I’ve held off diving into the ethical morass that is Ferguson, Missouri for the past two and a bit weeks now. I was ready at the start of it to let fly with the kind of vitriolic, “American law enforcement is f**king stupid” politirant that Will McAvoy might endorse. Those who I spoke to at the time know I was pretty engaged with the tragedy occurring in Ferguson to the point of almost total immersion, or as much immersion as someone on the other side of the world following it through social media can achieve.
But the thing is, I couldn’t. I was angry. I was upset. I was disheartened to be presented with yet another example of both American law and worldwide journalism making their own separate but intertwined colossal failures to enforce and inform, respectively. So anything I posted was going to be imbued with no small measure of bias; hell, even as the dust tentatively starts settling, this piece here will still carry an amount of subjectivity you won’t find from objective news services. I am still upset at what went down, and in parts continues to go down, in Ferguson. So take my opinion and the following writing with however much salt you want to swallow; I’ll say what I’m feeling, and you take it as you will. I am not an authority on the goings-on over there, merely an observer – if you’re keen on more information follow Antonio French, Alderman of the 21st Ward in St Louis and one of the most prolific on-the-ground sources of information during Ferguson’s crucial points over the last fortnight. There’s also a deluge of reposts during the important bits on my own Twitter feed right here.
So, Ferguson. If you’re not at least vaguely informed about what went/is going on there, give this a watch to start with:
Now, while the situation is markedly improved compared to how it was two weeks ago,they’re not at the end yet. From what I’ve heard there are still isolated incidents going on, and a few social efforts – most prominently the HealSTL movement – working to rebuild the community of Ferguson. It’ll be a while before the place is back to full nick again, but they’re getting there.
It’d be very easy for me to rail against the targets most other right-thinking social media critics and internet journalists have taken shots at; the Ferguson police handled the situation poorly, Governor Jay Nixon didn’t act fast enough, the Highway Patrol inflicted an oscillating wave of good and bad stuff from their inception as Ferguson security, and maybe even President Obama himself should’ve stepped in rather than offer a perfunctory
statement regarding the tragedy of Mike Brown and the need to halt violence. Personally I’m not holding any of them wholly responsible in the body of the article, though I will point out the Ferguson PD were absolute and total morons in their initial handling of the protests, and prosecutor Robert McCulloch deserves a swift kick in the kidneys for getting outraged when the PD were overtaken by Highway Patrol as a more stable and effective form of security.
No, rather than throw bile at those who are and are not responsible for Ferguson’s troubles, I want to give exposure to a point made quite heavily through social media when this thing went down: Lack of awareness.
Would it surprise you to know only 2 of the roughly dozen or so people I asked about Ferguson initially said they knew what was going on, whilst the other 10 just asked “What’s Ferguson”? No, it wouldn’t surprise you? Nor does it surprise many others, especially through Twitter; for days the events in Ferguson were all but ignored by most save for the social media-savvy and several independent outlets. In Australia, ABC News – my go-to for world and political news and one of the few bastions of actual news dispensation left down under – gave Ferguson a perfunctory mention for two and a half minutes during a radio broadcast early in the week before last. The radio bit was a swift summation of the situation that barely did justice to what was going on, and featured an interview with Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson – who, I should mention, was finger-pointed by several on Twitter as a key source of the police’s contribution to further destabilising the town with goddamn tear gas – with no real depth to it. This is while people were getting gassed, shot at (with rubber bullets), yelled at, threatened, arrested without charge and held in jails for indefinite periods.
While I’m not a regular reader, I’ve been led to believe other big news outlets in the US – like MSNBC, Fox and CNN – didn’t give Ferguson much credence until things got
so ugly that the National Guard got called in. If someone would like to correct me, please feel free to do so in the comments. Otherwise, I’m sticking with what I’ve seen and read through various sources that all say the same thing: Ferguson was not given the exposure it needed until things got so out of control that the town fell, for all intents and purposes, under martial law.
Now it’s got a little more coverage, and among others the ABC’s finally deigned to put some headlines on their front page. Better late than never, right?
Without passing absolute judgment, why do we think coverage was so limited leading up to now? Were the Americans embarrassed at thuglike activities perpetrated by their own police and happening in their backyard? Did international news services skip lightly over it because, as some people I’ve spoken to said, “It didn’t happen in [insert home country here], so why should I care?” Did avoidance occur because initial correspondence happened through Twitter and Facebook, therefore meaning old news would have to take a lead set up by the blase, laissez-faire landscape of social media reporting? Or is it just that having a headline about a black kid getting shot is inconvenient when it bumps an important entertainment story off the front page?
All I know is, both the events in Ferguson and the initial reporting of those events were wholly unacceptable. Seemingly ignoring protests and tear-gassing through lack of coverage will not make those things go away. Willfully omitting information about American police exerting unsanctioned violence against protestors won’t help either. Claiming that violence as necessary and throwing in genuine protestors with the looters selfishly taking advantage of the situation, saying they’re all one group to be painted with the same brush, doesn’t make anything better.
One of my favourite quotes from The Newsroom (which, yes, most people think is a terrible show but I happen to adore) is from early in its first episode: “There is nothing more important than a well-informed electorate.” Let’s replace ‘electorate’ with whatever term you want to use encompassing us in a broader global context; world, blogosphere, international collective, whatever. My point is that some of what happened after the initial tragedy of Mike Brown’s shooting could have been avoided if we hadn’t been afraid or unwilling to talk about it, and if the face of the issue could’ve been shown to a broader audience. We, both the Americans and the international audience, needed to be properly informed and take necessary steps.
And to those who say they shouldn’t care because it’s not happening in their country: who says it won’t one day? One of the things most shocking about Ferguson was it was the kind of riot some compared to the civil unrest in
the Middle East (!), but occurring ostensibly close to the heart of the North American continent. It happened within the country most noted for being the alleged shining paragon of democracy, the top dog of the UN and the most powerful Western nation on Earth. If we can have a riot requiring the kind of military hardware one might use to invade Iraq inside a small town in the middle of the United States, who the hell says it can’t happen anywhere else?
I’m not really sure what I aim to accomplish with this piece. As I said, I’m pretty close to a lot of the stuff that happened there and a degree of subjectivity inevitably seeps into the writing. On a re-read I feel like I’m kinda rambling here (not exactly different from my usual MO) but I’m going to leave it as it is, somewhere between a thesis and a stream-of-consciousness. Take what you will from it, but understand that unless Missouri, America and the international community can confront this stuff head-on and have a true and honest discourse about it, things will never get better. I hope I never live to see another tear-gassing of honest-to-God peaceful protestors livestreamed through social media due to lack of appropriate news coverage. It might be tough for some, but I want to talk about this.
You should, too.