Journalists and dissidents alike are being targeted by American police in the land of the free. Is it as simple as an out of control police force, or something more?
The evening before President Trump lumbered over to St. John’s Church for his infamous “photo op,” U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr quietly instructed all 56 regional departments of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) to “identify criminal organizers and instigators” in the nationwide protests elicited by George Floyd’s murder. Barr, himself, directed the dispersal of demonstrators outside the White House on Monday to clear the way for the President’s jaunt to the nearby house of worship.
As intended, the stunt drew all the media’s attention and left precious little coverage, if any, about the continued encroachment by the federal government into whatever is left of America’s “freedoms.” Predictably, the mere use of a Bible as a prop was enough to rile up the base and the opposition together, diverting the attention away from substantial issues and corralling public discourse around a completely meaningless event.
From comments made by the church’s bishop denouncing Trump’s unannounced visit as a “charade,” to Pentagon officials accompanying the President claiming they were “unaware” of where they were headed, this has been the modus operandi of the Trump presidency from the start. But as the administration begins the last leg of its first – and possibly last term – the signs of more direct control over the press are starting to manifest.
Your e-papers, please
Right from the gate, Trump harped on the message of “fake news” and labeled news media organizations as the enemy. The crass and petulant delivery of Trump’s invectives against large news media outlets conceals the subtlety of the tactics in play. After all, the emergence of the Internet had laid bare the limitations of the fourth estate, which found itself exposed by a new generation of bloggers and independent journalists empowered by unfettered access to information. Trump’s story rang true to many Americans who bought into the narrative he was peddling.
But, as events continue to unfold, it is becoming more clear that the outright effort to curtail first amendment protections is not exclusively geared towards professional journalists, but to the general population instead, who by virtue of having a video recording device with instant publishing capabilities right in their pocket, are de facto journalists, as well.
A fairly new requirement for visa applications now compels people wishing to enter the country to provide their social media handles. The so-called “social media registration” measure is being challenged in court from many different sectors, including social media giants Twitter and Reddit, faith-based organizations, and filmmakers.
The broader implications of such a seemingly innocuous change to a simple visa application are far reaching as the State Department “can retain the collected information indefinitely, share it broadly among federal agencies, and disclose it, in some circumstances, to foreign governments.”, according to a press statement by the Knight First Amendment Institute.
The danger posed to the establishment by a hyper-informed population is being combatted on many fronts because it is a real threat to their power; to the point that they are willing to sacrifice their own, mostly loyal mainstream media allies, to drive the point home.
Shot in the face
The Australian government is opening an investigation into the assault on two Australian journalists covering the anti-police brutality protests in Washington DC. Punched and shot with rubber bullets, cameraman Tim Myers and reporter Amelia Brace were caught in one of the many brutal acts by riot police. Journalists have been arrested on camera and attacked by police repeatedly all over the country. The tally so far, compiled by U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, counts as many as 12 arrests, 38 attacks on members of the press, and over 190 claims of abuse at the hands of police officers.
A particularly egregious attack left journalist Linda Tirado permanently blind in one eye from a rubber bullet shot at her directly by police. A similar attack left legal observer Danny Garza with a black eye at a protest in Sacramento, California. Garza, who also suffered from a concussion, is a member of the National Lawyers Guild and was at the protest in the capacity of a legal observer, he was nonetheless targeted specifically, as were the medics who came to his aide.
Hey folks, took a tracer found to the face (I think, given my backpack) and am headed into surgery to see if we can save my left eye
Am wisely not gonna be on Twitter while I’m on morphine
Stay safe folks pic.twitter.com/apZOyGrcBO
— Linda Tirado (@KillerMartinis) May 30, 2020
Scenes like these have been repeated in many places across the nation over the past several days. In one especially haunting incident that has been making the rounds on social media, a team of riot police lurched down a quiet residential street in Minneapolis where no protest of any kind was taking place, shooting their paintball guns at residents on their porch.
Share widely: National guard and MPD sweeping our residential street. Shooting paint canisters at us on our own front porch. Yelling “light em up” #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd #JusticeForGeorge #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/bW48imyt55
— Tanya Kerssen (@tkerssen) May 31, 2020
All of these shameful events beg the question: Why is this happening in a country which holds freedom of speech to be one of its guiding principles? Part of the answer was touched on above. The state’s traditional control over the public narrative, usually parsed by its partners in the fourth estate, is under serious threat. But, there are more effective and less visible ways of addressing such concerns. The overt, gross examples of police brutality on display during the very demonstrations organized against it might have a different purpose altogether. One more closely related to the roll-out of a new form of policing, which relies on algorithms instead of crude billy clubs.
Virtual Precincts Don’t Burn Down
The breach of Minneapolis’s 3rd Police Precinct on day three of the George Floyd protests in that city was an unprecedented act in modern American history. Not even during the turbulent and explosive social tensions of the 1960s did such a thing ever take place and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that it was allowed to happen. The building was abandoned by police shortly after they reportedly “ran out” of non-lethal ammunition. Reports of other questionable behavior by police, such as the destruction of protester’s water supplies and the ostensible planting of bricks in alleyways have proliferated over the past week of civil unrest, painting law enforcement in the worst possible light under the circumstances.
Asheville Police surround a medic station created by protesters as they stab water bottles with knives and tip over tables of medical supplies and food June 2, 2020. The medic team, made of EMTs and doctors, said the medical station was approved by the city. #avlnews pic.twitter.com/cLDperemsZ
— Angie Wilhelm (@AngelaMWilhelm) June 3, 2020
The perception of an out-of-control police force is not rare in minority communities, who have historically had to bear the brunt of their excesses, but it is far less familiar to more well-off suburbanites who don’t have the same relationship with law enforcement. National coverage of these not-so-new behaviors, coupled with the narrative pushed by Susan Rice and others of “foreign actors” and “outside agitators” is tacitly making the case for the replacement of a fallible and racist police force with cleaner, more precise policing mechanisms developed by entities like Google, Apple and Microsoft.
A tech-based, self-censoring model of social control is the ultimate dream of those who wish to rule over us, but not live among us. Presenting the facet of police most (White) people never see for themselves on live TV is a good way to make a case for their replacement by cold and intractable computer code.
To Be or Not to be
A video of a confrontation between AP journalists and a police officer emerged on Tuesday, in which videojournalist Robert Bumsted and photographer Maye-E Wong were precluded from covering a protest in lower Manhattan. After being told to go home by an NYPD officer, Bumsted pleads their case, asserting that members of the press are considered “essential workers.” The officer responds by saying he doesn’t “give a shit,” while a fellow officer adds that they should “get the fuck out.”
Such messy displays of human interaction can be completely avoided in a world where your status is determined by a scanning device instead of another person and law enforcement is reduced to a machine parsing the photographs and videos we’ve already become so fond of taking of each other.
The existence of police brutality in America for people of color cannot be disputed. It is a fact of life for them, as well as many other marginalized groups. At its core, it is a problem of inhumanity that requires a human solution, not stricter digital barriers that exacerbate our alienation in the name of profit and a false, uneasy peace.
Feature photo | A police officer shouts at Associated Press videojournalist Robert Bumsted, June 2, 2020, in New York. Wong Maye-E | AP
Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.