Buildings burned, rioters ran amok, a journalist moves into position. A policeman roughs him up. On live TV he points out what’s happening, before police close in.
This is not Minnesota and the arrest of CNN reporter Omar Jimenez. This is nine years ago, in London Tottenham as photojournalist Don Omope was documenting the 2011 London riots.
Omope, 6 foot plus, black man, id’ed himself as a member of the press. His camera and various different lenses itself is not the stuff of amateurs. He’s maltreated by police and in his quick thinking phones BBC News 24 who duly put him on air live. He uses the occasion to point out the offending officer. Omope is one of the few independent journalists at the riot’s epicentre.
It would appear senior police officers monitoring the News recognised the damage and moved quickly to assuage Omope. No such luck in the America.
In 2011, I interviewed Omope soon afterwards in this podcast. The tale he tells is shocking.
I am a journalist working not for a daily news outlet anymore. But journalism doesn’t abandon you if you change professions; neither does my skin colour. I, like millions, felt the injustice, the frustration, the gall, the incomprehensible nature of the arrest of CNN’s Jimenez and his crew. For the slightest of moments Jimenez resists. I twitch because while the arrest is bogus, any sense of resistance could trigger reactions from the police they see as “justifiable”.
Jimenez recognises this and acquiesces. The locker room bard you imagine could have gone like this: “You see how I slammed the black CNN reporter to the ground”.
You flinched, but did not know that faux arrest was a prelude to many incidents in which the police would confront journalists, in several cases, harshly.
My father was a policeman in Ghana before branching out to business and the UK. As a Londoner, like many, I can share my own stories about the police: being stopped holding my A-level Physics book; driving my old battered Fiat with four Ghanaian friends. After the encounter I searched online for the policeman’s precinct and emailed his duty sergeant, CCing Scotland Yard.
I was a regular reporter on crime tagging alongside police on assignments in Manchester and London, and in the job you build up professional relations.
“I respect the police” I said in my letter, “but your officer was wrong”. Two senior policemen came to my house to apologise. I know I was fortunate: as a TV reporter that would not have been lost on the police.
In Minnesota, little regard was given to the optics, let alone the wrongness. But something more sinister in the former lurks.
My next encounter, a police car follows me and orders me to pull over. I’m driving my boyhood dream car, a Honda Prelude. Could that be the reason? I’m not pleased, but my passenger asks me to keep calm as I’m given a ticket and hence summoned to court.
I arrive at court months later and myself and passenger are called to the witness stand. The prosecutor asks my passenger what she does. “I’m in London for my pupilage for the bar”. They didn’t see this coming. “Are you telling the whole truth?” the prosecutor pushes. Althea my friend, a former owner of a publishing company says in her Berkshire tone and a wry smile: “I’m afraid it’s not me not telling the truth”. The magistrates huddled for a few seconds and dismissed the case. These all happen in the 90s.
A reporter, black reporter, in Minnesota merely doing his job brought a chill to viewers when he was arrested. It came in a week when Amy Cooper weaponised a call to NY police to sort out a bird watcher Christian Cooper (no relation), a black man who pointed out her dog should be on a lead.
Then the horrific scenes, the death of George Floyd after a policeman for 9 minutes pins he knee on Floyd’s neck. Then the arrest on live TV of CNN, a black reporter, followed by his crew, whilst another CNN reporter Josh Campbell who’s white, working nearby, went about his business unchallenged
A couple times I’ve moved closer than they would like. They asked politely to move back. They didn’t pull out the handcuffs. Lot different here than what Omar experienced.
Many commentators have made comparisons with the Apartheid state of South Africa. I’ve reported from South Africa as its Apartheid cloak was being lifted. Years before, under Hendrik Verwoerd, Apartheid’s architect, the police and state were a law onto themselves
“We were God on its own. We decided who was going to live and who was going to die”
That’s what the commander of South Africa’s police force, the Vlakplaas, told me for those deemed enemies of the state.
South Africa though in the 90s was a country desperately trying to move towards international acceptance.
We reporters crawled on the ground as bullets flew in downtown Jo’burg, during unrests, remonstrated with border police at Bophuthatswana on my way to cover a story for BBC Radio 4 Docs, had South African Defence Force member train his gun on me in Soweto, reported from Katlehong then designated Murder capital of the world and carefully navigating the space between reporting and the SADF. But in my almost two years there as a reporter I was not taken away; journalism was not trashed as it was in that one seminal moment in the US. The credibility of a reporter who was black was not cruelly examined so as to attempt to reframe him.
Each year at the start of the Royal Television Society awards those gathered observe silence as their fallen comrades are honoured. The committee to protect journalists records data illustrating how dangerous journalism has become.
Over the years, reporters as observers of the events have become the target of despots in corrupt regimes where democracy finds it difficult to flourish.
That narrative has changed as those in the highest offices in democracies vilify journalists as enemies of the people. Some commentators see this as an attempt on political game theory in winning elections. It’s been used before by the German Reich in the 1900s discrediting the press as the Lügenpresse, the Lying press synonymous with news fakery. If politicians can get the people to distrust an independent press, they can speak directly to the constituents and the electorate at large.
The twisted narrative escalated with Jimenez’s faux arrest. Yesterday journalist Marcus Ryder wrote an open letter to the US ambassador in the UK, supported by the signature of 100 black, Asian and ethnic journalists, demanding the US ambassador condemn the arrest and find ways to ameliorate the situation. In added my signature. Since yesterday, there have been more attacks on journalists by police, and media institutions like CNN by demonstrators.
It needs attention, certainly as the US heads into the last furlong towards elections, in June and November because not withstanding the safety of journalists, the message it sends out to other states is the police can act within impunity.
If I were an editor of any media publication, I’d be forming a caucus and leading delegations to meet US federal, state officials in government, police forces and the president to seek answers.
To editors too, that saying, “1st they came for ‘X’ And I did not speak out”.. must have bearing on your work going forward. No one should endure police assaults, citizens black or white or journalists? In South Africa, itt was rough, but there was a general agreement about how journalists could go about their work whilst police did theres.
There’s another thought that the startling image of Omar Jimenez stands to be used for propaganda and must be headed off.
To those peddling lies and disinformation, the sight of the arrest plays to a mendacious optic. That bizarrely though you and I know differently, Jimenez arrests could be used for cynical propaganda that journalists, black journalists, being “arrested” proves to the propagandists point to viewers that journalism is maligned.
Of course that’s rubbish, but it’s the perception not the reality, and in no one can deny this next US election may be the nastiest yet.
Those in positions of power must do all they can to resist this and allow journalists to do their jobs.