Last week, Banter readers helped us do something very few other outlets could ever dream of: they funded our foray into on-the-ground reporting in Ferguson, Missouri by generously donating towards the cost of plane tickets, hotels and car rentals.
While we have done some investigative reporting before, we have never sent a reporter to a potentially violent situation with significant risks. But that is exactly what we did, sending Chez Pazienza to a hotbed of anger and police violence that blew up in the wake of the killing of black teenager Michael Brown.
It all started when late last Sunday, Chez Pazienza emailed me the following message:
I took a couple of minutes to digest what he was saying, and after a few back and forths on logistics (plus a rather large glass of scotch), I emailed Chez back saying:
We discussed the possibility of doing a donation drive in order to help cover costs, but had no idea whether our readers would want to help out. The Banter was in no position to cover his costs, so I knew I would have to somehow cough up the money should it fail. Regardless, I bought Chez's ticket for the following day, thus sealing his fate in Ferguson in the midst of what looked to be a dangerously escalating crisis involving an angry public and a trigger-happy police force. The next morning it dawned on the both of us what we had decided to commit ourselves to. Chez emailed me saying:
I emailed him back and reminded him that that might happen in Ferguson anyway, so he might as well go (this was followed by a lengthy email silence). I knocked up a media pass for him to pick up at a local printing shop on the way to the airport near LAX, and Chez was on his way:
While in Ferguson, Chez began reporting and tweeting straight away, getting out on the streets and capturing the atmosphere and feel of the place with his distinctive reporting style.
"There are some agitators among those protesting angrily but peacefully in the wake of the police shooting of 18-year-old Mike Brown," wrote Chez on his first day there. "But they’ve been met with overwhelming force by a militarized police machine. The police have been the ones escalating the violence instead of defusing it. Things get a little tense, as you’d imagine they would be right now, and the police immediately crank the volume to 11."
(Photos: Chez Pazienza, The Daily Banter)
As Chez explored the city, he spoke to residents who told him what it was like living in an area where police brutality was an everyday experience:
Everyone I’ve talked to today is outraged not only at the injustice of Mike Brown’s death, as it’s the latest in a long history of blue-on-black violence, but at what it means for the place they and their children call home. “It ain’t safe here,” one young woman told me as she clutched her baby girl, “And it’s not the criminals we worry about.”
On his second day in Ferguson, events quickly took a turn for the worse as police chased a pick pocket to the bridge on West Florissant just beyond Canfield Drive, were Mike Brown was killed. Protestor followed the police, who then responded with alarming violence. With dogs and two SWAT vehicles, the police began pushing the crowd back, telling protestors that anyone in the middle of the street was 'there illegally'. And Chez got caught right in the middle of it, paying a heavy price for not getting to the media staging area fast enough:
"One of the last things I remember seeing was a group of cops taking down someone just a few feet in front of me as I retreated quickly to what I thought was the relative safety of the media staging area, which had been specifically cordoned off for us. Then one of the officers reached for his belt, turned and sprayed me directly in the face with a deep orange liquid that created spots all over my camera. I blinked a few times — kept shooting. And then it hit me. If you’ve never been shot with law enforcement-grade oleoresin capsicum, trust me when I tell you you never want to. It’s excruciating. My eyes slammed shut and I doubled over, grunting. “Motherfucker!” I said more than once to no one."
(Chez pepper sprayed in slow motion)
(Chez being tended to by Mashable’s Amanda Wills)
Bob Cesca and I spoke to Chez live from his hotel in Ferguson afterwards, and you can hear about it in more grisly detail on the Bob and Chez Show podcast here. You can go through Chez's archive of reporting here, and see his touching tribute to the natives of Ferguson after recovering from his assault the day after here.
But this, at least to me, defined Chez's experience in Ferguson, and what it meant to interact with the people there rather than speculate from the safety of our offices and keyboards:
I know it was protesters who attended to me at first, giving me milk for my eyes and water for my burning mouth and skin and telling me to hold still so I wouldn’t run into anyone. That should give you some idea of what most of the residents of Ferguson, Missouri — those people furious about the death of Mike Brown — are really like.
As Chez posted on his last day, this is Ferguson:
And you, Banter readers, helped us introduce them to the rest of America.
So thank you again for your extraordinary generosity and faith in us that we could deliver. As media outlets struggle to find sustainable ways of reporting the news, we feel we took a major step in proving that there is a demand for unconventional reporting that does not conform to traditional media rules. We raised enough money to pay for Chez's trip, and even had a little left over for him for when he came back (we're calling this 'Combat Pay'). We went to Ferguson and told the story our way. This could be the start of something big.
And thank you Chez, for taking such a huge personal risk in order to get the story.