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We are the Champions … of the World?

Say it loud and say it proud: We’re Number 47! We’re Number 47!  Boo-yah!

If you want to know why the US — beacon of freedom, land of the First Amendment —  is now ranked number 47th (out of 179) in terms of freedom of the press in the annual ranking put out by Reporters Without Borders, below South Africa, Botswana, South Korea and Comoros, and just above Argentina, Romania and Latvia, you could ask Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York and himself owner of a huge news organization, or his Chief of Police Raymond Kelly.

For that matter you could ask the mayors and police chiefs of Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Boston, Philadelphia, or a host of other cities.

Better yet, ask the mayor of Oakland and her police department’s latest gestapo chief, Howard Jordan.

According to Reporters Without Borders, what caused the US to plunge from 20th place last year, up there with ther likes of  Ireland, Germany, Belgium and Japan, down to 47th this year, was the way reporters were treated by police as they tried to cover the Occupy Movement that began last September.

Across the country, police maneuvered to block reporters from covering their brutal crackdown on the Occupy Movement. They swept into encampments from Los Angeles to New York wearing black military-style riot gear in the dead of night to avoid cameras and videocams, waiting until most journalists had gone home to bed before tearing up the tents and firing the tear gas grenades, the rubber bullets and the pepper spray at unarmed, unresisting protesters.  Or, when reporters did show up and tried to cover the assaults on peaceful demonstrators, the cops sometimes, as in New York, smashed them and their cameras, or just arrested them.

“Who here has a press card?” asked the officer in charge in New York before the final assault on Zuccotti Square’s occupiers.  When reporters dutifully raised their hands or held up their press passes, New York’s not-so-finest grabbed them, cuffed them and hauled them away.  “Only for their safety,” was the explanation given later by the cops and the mayor after that particularly noxious display of police-state tactics against the media.

Reporters from alternative media were manhandled, but so were some reporters even from the main newspapers in the city, the New York Times and the Daily News.

Jean Quon, Mayor of Oakland, admitted in a radio interview with an educational news station in San Francisco, that she had participated, while in Washington, DC, in a conference call with 17 other mayors to plot strategy for dealing with the occupations in their cities protesting economic policy and the corrupt nexus of banks and politicians in Washington, DC. She conceded that among the issues discussed was how to avoid bad press: hence the almost universal tactic of dead-of-night assaults on encampments.

In an ironic note, the Oakland police, whose two particularly brutal assaults on Oakland occupiers were conducted like military operations, with black-clad police in military gear carrying assault rifles  pressing in like a Roman Legion, but firing tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and pepper spray pellets, were yesterday ordered to submit to monitoring of all future actions by a  court-appointed overseer, after a federal judge concluded that the department had simply run amok, planting drugs on suspects, using unnecessary brutality, and in general behaving more like a bunch of gangsters and thugs than a police department.

Scott Olson provides a vivid example of that thuggishness. The young Iraq War Marine veteran,  now a member of Veterans for Peace, who had come to the Oakland Occupy encampment wearing his military uniform to lend his support, was standing peacefully and unarmed between police and the occupiers when he was shot in the head with a tear-gas canister fired almost at point blank range directly at him. The projectile crushed in his skull, nearly killing him and for a time impairing his ability to speak. When occupy activists, seeing him bleeding on the ground, tried to come to his aid, a police thug tossed a flash-bang stun grenade at them, driving them away, though the brave occupiers returned again and brought him to a hospital.

Sadly, Oakland cops are not that different from cops and police in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere. The only real difference is that the Oakland cops got sued and a good judge got the case and believed the plaintiffs.

It is widely known that thug cops in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and elsewhere will carry some drugs and a confiscated weapon in their squad cars, which they can plant on suspects they want to get locked up.  They could as easily plant one of those things on a reporter as on some citizen. Philadelphia has had a number of such scandals over the years.

But back to repressing the media.

It was in Philadelphia last year, while among a group of journalists gathered to cover a hearing by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on a case involving death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, that I found myself accosted by a dozen or so Philadelphia cops, badges removed, all carrying cameras or videocams. As we waited, confined by Federal Protection Service cops in a small fenced-in area in front of the doors to the courthouse, waiting to be allowed in, these Philly thugs jammed their cameras in front of us and filmed us, although we had all already been vetted thoroughly for our press credentials by the FPS cops and a sniffer dog. It was pure intimidation at its finest.

A French journalist from Agence France Presse standing next to me was incredulous (France is number 38 in the press freedom ranking so maybe they don’t do that kind of thing to journalists there). “Is this how they treat the press here in America?” he asked.

Yes, it is, and unless Americans demand that it be stopped, the US will sink even lower in the rankings.  Already, we learn that the Homeland Security Department has set up a program to actively monitor the activities and the work of US journalists! They’ve always done that, of course, but the idea that now they would say that openly bespeaks a new attitude that says: “Who cares about press freedom? Nobody?”

I suppose, echoing the language of former President George Bush’s White House attorney Alberto Gonzales, who used it in reference to the Geneva Conventions, press freedom and the First Amendment” these days are just “quaint” artifacts of an earlier time in America.

For now, we can at least continue to chant, “We’re Number 47! We’re Number 47!”  But we’re headed for triple digits at this rate.

Dave Lindorff is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He lives in Philadelphia. 

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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