By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: President Obama criticized Thursday the arrests of two journalists by police in Ferguson, Mo., and called for an “open and transparent” investigation into last weekend’s shooting death of an unarmed 18-year-old black man by a white Ferguson police officer.
The president spoke out in response to the growing violence in the St. Louis suburb in the shooting’s aftermath.
The incident has sparked both peaceful protests and acts of looting and vandalism in the city since the Aug. 9 shooting. As Ferguson police fire tear gas and rubber bullets, citizens and journalists dispute that crowd control is officers’ only motivation.
On Wednesday, an Al Jazeera America news crew was hit with tear gas and rubber bullets while setting up their equipment.
That incident occurred not long after a reporter for The Washington Post and another from Huffington Post were arrested by police inside a McDonald’s restaurant that has served as a makeshift media staging area.
Wesley Lowery of the Post and Ryan J. Reilly of HuffPost described how armed police officers ordered them to leave the restaurant. While beginning to comply, Lowery also began recording events on his cell phone. When he refused police orders to stop, officers grabbed and handcuffed him and shoved him against a soda machine.
In a first-person account for the Post, Lowery writes: “Multiple officers grabbed me. I tried to turn my back to them to assist them in arresting me. I dropped the things from my hands. ‘My hands are behind my back,’ I said. ‘I’m not resisting. I’m not resisting.’ At which point one officer said: ‘You’re resisting. Stop resisting.’ That was when I was most afraid — more afraid than of the tear gas and rubber bullets.”
Reilly was also arrested and both men were taken by van to police headquarters. They were subsequently released, but police refused the journalists’ requests for the officers’ names and badge numbers.
Acknowledging nationwide concerns about the escalating police action in Ferguson, Obama said that while there’s no excuse for violence against police, there’s also “no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protestors or to throw protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First amendment rights.”
The president spoke strongly against law enforcement officials arresting and detaining working journalists.
“Here in the United States of America police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground,” he said.
Those comments were met with subtle but derisive laughter when brought up by a reporter at another Thursday afternoon news conference. At the National Press Club, national journalism and First Amendment groups gathered in support of New York Times reporter James Risen, whom the federal government is threatening with jail if he fails to reveal a source.
Speakers condemned the Obama administration’s actions against Risen and its crackdown on other journalists and whistleblowers.
“I don’t think the United States wants to join Cuba in being the only other country in the Western Hemisphere to have an imprisoned journalist,” said Courtney Radsch of the Committee to Protect Journalists.(More coverage of the news conference coming shortly to NewsGuild.org.).
With regard to Ferguson, Obama said he has tasked the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. to independently investigate Michael Brown’s death, along with local officials.
He said the DOJ is consulting with local authorities about ways to maintain public safety without “restricting the right of peaceful protest and while avoiding unnecessary escalation.”
Touching on the family’s and community’s heartbreak, Obama said: “When something like this happens, the local authorities, including the police, have a responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death and how they are protecting the people in their communities.
“Now is the time for an open and transparent process to see that justice is done.”