Jul 1 2000

Whitewash in Washington

Media provide cover as police militarize D.C.

If any groups deserve high marks, they are the disciplined men and women of the Metropolitan Police Department. . . . The city should be grateful for the professional manner in which they handled the week-long protests.

— “Hail to the Chief—and His Cops,” Washington Post editorial (4/19/00)

Police sought to create an atmosphere of palatable fear. Anyone who wanted to hear about the demonstrators’ political views knew that she ran a severe risk of being tear gassed, pepper sprayed, or arrested just for being in the area where speech was taking place. Anyone identified as an activist risked a police raid in the middle of the night.

— Zachary Wolfe, National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer Coordinator (4/17/00)

Despite numerous allegations of police brutality, unconstitutional arrests and harassment, most mainstream U.S. media concurred with the Washington Post’s view that Washington, D.C. police had given a tough but admirably professional performance during the April protests against the World Bank and Inter-national Monetary Fund (IMF).

Charges of police misconduct leveled by legal observers and activists were rarely investigated in the mainstream press. Instead, the unsubstantiated claim that Police Chief Charles Ramsey “was even admired by the protesters for his restraint” in directing police action (NBC Nightly News, 4/17/00) was widely repeated. Assurances from D.C. officials that police had only “acted with appropriate force” (New York Times, 4/17/00) were widely reported as well, often without any critical comment to balance them.

Rewriting Seattle

Even before the protests began, media outlets worked hard to prepare the public to accept the coming militarization of the nation’s capital. In an apparent effort to explain the D.C. police department’s massive (and costly) display of force, many reports rewrote history, portraying the activists who shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle last November as violent troublemakers. A typical story (New York Times, 4/11/00) led with the claim that the Mobilization for Global Justice meant “to extend the protest against global economics that plunged Seattle into violent confrontations.” Only in the second to last paragraph, after detailing D.C. police precautions against “potential troublemakers,” did the

Times note that the Mobilization was “disavowing violence.”

Similarly, in an April 6 CBS Evening News report loaded with inaccuracies, Dan Rather warned that if protesters were “hoping for a replay of last year’s violence in Seattle, those charged with keeping the peace in Washington, D.C., have other ideas.” Later in the broadcast, correspondent Jim Stewart incorrectly asserted that activists had been “practicing urban assault techniques.” Ironically, moments later the report featured Ruckus Society program director Han Shan advocating nonviolence.

In this rush to justify speculation about how dangerous D.C. protesters might be, reporters twisted basic facts about Seattle. Seattle police began hitting and using chemical agents against nonviolent protesters well before a handful of WTO opponents started breaking windows. (See Extra!, 1-2/00.) Media accounts have consistently reversed the chronology, however, blaming the police violence on the vandals, who in fact were largely ignored by law enforcement. The vast majority of violence—which should be distinguished from vandalism—was committed by the Seattle police department. Indeed, Mark Goldstone of the National Lawyers Guild has characterized the Seattle violence as a “police riot.” (AlterNet, 5/3/00)

Invisible violence

Disturbingly, media exaggeration of the “threat” posed by anti-IMF/World Bank demonstrators may have encouraged D.C. law enforcement to harass activists without fear of intense press scrutiny. Given the mainstream press’s failure to seriously investigate the numerous allegations of police abuse that have surfaced, such confidence wouldn’t have been misplaced.

In an in-depth alternative press investigation into police conduct during the demonstrations, journalist Terry Allen (In These Times, 5/29/00) summarized findings that rarely received more than passing mention in mainstream coverage:

Law enforcement agents surveilled activists, infiltrated meetings disguised as participants, conducted a mass arrest of more than 600 nonviolent marchers and bystanders, mistreated people in custody, confiscated First Amendment—protected literature, violated a contract with protesters’ lawyers, and used the fire department (thereby obviating the need for a warrant) to search and then shut down the organizing headquarters. In violation of department policy, police frequently failed to wear identifying badges or give their shield numbers when asked; they failed to warn peaceful crowds to disperse before initiating arrests; and they may have interfered with the phone lines of lawyers handling arrests.

Though you wouldn’t know it from reading the papers, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has launched an investigation into complaints that many of those arrested were denied access to restrooms, food, water and legal counsel, and given misleading and intimidating legal advice by police. The ACLU detailed these allegations in an April 16 letter to D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey, which the organization also released to the press. A Nexis search of major U.S. papers in the weeks following the protest found that only USA Today (4/17/00) had made any mention of the ACLU’s letter to Ramsey or the group’s investigation. ABC, CBS and NBC also failed to report the ACLU’s concerns.

In addition, the National Lawyers Guild, which assisted the Mobilization with legal advice, has announced its intention to file a class-action lawsuit. The suit is to charge that police violated First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, as well as denying protesters access to counsel and subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment (AlterNet, 5/3/00). At press time, none of the country’s major papers or national TV network news programs had covered the Guild’s pending lawsuits.

Many outlets did report the basic facts of the most flagrant instances of police misconduct, but by and large reporters failed to ask tough questions about them. This pattern was well illustrated by coverage of the most widely reported incidence of police harassment, the April 15 raid on the Convergence Center, the Mobilization’s headquarters. Even NBC Nightly News, which in the end gave police performance “high marks” (4/18/00), exhibited skepticism about the claim that the center had to be closed for fire safety reasons. NBC reporter Fred Francis (4/15/00) characterized the closure as “brazen” and described a police spokesperson as “smug,” but, like most other reporters, he did not go so far as to question the legality of the raid.

The New York Times correctly reported the shutdown of the Convergence Center and the mass arrest later that day of roughly 600 protesters. Commendably, the Times (4/16/00) was careful to note that though Chief Ramsey claimed demonstrators had “refused police orders to disperse,” reporters on the scene “had not heard any such order.” The article went on, however, to explain police actions as evidence of the police department’s determination “to prevent any repeat of the chaos” of Seattle.

The “preventing chaos” rationalization simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. As many observers can testify, the effect of the Convergence Center raid was anything but calming. Mark Goldstone of the Lawyers Guild (AlterNet, 5/3/00) noted the “irony” of police using safety concerns as a pretext for an action that “disrupted the ability of the activists to get non-violence training” (which had been scheduled to be held in the center). Disorienting and antagonizing thousands of out-of-town activists with a raid of dubious legality seems more likely to cause chaos than prevent it. This perspective was absent from most mainstream reports.

On the whole, the Washington Post’s hometown news coverage of the protests was more in-depth than the New York Times’, and at least one Post article (4/18/00) mentioned that protest organizers “condemned the police for overreacting to generally nonviolent civil disobedience.” Even so, Post articles often displayed a curious nonchalance about the police department’s use of force. One article (4/17/00) stated that “police used clubs and pepper spray in sporadic scuffles with protesters but generally let the demonstrators frolic,” as if there were nothing incompatible in these two clauses.

A piece from the paper’s “Style” section (4/17/00) complained that “at times it’s hard to distinguish the capital of the free world from a police state,” then proceeded, bewilderingly, to blame demonstrators for this. The militarization of D.C. was necessary, the writer said, because police had to prevent “self-righteous troublemakers from dropping bombs into mailboxes and otherwise exercising their God-given right to make fools of themselves.”

Anyone relying on the nightly TV news for information would have had an even harder time getting a coherent explanation of events. Anchors and reporters often seemed oblivious to the footage being broadcast by their own shows. Visual images of police beating and pepper-spraying protesters aired on the three major networks, but the accompanying commentary sometimes contrasted bizarrely with the reality being shown.

For example, one NBC Nightly News report (4/17/00) opened with footage of police forcefully slamming their batons into a line of unresisting, apparently peaceful protesters. The voiceover incongruously explained that these were protesters “frustrated by their failure to shut down the financial meetings.” No mention was made of the police violence viewers had just seen.

Moments later, the report stated that some protesters at the April 17 demonstrations “wanted to fight”; this assertion was accompanied by footage of a young man screaming “Oh, my God, it hurts!” as a woman rinsed out his eyes, presumably to flush them of pepper spray. It is unclear whether NBC was unable to tell the difference between a person incapacitated by pain and a person eager to fight, or was simply unable to find footage to support its story about aggressive protesters.