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How to Cover a Riot
How to Cover a Riot
by John Camp
September 3, 2008
Thirty-nine years ago it doesn't seem possible that time has gone this quickly in the midst of a really murderous race riot in Cairo, Ill., an elderly man tried to strangle me with my own camera strap; but he was in his 70s or 80s and old, and I was in my mid-20s, and I got loose and hurried off down the street and out of sight.
Bad as it was, Cairo was where I learned to enjoy the distant scent of tear gas.
One notable thing, although it didn't seem so notable at the time, was that I was the only reporter there when the old guy tried to strangle me. Reporters would come through from the Paducah paper, from time to time, or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but basically, it was one or two guys at any given time. As a young reporter for the Southeast Missourian of Cape Girardeau, Mo., I had lots of things to do, and only made it to Cairo a half dozen times, and never saw another newsman or TV crew.
If there were to be a similar race riot in Cairo today, you couldn't get a hotel room south of St. Louis, and there'd be satellite trucks stacked up like cordwood down Washington Avenue.
Things have changed.
Maybe the first real changes came with Kent State, and the famous photograph of the young girl calling for help for a kid who'd been shot by National Guard troops. That year I covered riots at the University of Iowa that closed the school and involved serious confrontations between National Guard troops and students. More tear gas.
Working for the Miami Herald in 1972, I covered street action for both the Republican and Democratic national conventions in Miami, and saw probably the most violent conventions ever more violent than even 1968 in Chicago. The last night, the night that President Richard Nixon flew into accept renomination for the presidency, downtown Miami Beach was a battle zone, with kids and cops fighting each other through a haze of gas.
By then, there was lots of media lots of TV crews, lots of still photographers, hundreds of reporters. The numbers continued to grow over the years...
And then came the Internet, and the diffusion of "The Media."
Now, there are two medias the MSM, or the "Main Stream Media," as they call it on the net, and the sort of Off-Broadway Media, and the Off-Off Broadway media, and the Far-Off Broadway media. These folks may be working for outlets as big as national news organizations, and as small as individual political blogs. But they all call themselves, "Media."
Not only do they call themselves that, they make sophisticated media IDs on their laptops, and take the file to Kinkos and print them out on color laser-jets, and embed them in plastic and hang them around their necks on nylon cords...and there they are.
Some of them are pretty interesting. Covering the protests in St. Paul this week, I saw a woman with a media card around her neck who was dressed neck-to-toe in army surplus, had a motorcycle helmet on her head and wore a mask like the Lone Ranger's. I saw a big silver-haired guy in a huge photo-vest with the pockets packed full, shooting a cell phone camera. I saw a two-person video crew, a small attractive young woman and a tall rangy young man, and when something was going on during a march, the woman would sit on the man's shoulders, and run the camera, while the man maneuvered through the crowd to give her best shot. The CBS crews could learn from those two.
But the problem is, a lot of these new guys don't know what to do in a riot.
My eight rules
So here's a list from a long-time riot aficionado, who would prefer not to see anybody get hurt. Especially media people. However off you are.
Follow these simple media rules, and you probably won't get hurt, and you'll probably get the story. Best of all, you'll also look like a pro.
If you have to do something silly like, say, have your lips pierced by five silver rings, dress in black capri pants with 10-inch paratrooper boots and an Army camo jacket, and you're shooting a Samsung digicam, so you look exactly like an LA even if you aren't one well, take bail money with you.
And maybe add a helmet to your ensemble.
24 February 2019
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