WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? A question I cringe everytime I hear it, and one I'm asked way too often while covering breaking news through out Baltimore. It's usually followed by a group of officers laying hands on me and trying to physically remove me from an area.
It'd be one thing if this was taking place at some fancy cocktail event, while dressed in my characteristic attire (all black, leather vest, hat, barefoot or open sandals, year round), I'm typically not on VIP guest lists. But to be routinely challenged, in public space, by public servants, is something I find deeply disturbing.
Nearly 20 years ago, I first got involved involved with independent, street journalism. I've been fortunate to see my work appear far and wide, around the world. Always controversial, back then, to protect the privacy of my family and myself, I typically published anonymousy, or under one assumed name or another. Some people knew my face, few knew my real name.
Strange as it may seem, I've had less issues with access then than I do now. I must have missed the memo given to cops, informing them that constitutional rights, for non-main-stream journalists, had been suspended in Baltimore.
When police walk past everyday citizens, standing around gawking at a scene, and single me out because of a camera hanging from my neck, or a clearly visible press pass, we got a problem. A BIG PROBLEM!
Having worked with, around and among all sorts of law enforcement, from various agencies, in this country and others, I have never seen a group having more issues with the presence of a camera than Baltimore's finest. What gives?
The issue is not unique to Baltimore City either. Surrounding counties making up the Baltimore metro are just as guilty. In the last month, I've been challenged by Baltimore County and Howard County too.
Based on numerous accounts, Prince Georges County, Maryland State Police, and even Montgomery County Police have been guilty of this same egregiously unsettling behavior.
While I could write a book on this subject; and all the ways it's fundamentally wrong, what a waste of resources it is to have cops hassling journalists instead of crime, the bad blood it breeds between folk like myself and the police; for now, I'll keep it brief. After all, I have to save something for the book.
THE BOTTOM LINE
When some poorly trained, over aggressive, lack of civil rights comprehending cop, tries to push me around, simply because I'm reporting on a story. Not only is it a nuisance, it's a violation of the highest law of the land; the Constitution of The United States. The work I do is not a priviledge, it's a constitutionally protected endeavor.
Simply put; The First Amendment gives the press the right to publish news, information and opinions without government interference. Gathering of said information included. This also means people have the right to publish their own newspapers, blogs, websites, etc.
Has the time arrived to begin pressing charges against individual officers for infringement and suppression of First Amendement rights? Would making a good example of one and taking it all the way to the fullest extent allowable send a clear message to police agencies? There needs to be better training for law enforcement in dealing with media and to understand it's vital role in a free and democratic society?
What do you think?