Following the shooting death of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, national and global media has engulfed the town of 20,000 people. Brooke talks with Sarah Kendzior, a journalist and St. Louis resident, about how the tidal wave of media coverage is impacting locals.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As local KMOV-TV ponders its own coverage, a tidal wave of national and global media engulfs Ferguson, a town of 20,000 people. What story do they tell?Sarah Kendzior is an independent journalist based in St. Louis, who’s been following the events as a local, as well as a reporter. When she first heard about Michael Brown’s death on Twitter, she doubted that the national media would care.
SARAH KENDZIOR: I saw on the twitter account of @Tefpo, who is a local rapper and writer and activist, the Instagram picture of Michael Brown’s stepfather holding the sign saying his son had been executed in the street. And at the time I was honestly wondering if any national media was going to cover the story at all. I definitely didn't expect the situation where you go to a protest and the protesters will be vastly outnumbered by the number of media figures who are taping them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you describe what the presence of the media feels like in Ferguson?
SARAH KENDZIOR: It's very overwhelming. On Tuesday I was in a barbershop with Umar Lee, who's another local journalist, and we were talking to people who were working there and stupidly we made the decision to tweet that we were at a barbershop in Ferguson and people in the barbershop had told us they were still feeling the effects of the tear gas. Within minutes of Umar and I tweeting that, Al Jazeera America rushed in, CNN rushed in, the clientele of the barbershop left. One of the barbers walked out. Umar was just getting a trim. This trim ended up going on for 25 minutes because CNN thought he made a great background shot. Of course it's very important for this story to be told. I think it's also a great inconvenience for a lot of locals in the area.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet you've noted that the national coverage often gets it wrong. Beginning with even the simplest description of Ferguson.
SARAH KENDZIOR: Initially they were referring to Ferguson as either a small town which it's not, you know, it's part of the North County connected towns that are a suburb of the city. Or they're referring to it as a ghetto. Which it isn't either. Anybody who's been to Ferguson would put that kind of claim aside. I think that there's a real struggle for the national media to understand the geography of St. Louis and particularly how that geography reflects racial politics that have been going on for decades.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how does it?
SARAH KENDZIOR: A lot of people know about violence and poverty and crime in North St. Louis. They do not know as much about North County until recently. Which is where a lot of people from North St. Louis moved to escape that environment. But particular since 2008, the economy of North County has been suffering and so you have a lot of suburban poverty and a lot of frustration. And you know, this has been discussed at least locally for a long time. The McDonald's that everyone shows in Ferguson with all the reporters sitting in it was a McDonald's where workers struck back in March.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, you think reporters basically should be better prepared when they get to town.
SARAH KENDZIOR: Treat St. Louis like a foreign country. If you don't know a place, ask questions. Pay attention to local media and not just the Post-Dispatch, but you know the St. Louis American and even The Evening World.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that cluelessness reflected in the commentaries that you see?
SARAH KENDZIOR: There were some commentaries written by people who are writing from you know London or Brooklyn or something talking about riots being a potentially good thing for St. Louis. They're referencing things like WTO protests or, you know, the protests in London after similar case of police brutality. What people are missing is that this a very vulnerable city. And they're assuming that when a city burns down it rebuilds. And St. Louis is not a city that rebuilds. There's an entire section of downtown where Pruitt-Igoe housing projects were demolished in the mid-70s that has never been rebuilt. It's a fenced off urban forest that's used for absolutely nothing. And every year people debate what to do with that space and every year the trees grow taller. And this is true all over the city. I would not be surprised if you start seeing pictures of just parts of the county showing crumbling buildings and burnt out spaces in empty lots and people are going to think that riots took place there. But that's not riots, that's just apathy. And so when you think that riots are some sort of cleansing process and like symbolic, you know, you're forgetting that actual people live there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think is the principle difference, if there is one, between the way national and international reporters are telling this story and the way that local reporters are?
SARAH KENDZIOR: A lot of the times the national reporting hurts me in a personal way because, you know, I live here, I raise my kids here. And so when I see people treating the people of St. Louis as this sort of symbolic property, not really acknowledging them as human beings I tend to just get angry and put it away. And I think that's probably the difference. Everybody who is a local reporter here is probably here for the long run. And so it's important to us not just that the story get told, but that the problems of the story get fixed. Reporters here, you know, obviously everyone reports the story differently, but we know that the words have consequences for us. The city's future rides on this being resolved in a productive way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you talk about symbols are you including the use of the war-zone metaphor? You know, the ubiquitous images of protesters being hit by tear gas. The tag #Fergistan and even comparisons to Iraq and Gaza.
SARAH KENDZIOR: Yeah, I mean,I think that those comparisons are ridiculous 'cause what you really have is a brutal militarized police in an American suburb. And that's significant in and of itself. You do not need a metaphor to express that. It doesn't look anything like Gaza. You know it's a narrow strip of stores that were either burnt or looted and that are boarded up. You can go to whole, you know, neighborhoods of St. Louis that look like that and have looked like that for like 30 years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In May of last year, you wrote an op-ed for Al Jazeera English called "The View From Fly-Over Country." In St. Louis, you wrote, "Possibilities are supposed to be in the past. But when the American dream is dying for everyone, St. Louis might be the one to rise up." Many have called your Op-Ed prophetic. Are you surprised about what's happening now?
SARAH KENDZIOR: I'm surprised at the level of attention and the passion and the intensity of the situation. But I'm not really surprised that a community came out to protest after a child from that community was killed. There have been protests in North County for the last couple of years. They're frustrated and they've been speaking out about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think it might be a place where there's actually some change then?
SARAH KENDZIOR: I mean, that's the question that breaking everybody's heart. Our problems, which have been things discussed in St. Louis for a very long time are now, you know, an international talking point. And city officials have long been very defensive about St. Louis' reputation. This is where Escape from New York was filmed and they didn't even need to build a set. They just filmed what things actually looked like and it was supposed to be a post-apocalyptic society. We are now known as a city that is synonymous with police brutality, with incompetence, with military action with racism. And night after night everyone in St. Louis is gripped to the live stream a few miles from their home watching this happen and just living in fear and in shame and in anger. That's what's frightening. It's that there's really no end in sight. And when you don't know what's coming it's hard to imagine a positive change. I mean, believe me, St. Louis will change. We just don't know what kind of change it's going to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sarah, thank you very much.
SARAH KENDZIOR: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sarah Kendzior is a writer, reporter and an anthropologist based in St. Louis.