Here's the video that everyone seems to be talking about. It shows anti-racist Black Lives Matter student protesters, in a public square at the University of Missouri, asking student photographer Tim Tai—on assignment for ESPN—to move away, and then pushing him back:
A few quick thoughts:
(a) The sooner we stop obsessing over this one instance of some protesters blocking a journalist from doing his job, the sooner we stop contributing to distrust in journalists, which has fallen to historic lows, because this really is not the issue. Questions over why Tai was crowded out are worth asking, but let's recognize that they are not significant compared with the story, in all its facets, of systematic racism at colleges and writ large in America. This is something Tai himself recognizes:
(b) Shoving a journalist in a public place isn't okay. Usually it's the cops who do this. That "mass media professor" Melissa Click, seen at the end of the video calling for some "muscle" to move Tai away? She should be fired or sent to remedial school. What a fraud. (And good that she just apologized.)
(c) So far, my social media feeds have blown up with articles about this incident, like this one from the New York Times, that don't directly quote the protesters on the ground or explain why they were doing what they were doing. That's a rather one-sided story. Perhaps this is because the protesters have refused to speak to the media—if that's the choice they made, that's on them. But this story in the Columbia Missourian indicates that protesters were "shielding" emaciated hunger striking student Jonathan Butler—a bona fide hero—from "the barrage of reporters and curious onlookers" after the university president resigned. That was an intense, emotional moment, surely. It's up to reporters on the ground to be compassionate and make solid judgements about how to document what's happening without being assholes.
Without having been there, it's hard to know exactly where Tai fits into this constellation. But he seems like a principled guy, and it looks like the students might have been overzealous in trying to push him even further back from where he already was.
(d) The best journalism is based on trust—trust in which a reporter forms a relationship with a source who has knowledge of a subject, and on a larger scale, trust between journalists and communities. Communities want to trust that journalists are seeking out truths, not ratings or prizes or an agenda, and respecting all voices.
But there's little historical trust between black communities and the mass media, and here in Seattle there's evidence of a breakdown in a trust between our own city's Black Lives Matter movement and local media outlets. Last December, Women of Color for Systemic Change led a march from Garfield High School down to Seattle police headquarters. They stopped at an intersection in the International District, with marchers forming a big circle around the women with megaphones in the center.
As a KOMO crew moved into the gap, coming close to the women, they seemed to violate the protesters' shared understanding of the space (UPDATE: The reporters say activists were upset because their affiliated network, ABC, had just run an interview with Darren Wilson, the Ferguson cop who killed Michael Brown). The activists shouted "shame!" at the crew, and the protest leaders asked the crew to back off. Finally, they did. There wasn't any shoving, from what I saw. But it was a tense moment that in many respects mirrors the more recent moment at Mizzou.
Black Lives Matter protests are about reclaiming power from those in power who have done wrong. And there is a generalized feeling, not without some basis, that local journalists view the protesters as a nuisance or a threat—a thing to be neutralized, corralled, but also something to profit from—instead of focusing on the wrongs protesters are trying to get addressed. Combined with the perception that Seattle's media has never covered communities of color equitably, and only covered the South End as an area of crime—not an actual neighborhood—you can see why protesters seeking racial justice might distrust reporters (including us at The Stranger) and treat them with a degree of hostility.
(d) New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait believes this incident shows how protesters are intolerant of dissent. If his goal in life is to be a caricature of the white liberal who is more devoted to order than justice, busily critiquing the tactics of the young people who are changing the world, he's doing a fucking great job.
(e) Tasneem Raja, a senior editor at NPR, is worth reading on all of this: