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In attacking journalists, riot police are attacking the eyes of America

In attacking journalists, riot police are attacking the eyes of America
© Getty Images

Americans rightly have been shocked by the stream of visual information that has inundated them through news and social media channels over the last few weeks — images and videos of the vicious murder of George Floyd, peaceful protesters being roughed up by the very authorities who should be protecting them, looting and rioting, tear gas clouds and riot police charges.

Camera footage of all kinds has provided us with a sad reflection of our nation: We have been reminded — yet again — how tragically short we fall of our constitutional obligation to ensure racial justice and equality. 

We have also witnessed the deplorable treatment of many journalists covering the tumult, some reportedly targeted with rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas and rough treatment. In doing so, state and national authorities have gratuitously failed to make the distinction between professional reporters (clearly marked, per journalistic practice) and violent elements. The result is that riot police have attacked the very eyes of the nation. If we are to look ourselves squarely in the mirror and enact radical change, we need our eyes more than ever.  

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Last week, my friend Carolyn Cole, a photojournalist with the Los Angeles Times, was temporarily blinded with Mace while on assignment in Minneapolis. The persons who attacked her were not protesters, rioters or alt-right agitators; they were police officers. Cole is experienced in combat zones — including Bosnia, Gaza, Sierra Leone and Iraq — and has always understood the dangers of her work. What she didn’t expect was to be targeted for being a journalist in her own country. She is right to point out that her experience is “nothing compared with the continual abuse people of color face on a daily basis” — but it is still deplorable. And while we should focus our outrage on racial injustice and state authoritarianism, we can only be outraged by what we see. 

Over the last week, dozens of journalists have been arrested or injured by police during protests that have swept the country. Sadly, such behavior has a long history in America. Flip Schulke, who became Martin Luther King’s personal photographer, always rented a fast car so he could outrun the pickup trucks of Ku Klux Klan members who targeted him on civil rights assignments. He was arrested on multiple occasions — thrown into a police car for hours on end and then released without charge once civil rights protesters had been manhandled or worse.  Similarly, Charles Moore had chunks of concrete hurled at him by racist agitators while photographing integration protests at the University of Mississippi in 1962. A Golden Gloves boxer, Moore managed to duck and weave out of the way. But, later that evening, a mob broke into his motel room and beat him. “For all the journalists covering the civil rights story through the ’60s, it was difficult, exhausting, and often very dangerous,” recalled Moore later in life.  

Life is harder for those who endure the threat of police violence on a daily basis rather than while on assignment as a journalist. But these forms of abuse have never been mutually exclusive. For example, in February 1965, Birmingham News photographer Spider Martin covered the repression of civil rights protesters by state troopers in Marion, Ala. After sneaking into a local hospital with the hope of continuing his documentation, he was confronted by an angry state trooper; he escaped but was soon lost in a maze of corridors. Martin recalled years later that a custodian was mopping up and, without speaking, opened a storage closet for Martin to step inside. The trooper then came around the corner and angrily questioned her; Martin, hiding inside the closet, held a bucket of ammonia with which he hoped to blind the trooper if he was discovered. The custodian calmly stated she hadn’t seen anyone and the trooper moved on. “You better leave,” she told Martin after opening the closet. “They killed Jimmy Jackson and beat up on a white TV fella tonight.” 

The story highlights the interconnectedness of the First and 14th Amendments. Martin was indebted to the custodian’s quiet courage, and she valued his work in exposing the injustice through photojournalism.

Indeed, Schulke, Moore, Martin and others shocked Americans with their photographs of civil rights advocates being brutalized by racist police officers. Such images discredited wider opposition to civil rights and helped to galvanize support for major legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today, images of the civil rights movement are burned into the consciousness of America. Historians utilize them in their research, and they have become fundamental (rather than ornamental) primary sources illustrating the tenor and timbre of the past.

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For decades, photographers have placed themselves in harm’s way to document America at its worst. By doing so, they have helped to make America a better place. The same is true for those covering today’s protests; their images expose our malaise, inspire solidarity, discredit authoritarianism and foment change. For example, once again Confederate statues are being removed, this time in places like Richmond, Va., and Birmingham, Ala., where Moore and Martin photographed 50 years ago. As symbols of oppression and racism fall across America, let’s hope for — and, indeed, work toward — the dismantling of the lingering systems they represent. 

Meanwhile, riot police who take pot shots at the press should remember the historical company they keep. Historians in the future will be merciless toward them with their pens.

Don Carleton is a historian and the author of “Struggle for Justice: Four Decades of Civil Rights Photography” (University of Texas Press, 2020).