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KBIA Reporter Reflects on Being Inside Confrontation Between Reporters and MU Demonstrators

Bram Sable-Smith

Yesterday was a big news day in our City, and surely, you already know about the high profile resignations at the University of Missouri: both the UM system President and MU Chancellor are out.

At this point, it’s likely you’ve also heard that most of the demonstrators who catalyzed those resignations did not want to talk to the press.


There’s a video making its way around the Internet. If you haven’t seen it, it’s not hard to find. In it, there is a photographer, an MU student, insisting on his right to take photos. Demonstrators, on the other hand, insist he needs to leave.

Demonstrators chanting, "Hey-hey, ho-ho, reporters have got to go!"

One of the tenser moments comes when a demonstrator sizes up the photographer. They stare at each other, lips pursed.

Not long after that, a little more than three minutes into the video, a reporter with headphones on comes in the screen and says something inaudible to the photographer. The photographer looks at him for a moment, then continues on.

What that reporter said was, “there’s nothing to gain from this.” I know that, because that reporter was me.

Credit Bram Sable-Smith / KBIA

Chances are you’ve already seen a lot of stories about this video – not about me, but about the first amendment, and who is right and who is wrong here. This isn’t one of those stories. I don’t know who is right and who is wrong.

What I do know is a strange thing happened yesterday, and I really feel the need to talk about it.

Demonstrators asking the photographer to leave.

The demonstrator telling the photographer to back up is a black man. Other demonstrators nearby are white, black, men, women. The photographer appears to me to be Asian, though I didn’t ask anyone how they identified. But, like me, most of the reporters there yesterday were white men.

There’s no avoiding talking about race here, not in a story about a demonstration against systematic oppression. And while there were many, many moments of unity between everyone, there were other moments where that was not the case.

For me, this came up in a big way later on in the morning when I accidentally found myself, along with a USA Today reporter, inside what you might call the inner circle of demonstrators.

Needless to say, as journalists, we were not a welcomed presence.

Raw audio from inside the the circle of demonstrators keeping the media out. A warning, there are some swear words.

At one point, the other journalist, a white man from Denmark, insisted he had a right to be there under the first amendment. One of the demonstrators, also a white man, replied, “Step back! I’m not speaking on anyone’s behalf, I’m speaking on my behalf. Get the [expletive] back!”

Then, two more demonstrators, who were black women, called for more people to come and help move us away.

“Black men, please come over here, please.”

Credit Bram Sable-Smith / KBIA

This really hit me pretty hard. In part, it was playing on the fear of a stereotype so culturally engrained it’s at once taboo and unavoidable, demonstrative of the very kind of systemic oppression being demonstrated against.

And I couldn’t help but question, “What was I doing there?” “What value was I adding to the conversation by being there? “

At the same time, I also had to wonder, “what’s the point of shutting me out?”

If you’ve been following this story, you know other journalists have been asking these same questions. I don’t have a good answer for any of them.

When I got back to my desk, yesterday, a reporter in St. Louis tweeted at me about a photo I had posted showing demonstrators blocking out the media.

“What’s the rationale for blocking out the media?” he asked.

"I asked,” I replied, “was told, ‘no comment.’”

“This appears to be a concern,” he said, quoting a tweet that read, “White media loves to make things about them. It’s disgusting.”

I understand the sentiment. Here I am writing this story, after all. But I'm writing this because I really don’t  know what to make of the whole day, and it sure would help to have a conversation. 

A curious Columbia, Mo. native, Bram Sable-Smith has documented mbira musicians in Zimbabwe, mining protests in Chile, and the St. Louis airport's tumultuous relationship with the Chinese cargo business. His reporting from Ferguson, Mo. was part of a KBIA documentary honored by the Missouri Broadcasters Association and winner of a national Edward R. Murrow Award. He comes to KBIA most recently from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine.
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