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Reporting Post-Ferguson: A Journey To 'Very Dark Places'

Trymaine Lee reports in Ferguson in August 2014.
Courtesy of Trymaine Lee
Trymaine Lee reports in Ferguson in August 2014.

The year since Michael Brown died in Ferguson, Mo., several confrontations between African-Americans and police have become national stories. Often, black journalists have been leading the coverage on these incidents and the steady trickle of them have taken a psychological toll. Many of them shared their experiences with Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team.

One of the featured reporters was Trymaine Lee of MSNBC. He spoke about his time reporting from Ferguson. Part of that conversation was included in Demby's interview on Morning Edition.Following are some additional highlights.

Interview Highlights

On the early days after Brown's death

I had been in Ferguson just a few days after Michael Brown was killed and kind of riding that wave for weeks and months until the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing.

It actually was a lot. You get to see from those very first days the beginnings of a movement, the beginnings of the protests. But you also see the heavy handed response from the police department. And all of the back and forth, and the politicians locally weighing in, from the state level weighing in, from D.C., even, weighing in. It became such a critical moment in this new manifestation of the civil rights movement.

On the growing number of stories of deadly police confrontations

When you look at this list...you can run down a never-ending and growing list of these hashtags of these names of so many young black people who have been killed by the police. And this was kind of that fuse, the kindling that set the fire. For months we saw this national movement. It wasn't just in Ferguson; you saw New York City, you saw out in the West Coast, in the Bay Area, Chicago, Philadelphia — all of these cities that had been grappling with these same kinds of issues for so long — were sparked.

We're taught to be vigilant, and courageous, and speak the truth and shine light in very dark places, but that means you have to go to dark places and shine light. That can take a lot out of you.

Being on the ground...the significance wasn't lost on any of us. It felt important, but it also felt very heavy. Those were some hot days in August, not just emotionally, but also the actual temperature in Ferguson, Mo. It felt like 150 degrees. Everything about this situation was red hot. I can remember standing there on West Florissant after the prosecutor announced the grand jury's decision and just feeling this swell of emotion in the area. It was almost palpable.

And then to watch young people breaking the buildings, setting them on fire, this whole moment felt so explosive. From a journalistic perspective...we were picking through all of the pieces and trying to digest all of this information and all of this going on, and the scenes and these moments, and the response from the community, and all the swell of the politics and emotion, and trying to regurgitate it in some meaningful way for viewers and readers.

It was like a history lesson, an education in the way the cogs of this machine work. Often we see the most vulnerable among us being ground up in that system.

On the personal toll of Ferguson coverage

T: By the time we got to the grand jury decision, I was physically and emotionally drained. Those long, long hours of the early days of the protest, the deadlines –- I was splitting doing TV during the day and during prime time, and also writing stories. I'd be up sometimes until 3 in the morning covering the protests, and I had to be up again at 4:30 or 5 to be on air.

I remembered those moments as I watched West Florissant erupting, and I just felt drained. I felt tired. For weeks after that I felt like I had tears in my eyes. It was not so much because I felt strongly necessarily one way or another about the decision, but to actually witness this moment in this community set ablaze by these emotions, by the feelings injustice, by what you'd have to describe as masses of disaffected young people who felt they didn't have any voice in America. They thought the only way they could express themselves was with bricks and bottles and flames. And then the response from law enforcement, digesting that for weeks and weeks on end was just a lot.

I think as journalists, clearly we are professionals. Clearly, this is what we signed up to do, and we can't let any of this fog our vision. We have to be clear-headed and sober in digesting this information, analyzing what's going on. But I think as journalists who are also humans, I don't think we do a good enough job identifying that there actually is a weight here, that this does take a toll in some way. I think we're taught to be vigilant, and courageous, and speak the truth and shine light in very dark places, but that means you have to go to very dark places and shine light. That can take a lot out of you.

On putting his own experience with police in context

Being an African-American in this country, experiencing what it is like to be black in this nation I think certainly gives you a perspective, and different vantage point than other people. We know what it's like to be stopped and harassed. We know that feeling of the police pulling up behind you with those flashing lights, and being concerned about how this encounter might end. You're always feeling that the eyes are watching you. It's almost like there's some sort of guilt of something that you can't necessarily put your finger on. But it's almost like there's this assumption of guilt; you're guilty of something simply for being who you are.

Of course, I've been a police reporter for a very long time, so I've seen a range of human behavior. People do some really wild and crazy things on both sides of the law. Police officers do some wild stuff; citizens do some wild stuff. But given that experience of being black in America, and interacting and engaging...with all of the systems and institutions, including law-enforcement, gives you a certain perspective where we can understand that frustration of having to bear the burden of some mysterious guilt placed on you by the system.

Every particular case is different. Every time police use force, it's not necessarily abuse. Every encounter isn't necessarily an abuse. But knowing the nature of these interactions are so...volatile and incendiary, I think understanding that perspective gives insight into the range of possibilities in terms of interactions...between black and poor and vulnerable people and the police.

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