America Tonight

Police to Al Jazeera journalist near Ferguson: 'I'll bust your head'

Producer Aaron Ernst looks back on an encounter with local police near Ferguson that almost led to his arrest

ST. LOUIS — It’s not every day that a police officer tells you he’s going to bust your head open.

The most exasperating thing about almost being arrested near Ferguson, Missouri, for doing my job as a journalist — reporting on tensions among citizens and law enforcement here — was my complete inability to fight back against what was an obvious abuse of police authority. 

The incident began on Thursday night when “America Tonight” director of photography Jung Park, anchor Joie Chen and I hopped in a taxi to interview Umar Lee, a cab driver and columnist who knows the racial history of North St. Louis County, which has become the focus of worldwide media attention.

As we drove near Ferguson’s border with the neighboring town of Kinloch, JP was recording Lee, and I was recording Joie. When the interview was over, we got out of the cab to record a shot of it driving by.

Two Kinloch officers in a patrol car stopped and asked what we were doing. I identified JP and myself as a cameraman and producer working for Al Jazeera America for “America Tonight.” The officer who was driving told us to leave the area. When we asked why, he said only that it wasn’t safe to be there and we had to leave. Puzzled, we got in the cab and did as requested. A little farther down the road, we saw a sign that JP wanted to shoot for our story, so we stopped and again got out.

The same officers, who had been following our car, pulled up and joined us in the street. Lee got out and asked the officers what was wrong.

To be totally clear: We were on a public street. It was not blocked off, and other cars occasionally passed. No curfew was in effect.

Here is a transcript of our most interesting exchanges: 

Officer 1: You’ve got your choice — that way or my way.

Lee: We’re in the city of Ferguson, officer.

Officer 1: No, you are not.

Officer 2: You’re still in us [sic].

Officer 1: You’re still in Kinloch. Don’t feed me no bull----. [Pointing to me] Take it that way.

Umar Lee: What’s the problem, officer?

Officer 1: What’s the problem? What do you think the problem is?

Lee: I don’t know. What’s the problem?

Officer 1: Take them out of here. This is not an area where you’re supposed to be right now.

Lee: Why not? Who cannot be in Kinloch?

Officer 1: I tell you what. Take them out of here.

Lee: What did we do wrong?

Officer 1: I’m not saying you did anything wrong, I’m saying that I don’t want you here at this time of night.

After Lee asked the officer for his name, which he refused to divulge, the officer threatened to tow the cab for illegal parking. And then he turned to us.

Jung Park: I need to shoot the sign.

Officer 1: [to JP] You don’t need to shoot nothing. Take a hike.

JP: No, I need to shoot the sign for our story.

Officer 1: [To me] You need to take a hike.

Me: We need to shoot the sign first.

Officer 1: No, you don’t.

Me: Yeah, we do.

Officer 1: No, you don’t. You come back when it’s daylight.  

Me: Sir, could you —

Officer 1: Did you hear what I said? … You want to go, we’ll go.

At this point, the officer approached me and grabbed my wrist.

Officer 1: [Holding my arm] Don’t resist. I’ll bust your ass. I’ll bust your head right here.

Me: [To JP] Are you filming this?

Officer 1: Film it! I don’t give a s---. Because you’ll go, and I’ll sure confiscate your film for evidence.

JP: No, what I’m saying is —

Officer 1: I’m asking you to leave!

Officer 2: Go now or you get locked up!

Officer 1: That’s it.

The officer eventually dropped my arm, and we got in the cab and left. I was mostly bemused by the encounter. Why would an officer so blatantly threaten a journalist for doing his job while cameras were rolling?

But the more I thought about it, the more the encounter seemed emblematic, albeit on a vastly smaller and, in comparison, almost insignificant scale, of the dynamics we’re reporting on in Ferguson.

The vast majority of the officers I met around St. Louis were doing the best they could in a difficult and dangerous situation. But the kind of officer who we encountered — one who uses his authority to bully the public and press simply because he is protected by the law and a gun — gives others a bad name. That kind of police impunity seems to be at the root of the anger and protests we witnessed.

In our case, the result was a minor inconvenience. But for many African-Americans living in neighborhoods heavily patrolled by police, the stakes of an encounter with officers who abuse their authority without fear of reprimand have proved deadly. Until such officers are held to account, the dynamics of the protests in Ferguson and across the country are unlikely to change anytime soon.

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