Around the country, police have harassed, tear-gassed, shoved, shot with rubber bullets and detained protesters exercising their Constitutional rights and journalists covering these demonstrations.
On Tuesday, June 2, at least six NYPD officers harassed and shoved two AP reporters covering the 8 p.m. curfew that came as a consequence of days of protests against systemic racism, police brutality and the killing of George Floyd. The officers insisted that the reporters leave the scene.
Video of the encounter shows one of the journalists explaining that as “essential workers,” they are exempt from the curfew. Officers replied with expletives: “I don’t give a shit,” and “Get the fuck out of here, you piece of shit.” Worst of all is the officer who demanded, “Who are you essential to? Who are you essential to?”
That an officer sworn to uphold the law doesn’t know the answer to this question lies at the heart of the conflict we are now immersed in. The answer is simply this: Democracy.
These were not isolated incidents. Around the country, police have harassed, shoved, tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, shot with rubber bullets and pepper balls, assaulted with nightsticks and shields, and arrested journalists for carrying out their professional duties. The Freedom of the Press Foundation has documented 239 such events as of this writing. To cite just a few local examples: a reporter for Tablet Magazine clubbed in the arm and his bicycle taken; a Wall Street Journal reporter smashed repeatedly in the face with a riot shield; a Daily News reporter beaten with a baton. And among those roughed up, handcuffed and arrested — some held in jail — a reporter for Huffington Post, a photojournalist for the UK-based news agency SWNS, a Canadian journalist for the independent news website Rebel News and a contributor to CNN. All clearly identified themselves as members of the news media at work.
This is part of a broader assault upon the First Amendment. The night before the AP journalists were harassed, the nation witnessed tear gas and military helicopters being used to disperse peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House.
Journalists are not worthier human beings than anyone else, and we deplore the use of rubber bullets, tear gas and other forms of violence being used against protesters exercising their Constitutional rights. Indeed, such events especially require scrutiny by the press. Instead, we are seeing journalists impeded by the tactics used in authoritarian states.
The frequency and ferocity of these attacks are without modern precedent in America. They are, to a significant degree, an outgrowth of three years in which journalists have consistently been denigrated as “enemies of the people” by the President of the United States. We also recognize them as escalations of long-standing policies that have turned police into adversaries of communities — particularly communities of color — rather than their protectors. Throughout the nation, police departments have been militarized, outfitted with equipment like mine-resistant armored vehicles and assault rifles. This level of firepower, studies have shown, only serves to heighten tensions and increase the likelihood of violence.
We, the faculty of Columbia Journalism School, condemn the police targeting of journalists who are simply doing their jobs to document matters of public interest, inform the public and hold power accountable. We are alarmed by the hostility being expressed, rhetorically and physically, toward the very principle of the fourth estate. Our students — many of them coming from other countries to study in a nation that prides itself on high ideals for press freedom — quickly learn what seasoned journalists long have known: that the NYPD routinely refuses to provide information, even when requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
Journalism will be essential to restoring democratic norms to our country. Abuse and corruption wither under press scrutiny, and if we hope to get beyond the present crisis, we have to be able to do our work of holding power accountable, no matter who that power is.
We call on Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Shea, NY Attorney General James, NY City Council members, and all city and state authorities to:
- Release without charges all journalists taken into custody along with any equipment seized
- Account for these deliberate police efforts to thwart journalists doing their jobs
- Prevent further such obstructions and attacks
- End aggressive, militarized policing
- Protect people’s exercise of their First-Amendment rights
- Require transparency from the police department