, who appeared at a fundraiser a month later to support Jeff Roorda, the State Senator who has collected over $500,000 in support of Officer Wilson. Exposed by writer Shaun King, their close relationship can be used to trace inherent corruption and mishandling of cases extending beyond Brown’s murder.

Instead of conducting a full investigation, the media has instead chosen to play up the police vs angry black mob trope for the world to gawk at.

King is one in a diverse group of independent journalists that are doing the work to be expected of major outlets with more writers, resources, and, just through the scope of their influence, responsibility to present the story justly. Instead, we watch frustrated as easily debunked misinformation by the FPD is parroted as ‘fact’ and a community looking for answers is reduced to empty stereotypes.

Independent media and its emphasis on empathy and reliance on real-time content from the ground in Ferguson have been vital in grounding a situation vulnerable to mainstream media sensationalism. Local publications along with small time writers and citizens captured the first wave of the protests which gained traction once they reached the internet and other outlets. A shift appeared to be occurring; grassroots mobilization was drawing the attention of the country at large and forcing transparency on the city’s predominantly white bureaucracy.

The problem with mainstream media is that it tends to push the stories that can sell ad space and fill the 24-hour news cycle. Focusing on conflict and looting gets more viewers and clicks than organized and peaceful demonstrations. It is in the pursuit of the former that news vans came rolling into the city.

Freelance journalists like Ryan Schuessler have written about unethical media practices, which include yelling at local residents to move out of frame, interrupting community leaders and blatantly ignoring the efforts to heal and rebuild in favor of evocative pictures of tear gas and K9 units. Livestreams like I am Mike Brown Live from Ferguson along with video uploaded to Vine have allowed for spectators to circumvent the media spin and watch events unfold in real time as they’re uploaded to various social media platforms.

For two of the ongoing nights of civil disobedience, the undesirable minority that crops up in most public protest broke into local businesses. It immediately became a focal point of media coverage, with most channels alternating between damaged storefronts and the hyper-militarized police force. What they did not to highlight in their reports were the citizens who stood in front of stores and told would be thieves to turn back around.

Balanced reporting in situations like this is crucial because it is easy for a removed public to accept a highlight reel as reality. The same people who think Barack Obama being elected ended racism do not extend themselves to see anything beyond a low-income black neighborhood rioting and “stealing wigs from beauty supply stores” because it is an image that allows for them to boil the struggle down to materialism and friction for the sake of itself. They do not have to acknowledge the disparities that still shape everyday life for a community to whom Obama is the exception and not the rule.

Associated Press misreported that Brown’s family and neighbors came out onto the streets yelling, “kill the police” when they were actually saying “no justice, no peace” and walking with their hands up in the symbolic gesture that has come to represent the movement. Small details such as this can skew the narrative and this change of phrase casts the community as violent and vengeful, when the overall feeling is of frustration and defiance toward the police department and the mistreatment that they continually endure.

In an interview with CNN, rapper Talib Kweli drew attention to the baiting headline “Ferguson streets were calm until bottles fly”. According to a post by Rosa Clemente a white protester threw the singular projectile and agitated policeman used it as a reason to charge the crowd. In the depiction of the scene on the CNN website only “men” are implicated when women and adolescents were chased as well.  Erasure of this kind has the effect of making Brown guilty by loose association and it removes the movement from a community where the broad cross-section of people involved has been vital.

The intent has not been to deify Mike Brown but the exact opposite: protesters go out into the streets to advocate for his humanity. As confirmed through the New York Times, on scene paramedics were denied when they asked to perform CPR and it speaks volumes to the refusal to see Brown as a person of inherent value. Public outcry and attention have been crucial to keeping the case in the headlines and making it nearly impossible for the St. Louis police department to sweep it under the rug.

In a broader sense, his story has become the prism through which the African-American community has chosen to express its issues with police brutality and the structural racism that results in few –if any– convictions of the accused officers. It is for Michael Brown, Darrien Hunt, John Crawford III, Vonderrick Myers and the two unarmed black men killed per week by police, who have their humanity put up for national debate, that we utilize all means available to carve out space and tell their stories.

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