Chronicling his life as a journalist in the colonial British Raj, a young Winston Churchill wrote that “nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Nor, I’d add, is there anything in life quite so discombobulating as to turn a corner and unexpectedly walk into a wall of tear gas.
It happened to me on a couple of occasions during the years of anti-Vietnam war protests, when I was a college student and young reporter in Washington, DC. One time I was gassed while filming a counterdemonstration on Honor America Day, a nationally televised celebration hosted by Bob Hope. As God is my witness, the gas hit just as Kate Smith was singing, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”
The following year, 1971, demonstrators came from around the country to shut Washington down during morning rush hour. A photographer, another reporter and I were on the scene covering a failed attempt to close the Key Bridge crossing of the Potomac. Police in pursuit, we dashed uphill into the Georgetown neighborhood only to run smack into more police lobbing canister after canister of gas until it blanketed the streets. I remember then Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell standing at the top of his townhouse stoop in robe and slippers, bewildered at the scene unfolding below him, clutching his rolled up copy of the Washington Post for dear life. Momentarily blinded, students took us in hand and led us to a makeshift infirmary in the basement of a university building.
So, attending the Democratic National Convention in Denver and watching events at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul via television, the sights and sounds of police and protesters were familiar. And that scent, the heavy, cloying smell of gas and pepper spray, as evocative as, but far less delicate than a Proustian cookie.
In both cities, getting tickets to the big shindigs hosted by major corporations seeking to bend the ear of party VIP’s was a media challenge – they were blocked by sometimes heavy-handed attempts by police and private security to keep the press out. A very few, like ABC News’ Brian Ross got in, recording, for example, the bash thrown for Republicans by Lockheed Martin, the American Trucking Association and the NRA, featuring a band named Hookers and Blow. However, in Denver, one of Ross’ producers, Asa Eslocker, was arrested while trying to interview Democratic senators and donors leaving a private event at the Brown Palace Hotel.
What was different in St. Paul was that the police seemed especially intent on singling out independent journalists and activists covering the Republican convention for the Internet and other alternative forms of media. Over the weekend, police staged preemptive raids on several buildings where planning sessions for demonstrations were being held, one of them a meeting of various video bloggers, including I-Witness Video, a media group that monitors law enforcement. Later in the week, I-Witness’ temporary headquarters were entered by police, claiming they had received news of a possible hostage situation.
Why all this interest? One can only speculate, but footage that I-Witness shot at the Republican convention four years ago in Manhattan has helped exonerate hundreds who were arrested and detained by the New York Police Department, their cases either dismissed or resulting in acquittals at trial.
In St. Paul, two student photographers and their advisor from the University of Kentucky were held without charge for 36 hours. The ACLU of Minnesota ID’d several other journalists, bloggers and photographers from Rhode Island, California, Illinois, Florida, and other parts of the country who also were arrested. Many others were gassed or hit by pepper spray.
Perhaps the most prominent arrest was that of journalist Amy Goodman, anchor of the daily television and radio news program, “Democracy Now!” Police had taken two of her producers into custody as they were trying to cover the news. Goodman went out looking for them, but didn’t get very far. She was stopped, slapped into handcuffs, and hauled into a detention center, along with almost 200 hundred other people. They had come to demonstrate, she had come to report on them.
Goodman was released a few hours later and back on the job anchoring her daily radio and TV show, a favorite of listeners and viewers who go to her for news they won’t find in the mainstream or rightwing press.
What has those in control worried is that despite what the politicians tell us from inside their fortified compounds where the party line rules, more and more people outside have cameras and laptops, and they’re not afraid to use them.
Forty years ago, protestors in Chicago shouted, “The whole world is watching.” More and more, the whole world isn’t just watching. From Minnesota to China, citizen journalists are reporting what they see and hear, and the powers that be don’t like it.
MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.