I have reported on mass protests where police attacked protestors, but I tended to accept- and even wrote in some articles- statements by police that protestors provoked this violence. The crowd got out of control, I thought. Surely, someone threw rocks, threw punches, or did something to instigate these assaults. The police would not attack people for no reason.
After witnessing, and feeling, attacks by multiple baton-wielding officers during the permitted anti-war march in the capital on April 12, I realized I have made a mistake. As a reporter, I have mistakenly placed the burden of proof on the protestors, rather than the police. And now, as I see coverage of the protest where I was beaten, I see other journalists doing the same.
A local news station showed video footage of an officer beating a restrained protestor. So D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey assigned the officer to “desk duty.” He said, “I’m not just going to hang this guy out to dry just because someone made an allegation.”
Media reports of the attacks have towed this line. When journalists state “protestors and police clashed,” and “protestors scuffle with police,” it leads the public to believe that the protestors brought it upon themselves. If unofficial sources (protestors) say they were beaten, they are making allegations. If official sources (police) say it was an “appropriate response,” we often treat it as fact.
I attended the march as a freelance journalist, and was beaten by police with batons while I was wearing my Congressional press pass. These attacks were not just “allegations.”
Here’s what happened at one point on the march: Near the intersection of 9th and G Streets police buzzed the crowd on motorcycles, hitting one protestor. A scuffle ensued, about 40 feet in front of me. Police pepper sprayed some protestors, and then went after everyone in the intersection.
Because of the national uproar over last year’s controversial mass arrests of World Bank-IMF protestors in Pershing Park and lawsuits now pending- police say they have reevaluated their policy on such arrests. True to their word, they didn’t go into the crowd arresting innocent people. Instead, they beat them.
The melee worked its way back to me, as I tried to walk my bicycle toward the sidewalk. Without warning I was struck on my back by a police officer with a baton, who then started yelling, “Clear the streets.”
At least five officers used batons to push the crowd toward the sidewalk and against another group of officers. We were caught between two lines of cops swinging batons. When the crowd pushed me against one officer I told him, “I’m not assaulting you, I’m not trying to touch you, I’m being trampled, please help.”
He looked me in the eyes, almost like he was sorry, and said, “I know.” I fell from the pressure of panicked people trying to flee. Others collapsed on top of me. I couldn’t breathe, and yelled for help. An officer behind me pulled at my neck and throat, tearing my shirt, yelling, “Get up.” I couldn’t, I told him, because I was being trampled.
When I managed to stand and take a few steps, a police officer struck me twice with his baton, held horizontally in both hands. I flew back onto the mass of flailing people. “Clear the street,” he yelled. “Back up.”
The pile slowly unraveled and I went for my bike. The same officer who hit me moments before now intentionally stomped on the rear portion of the bike as he yelled, “MOVE!”
I surveyed the damage to my bike, and my body, and asked officers for badge numbers. They pretended they didn’t hear me. Some turned and walked away. Even those that I knew were not directly involved remained silent: they acted like a gang, covering for each other. One turned around, pushed me with his baton, and yelled, “Get the hell out of here!”
For white, upper-middle class reporters like me, it may come as a shock that police can do these things, and get away with it. I would like to believe that freedom of speech is protected in our country, and that the police exist to protect such freedoms. I hope that, unlike me, other journalists do not need to endure attacks by police to begin reporting critically on police conduct. We have a civic responsibility to stop accepting police statements and start holding these people accountable.
WILL POTTER is a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In his spare time he independently covers politics and social movements. He has written for the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News and the Texas Observer. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org