A CNN journalist and his entire camera crew were arrested by Minnesota state police Friday morning on live television while covering riots in Minneapolis over the murder of George Floyd. The lead reporter, Omar Berman, carefully asked where he should be, what he should do, and deferred obsequiously to the state police who, nevertheless, arrested him.
When he asked what was going on, he was told by a nearby state trooper, “I’m just doing my job, man.” (That last phrase, of course, has interesting historical echoes, but we’ll leave that thread for another day)
Attorney Midwin Charles noted the rich irony of arresting a CNN reporter for reporting the news “but not Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd on camera.”
As Omar Jimenez and others were led away, CNN anchor John Berman—back in the studio watching the arrests happen live—gasped, more than once, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Maybe Berman hasn’t seen anything like it, personally, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time reporters have been ‘blocked’ from reporting sensitive topics. Especially when it comes to America’s seemingly ubiquitous cops (usually white, usually unapologetic) who kill minorities that cause subsequent riots (usually non-white, usually furious).
You might recall one of the first riots in Alabama was really a ‘police riot’ featuring the relatively infamous officer, James Clark, who liked to wear a ‘never integrate’ button on duty (not too dissimilar from Derek Chauvin, I would imagine.)
Clark stood among his fellow state troopers in February 1965 outside the Zion’s Chapel Methodist church, waiting for 500 or so civil rights activists to file out. When the doors to the church opened, police shot out the streetlights, sprayed black paint on the lenses of reporters’ cameras and charged into the crowd. The New York Times reported “loud whacks rang through the square”… The police chased some of the protesters into a place called Mack’s cafe, overturned tables, lunged at patrons.
Jimmie Lee Jackson rushed to defend his mother from a beating. State Trooper James Fowler pumped two bullets into Jackson’s stomach. He died eight days later. This sparked the Selma march and subsequent violence and riots. “He [Jimmie Jackson] was murdered” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “by the irresponsibility of every politician from governors on down who have fed constituents the stale bread of hatred, the spoiled meat of racism.”
The detail that strikes me in this account, among many, is spray painting the camera lenses with black paint and shooting out the street lights. Is this different, really, from arresting a CNN reporter? Doesn’t it serve the same end?
Much has changed since that day in 1965, of course, but apparently in none of the regards mentioned above.
We need something like the 1965 Voting Rights Act to control our police force—the CNN reporter should never have been arrested, of course. George Floyd should never have been murdered, as so many others have been murdered for years and years now. Much like the rotten core of Alabama’s state police, circa 1965, our contemporary police force needs cleaned up; needs to be ‘demilitarized’, and needs retraining. If you can only control a populace with rifles, teargas and billy clubs; you’re not a peace officer, you’re an occupying force. I’ll add, that you only need an occupying force when you also have a disastrously unfair and inequitable system.
The death of Jimmie Lee Jackson led to the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which ultimately led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As I write, protestors and activists are not only marching in Minneapolis over the murder of George Floyd, they are also marching all across the country, even here in Richmond, Virginia. One can only hope something equally positive, like a law that addresses the gross inequities in our legal system, redefines down the limits of police power and the use of force, and readdresses the penalties when those limits are breached, will come out of this monstrous injustice.
We might begin with two simple, conjoined tasks:
1) Disarm/ demilitarize the police force and limit the police use of force. The police are still receiving surplus military supplies from our overseas adventures. Personally, I’d love a country with no police force, but if we must have one, than I want one that operates with very limited firepower. No one needs Rambo in their hood. Maybe a bobby with a silly hat, if we must have police at all.
2) Establish a public citizen’s board to oversee police and their use of force completely separate from the police hierarchy or the attorney general’s office. A large part of the current problem is an implicit prosecutorial bias baked into the structure of our justice system. An attorney general has no real motivation to out bad behavior if their success on prosecutions rest on the very police who may be acting badly. Take police oversight out of their hands entirely and let a separate, publically formed citizens board review police behavior–and penalize appropriately.
An equitable legal system; a non-militarized, non-racist and defanged police force–maybe a state in which a police force is hardly noticed at all. That’s something we’d like to see for the first time.