A veteran cameraman whose news crew was chased away from protests last week in Ferguson, Mo., by police lobbing tear gas and firing rubber bullets told FoxNews.com he thinks his team was targeted and that it got “absolutely no warning” prior to the barrage.
Sam Winslade, 31, said he and Al Jazeera America colleagues Ash-har Quraishi and Marla Cichowski clearly established themselves as journalists while setting up live-shot equipment about 40 feet away from police officers, some of whom were in an armored vehicle.
“I feel like it was intentional; I feel we were targeted,” Winslade said on Monday. “We were very clear that we were media. But because of our light, it was hard for them to see. They could see that we clearly were not protesters, however.”
Winslade said rubber bullets or bean bag rounds were then fired without warning, landing within feet of the crew.
“We heard them and that’s when we screamed, ‘Press, press, we’re press!’” Winslade said. “And then the tear gas came in. And when we proceeded to move away, they still fired at us. We had retreated and then moved back to our live position and when we started to move back, we were fired upon again with what was believed to be more rubber bullets.”
Although St. Louis County police were in charge of the scene at the time, Winslade said it remains unclear which agency ordered police to launch tear gas in the incident, which was caught on video. St. Louis County Police Officer Brian Schellman said the department is still trying to determine what role, if any, it played in the incident.
Al Jazeera America officials have characterized the incident as an “egregious assault on the freedom of the press,” one clearly intended to have a “chilling effect” on the network’s ability to cover the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
“Thankfully, all three crew members are physically fine,” Al Jazeera’s statement read. “We believe that this situation must be investigated along with those involving our colleagues at other media outlets.”
Footage of the incident has since surfaced online and has prompted several calls for independent investigations. The American Society of News Editors has characterized the event as part of a “concerted, top-down effort” to restrict the fundamental First Amendment rights of the public and press.
"From the beginning of this situation, the police have made conscious decisions to restrict information and images coming from Ferguson," ASNE President David Boardman said in a statement. "Of course, these efforts largely have been unsuccessful, as the nation and the world are still seeing for themselves the heinous actions of the police. For every reporter they arrest, every image they block, every citizen they censor, another will still write, photograph and speak."
The St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department has said it was not the agency that fired upon Winslade and his colleagues, but has confirmed it removed the abandoned lighting equipment after the trio fled for safer ground.
The department’s SWAT team did, however, pick the crew up later and took them to safety, according to Winslade, who said he wonders if the incident will ever be properly investigated.
“It’s hard to say really,” he said. "The main part of the story is obviously Michael Brown, so I would hate for us, as press, to be rolled up into this story. At the same time, I would like some answers. They were trying to intimidate the press from the way we were handling it and without continued pressure from the media, I suspect this event will be swept under the carpet.”
Winslade, a field journalist for more than 13 years, has since left Ferguson and returned to Chicago. He said he wasn't prepared for what he saw in the St. Louis suburb.
“We were definitely on edge,” he told FoxNews.com. “It’s one thing to expect this kind of response when you’re in places like the Middle East, but this was completely unexpected because this was middle America.”
Two autopsies, including one conducted at the request of Brown's family, determined that the teen was shot at least six times, including twice in the head. Brown’s death on Aug. 9 set off a week of heated protests and stoked racial tensions between residents of the predominantly black community and the Ferguson Police Department, prompting Gov. Jay Nixon to call in the National Guard and put the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of security.
A grand jury could begin hearing evidence as early as Wednesday to determine whether Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson will faces criminal charges in Brown's death.
Cichowski, meanwhile, a former Fox News Channel field producer, told FoxNews.com she had not encountered a similar situation during her 15 years in the business.
"All of a sudden our crew vehicle that was parked on the street was hit by a rubber bullet from an armored vehicle, we rolled out 'We are press, we are with the media,'" Cichowski wrote FoxNews.com in an e-mail. "Then seconds later they fired tear gas at our direction and it hit our car/live shot location. Then we ran. Couldn't believe what was happening."