If you follow New Jersey news, you’ve probably encountered Gustavo Martínez Contreras. He’s a multimedia reporter for the Asbury Park Press, but he mostly covers Lakewood, and Lakewood is a place that regularly makes the news. There’s been more than a little virus in Lakewood, and Contreras has been on top of that story. His bilingualism has been an asset in a changing Ocean County, and he put it to excellent use in Mexico City after the 2017 earthquakes. He brought back some stunning, stomach-churning photos of the wreckage, and helped alert the world to the devastation there. On Monday night, Contreras was working closer to home: he was shooting the protests in Asbury Park, which is exactly where you’d expect a reporter to be. He was doing his job. For that, he was arrested, loaded into a police van, held by the cops overnight, and accused of failure to disperse. This charge is major b.s., and if it was ever widely enforced, would make it impossible for a reporter to get a story.
Which may be the plan. All over the country, journalists are getting arrested for photographing, or filming, or reporting, or just acting the observer in the place that their occupation requires them to be. NeimanLab records over a hundred instances of police assault on working journalists over the last four days. Something has shifted. It’s not inconceivable that there’s been a coordinated effort to target reporters, but I think it’s more likely that many rank and file cops have concluded that anybody with a camera is an enemy, and anybody with a camera and a platform needs to be silenced, or at least scared shitless.
The relationship between reporters and policemen is a complicated one. It’s not necessarily adversarial: those tales of cops and scribes drinking together and swapping notes are, in my own Jersey newsroom experience, absolutely accurate. Policemen are often sources for journalists, and sometimes, journalists are the sources for police. Beyond that, cops and reporters are tied together by their duties to the cities they’re professionally obligated to serve. There’s a common acknowledgment that both jobs are difficult, and require daily strolls through gray areas, and the strange precincts of distortion and confusion. Policemen know that if they don’t have confidence of the city — if they lose their legitimacy as arbiters — a tough role gets much tougher. That’s why they’ve always kept the lines open with news desks and cable stations. The better the cops look, the more moral authority they wield, and nothing makes the cops look good any quicker than a favorable A-1 story.
Or perhaps that only used to be true. Perhaps cops have decided that they don’t care what members of the community think of them anymore. Maybe they believe that as long as they maintain the upper hand, might will always make right, and if people don’t like it, too bad, here’s some tear gas for your face. This would be consistent with trends that have recently swept right across America, and that includes American newsrooms. If a break has happened, I don’t think there’s any way to overemphasize its significance to American democracy, or whatever is left of it. Journalists are the eyes and ears of the city. A real journalist — one who goes out, talks to people in the community, and brings back a story — is an indispensable person and a load-bearing pillar of public culture. He might make his agenda apparent, but he isn’t driven by it; he’s not a desk pundit or a professional opinion-haver. Instead, he’s going to throw himself into the middle of the fracas, try to orient himself, and hammer together something approaching objective truth. Then he’s going to sing his song back the way he heard it — no matter who it pisses off.
Beat cops ought to understand and sympathize with that. When they do their jobs right, they’re actually up to something similar. They have ideological proclivities just like the rest of us do, and that’s natural, but when they’re out on the street, they’ve got to assess everything they encounter as objectively as they can. When they put the blinders on reporters and stuff videographers into squad cars on ludicrous charges, it is a dead certainty that they’re not taking that responsibility seriously. They’re leading with prejudice, and applying authority, and sometimes lethal force, in ways that they wouldn’t if they were using their heads and behaving fairly. They’ve decided that a class of people — African-Americans, or socialists, or the destitute and homeless, or journalists — are the enemy, and they’re the good guys, the boys in blue, and entitled to treat that underclass however they see fit.
A police force that has arrived at this conclusion is worthless to a city. Nobody but anarchists like anarchy (and in practice, even anarchists rarely do), but it’s actually safer for the people if a force like that was simply disbanded. Suspicion of the growing prejudice of the police is the entire motivation behind the recent wave of protests. We’re worried that our local protectors have decided that they’re our judges, juries, and occasional executioners, and the killing of George Floyd, captured on camera in graphic detail for the whole planet to see, demonstrates for the umpteenth time that those worries aren’t paranoid delusions. We fear that a combination of militarism, surveillance and plain old American arrogance has turned the police into the advance guard of an armed force in a culture war that nobody in his right mind wants to fight. Every time they cuff a journalist, they reinforce those fears, and hasten the collapse of civil society and accelerate our descent into mindless, muscle-bound autocracy. If they want to avoid that outcome — and believe me, they used to — they’ve got to let reporters take pictures, and write stories, and, whenever necessary, hold them accountable.
And if you see Gustavo Martínez Contreras, give that poor guy a pat on the back. Sorry you had to go through that, man. Failure to disperse, sheesh.