News & Opinion » Editor's Notebook

Police and press clashes rise as 'enemy of the people' label seeps in


Henry Houston, a reporter with the weekly newspaper in Eugene, Oregon, was covering protesters flouting that city’s curfew order Sunday night, when police in an armored vehicle fired tear gas on a handful of them in the vicinity and ordered them to disperse.  

The protesters ran. But Houston, whose Eugene Weekly press credentials hung around his neck, stayed. “I’m a journalist!” he yelled.

Then he doubled over. An officer had fired what appeared to be a tear gas canister into his chest. Sparks flew as the canister hit the ground and Houston scurried away. “I’m a journalist!” he yelled again. “Want to see my ID badge?”

“Disperse. Disperse. You’re in violation of city curfew,” came a voice over the vehicle’s loudspeaker. The city manager’s curfew order specifically exempted credentialed journalists.
The incident was one of many captured on video amid the protests around the country in which reporters, who either identified themselves or were wearing clothing or carrying equipment that branded them members of the press, were roughed up, arrested, or shot with projectiles by police.

Countless people at these protests — demonstrators, bystanders, and reporters alike — have stories of enduring physically taxing police tactics used to clear an area. CITY’s Gino Fanelli felt the sting of pepper spray in his throat for a day after the rally in Rochester went awry.

But the encounters between police and reporters in question could not be described as collateral damage, in which journalists simply got in the way of police work. The altercations appeared to be unprovoked. In some cases, police seemed to go out of their way to engage.

There was the arrest by Minnesota State Patrol officers of a CNN reporting team live on the air in the early morning hours, long after the violence of the previous night had subsided.

Closer to home, in Syracuse, a veteran news photographer reportedly wearing press credentials and cameras over each shoulder, was shoved to the ground by a police officer who broke ranks from a line of officers advancing toward a crowd of unruly protesters in the distance. The officer charged the photographer and laid him out.
In Louisville, Kentucky, a reporter with the NBC affiliate there was relaying the scene to her anchors in the studio when she approached police officers far from the protest front and was shot with pepper balls. When her videographer trained the camera on an officer with a pepper ball gun, the officer fired on the camera.

“Who are they aiming that at?” an anchor asked.

“At us, like, directly at us,” the reporter, Kaitlin Rust, replied.

“Why are they doing that?” the anchor asked.

“I don’t know.”

Here’s a thought: Perhaps instances like these are a byproduct of the country's commander in chief repeatedly referring to journalists as “the enemy of the people” for the last four years.

After a while, it sinks in, you know.

On Sunday, President Trump in a tweet claimed the “Lamestream Media” was fomenting “hatred and anarchy” and that “they are FAKE NEWS and truly bad people with a sick agenda.”
Last year, Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom group, downgraded the United States as a place for journalists to work from "satisfactory" to "problematic."

“Certainly we’ve seen people in power who have said bad things about journalists,” said Robert Thompson, a mass media professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. “But I’ve not seen the extent of what we’re seeing now.”

“Labeling journalists the ‘enemy of the people,’ which has been going on for several years, making that an almost acceptable characterization, makes it easier to arrest them,” Thompson said. “That’s what you do to enemies. It’s really, really disturbing.”

The phrase, and its other variants, has a dehumanizing effect, as despots throughout history have well understood.

Nikita Krushchev, in a 1956 speech decrying Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality, recalled that Stalin embraced the term because “it made possible the use of the cruelest repression . . . against anyone who in any way disagreed” with him and made impossible any rational argument of issues.
“The formula ‘enemy of the people,’” Krushchev said in calling to end the use of the term, “was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals.”

When Houston, the reporter in Oregon, was pegged in the chest with the canister, there was no one in his vicinity. The protesters had fled far behind him. The officer who fired the canister from a hole in the top of the armored car would have seemingly had to try to hit him. 
Henry Houston, a reporter at the Eugene Weekly. - PHOTO PROVIDED BY HENRY HOUSTON
  • Henry Houston, a reporter at the Eugene Weekly.

Journalists aren’t exempt from crowd-control orders. But there was no crowd when Houston was struck. Police said over the loudspeaker that they were enforcing a curfew, which, in this case, did exempt journalists.

Houston, 31, said in an interview that he has watched the video, which was captured by reporters from the daily newspaper, several times “trying to come to terms with it.”

“I always felt like there was an arrangement between police and journalists . . . like journalists were on a different level with police officers, like we’re reporting what they’re doing and we should be able to do it safely,” he said.

“At that moment,” he said, “I felt like part of that trust was kind of compromised a little bit.”

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at [email protected].