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Thursday, October 27, 2016

When you don’t know if the violent scenes on the evening news are in Iraq or in Ferguson, Missouri, then things are bad.

Something is rotten in the state of Missouri. Ferguson is a dark small town where rage boiled over after a white police officer fatally shot a young black man while he was walking unarmed. Michael Brown never had a chance. It was unjustifiable, as the word of a witness has circled ’round and ’round, but authorities have not said so.

The stories and pictures of paramilitary police violence aimed at citizens and at reporters from around the nation are troubling on several fronts. The unarmed Brown, slain in broad daylight and reportedly shot at least six times, has become a catalyst for waves of black majority protests at the white power structure of the town and the state. Ferguson is a classic small Southern town; let’s not forget. But is Ferguson holding up a mirror to the rest of America? How is this what we’ve become in the very heart of the country?

Leadership on civic fronts has been lacking at best, so the federal government needs to make its presence firmly felt, just as it has at past crisis points in civil rights. Attorney General Eric Holder, who is black, spoke with empathy to African-American residents of this segregated town. With the help of federal investigators, Holder is the best hope for restoring calm and speaking for President Obama, who has his hands full with Iraq.

The white, Democratic Missouri governor, Jay Nixon, still doesn’t know whose side he’s on. Nobody in state office has yet spoken clearly to the sound and fury, to quell the anger of protestors: “I hear you for your cause.” Then as we’ve seen, looting makes everything worse. This leaves those who remember Martin Luther King Jr. preaching nonviolence to wonder where all the flowers of the ’60s have gone.

To set the historical scene: Missouri is still culturally the South, as a former slave state. Race has festered under the surface for two centuries. The Mississippi River, which bends through there, was the way to for fugitive slaves to escape to freedom. Mark Twain wrote all about it in his greatest novel, Huckleberry Finn.

There is nothing quaint or charming about this part of the South. Since the ’60s, racial tensions clearly simmer, and police forces are now lethally armed and quicker to shoot. Nobody’s preaching the gospel of nonviolence to them, either.

Journalists, like any tribe, are feeling the pain of some of their own getting harassed and arrested when they’re on the job in fraught scenes. A Washington Post reporter and a Huffington Post reporter were briefly detained at a McDonalds, but when you are the one getting arrested there’s no such thing as “briefly” when you’re handcuffed and held in jail. Believe me, the minutes are long as years. Because you don’t know when it ends.

Friends of friends have been arrested or assaulted in Ferguson — a few of whom work for Al-Jazeera America.

The result is, reporters are becoming part of the story, the more they get confronted by police in Missouri, who don’t seem to care much what the world thinks of them. The Committee to Protect Journalists has issued a statement. “We are concerned by the detention and harassment of reporters trying to cover the news in Ferguson,” Robert Mahoney, the Committee’s deputy director, said.

And I know what that’s like. I once got arrested at a bad midnight scene on the Baltimore streets involving police brutality. For asking a question, I spent a night in the city women’s jail. The Baltimore Sun got me out in the morning. I have never been so grateful to see an editor’s face. Seven years have gone by, and it still cuts sharp on my memory.

Not only is it a personal ordeal to be arrested, for minutes or hours, but also it chills and violates the freedom of speech guarantee in the First Amendment. When you begin to lose that, you might as well be in Iraq.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit

AFP Photo/Michael B. Thomas

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