TIME #Asktime

#AskTIME Q & A: Alex Altman

Welcome to TIME’s weekly Q&A series #AskTIME. This week, we’re chatting with Alex Altman, who co-authored this week’s cover story on Ferguson and spent the week there reporting on the ground.

We will start posting questions and responses at 1 p.m. EST and stay online for about 30 minutes. We have been gathering reader questions all week on Whisper, Twitter and Facebook but will also take questions in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #askTIME.

If you’d like to follow along with #AskTIME going forward, sign up here.

Outsider asks: What do you think the chances are of the officer involved being charged in this case, and the police chief coming under investigation for lack of management (or a stated policy) regarding minorities in his city – given the other death that occurred by Police 4 miles away from where Brown was shot? Have you heard of any legal action coming down?

I don’t want to speculate about whether the officer will be charged. The county prosecutor has begun presenting evidence to a grand jury, but that process will take months. Gov. Jay Nixon has promised a “vigorous prosecution,” which is an unusual statement that gives you a sense of the political pressure at play. DOJ has opened a parallel investigation into federal (criminal) civil rights violations. They are probing allegations that the Ferguson police force has a pattern of racial profiling, borne out in both residents’ anecdotes and statistics collected by the state.

Whisper: ‘What are the protesters hoping to accomplish by destroying the things around them. It takes all respect away from their cause.’

It’s important to distinguish between the small faction of people who are there to fight cops or break stuff, and the vast majority, which is there to peacefully call attention to a deeply felt grievance. The protesters are not “destroying things.” That’s being done by other folks, who are there for reasons that have little to do with the death of Michael Brown. A week ago, when there was significant looting, a lot of protesters put themselves at personal risk by standing guard at storefronts to stop it. There are more volunteers spending hours a day actively policing the crowd than there are folks intent on doing damage. People are doing some pretty heroic stuff in an attempt to keep the peace.

Whisper: how do we shift the focus from a race issue to an issue where we see our police are out of control?

I think this question underscores why the story has gotten such traction. So much is screwed-up about what’s happened in Ferguson that it touches different nerves for different people. I agree that the “militarization” of police is a big issue. But so are the racial divisions that led to this point, and which have been deepened by the shooting. Focus on whatever aspect of the story you want, but there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed.

deconstructiva asks: Alex, we know that journalists normally try to cover the story instead of being the story, but the Ferguson police’s arrest of journalists have changed that, especially the initial two arrests in the McDonald’s. Has that made your coverage there any harder, or not really? Why did the police raid that McDonald’s in the first place? No doubt many view their food as a health hazard, but that’s no excuse to storm the place to clear it out and arrest journalists. Did anyone arrest or otherwise discipline those officers who made the arrests? I wonder how events and coverage would’ve played out if the police had left the media alone, but then again, given their brutality against local residents, their behavior would’ve been exposed anyway. And if the large media presence wasn’t there, how much worse would events be? Sunil Dutta’s recent op-ed defending fellow police shows a potentially dangerous mindset that obviously is not strictly his alone.

I have thought about this a lot. The arrest of journalists is obviously unfortunate, and for a bunch of reasons. One is it created a storyline which diverts attention from the bigger issues at the core of the case: the death of a 18-year-old kid; the systemic issues that led to it; the question of what transpired in the Brown-Wilson encounter; the protests that have ensued; the challenge of preventing a repeat occurrence. As you say, when at all possible, reporters should try to cover the story without inserting themselves into it. It’s not always possible.

There’s no question that the media have affected the trajectory of events. I suspect the press horde has probably made police more cautious about how they deploy force, since they know their actions are liable to be splashed across the national news. Nearly everyone I met was happy to talk to me—which is a rarity—because they hope the reporting calls attention to problems in the community. I also think the media presence eggs on some agitators who want to mug for the cameras.

Some of this stuff is unavoidable. And the majority of media in Ferguson are doing a very good job covering an important story under difficult circumstances. But the swarm has grown to unwieldy proportions and there are some folks who seem to be courting controversy rather than trying to avoid it. The last day or so that I was in Ferguson (I was there for a week before leaving yesterday morning), the press pack began outnumbering protesters at time. Reporting started to feel like rubbernecking. We have to be conscious of when our presence becomes a hindrance. (And yes, I recognize the hypocrisy in saying the press shouldn’t be the story, then giving a windy first-person response.)

yogi1 asks: Alex what are the chances a lame duck Congress passes anything substantial on immigration reform after the midterms?

Pretty much zero. House Republicans have blocked efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill for more than a year, despite strong public support and pressure from business lobbies and evangelicals. The right’s resistance will only intensify if President Obama issues executive orders on immigration policy this fall, as he has suggested. I have written about what moves he may be considering, such as expanding DACA to grant relief from deportation for potentially millions.

Whisper: ‘has the officer responsible been arrested, detained, placed on probation or faced any repercussions? if not, why?

The officer who shot Brown is on paid administrative leave. He’s left the area, and is in an undisclosed location because of threats to his safety. The Ferguson police hasn’t addressed your question specifically, and the St. Louis County police tells me they will not release the investigative component of the incident report, which deals with what happened. It’s possible that Wilson will face criminal charges. But we won’t know for months; the prosecuting attorney is hoping to finish presenting evidence by mid-October.

DonQuixotic asks: Alex, given your past coverage on the House vote to try and help Marijuana businesses gain access to financial systems, what do you think the likelihood of legalization is? Is it only a matter of time? How much support is the move seeing on the Hill?

There has been very little progress on legalization at a federal level. There’s not even much progress on giving legitimate, tax-paying businesses in states that have legalized pot access to banks, which is an urgent and obvious problem. Lawmakers want to see how the experiments unfolding in Colorado and Washington play out. But I think there’s no question the legalization movement is gaining momentum at the state level. Oregon and Alaska may follow this year. California is the big one, and industry folks believe it will pass a legalization measure in 2016.

deconstructiva asks: Alex, in a change of pace from Ferguson coverage, as you travel all over the country to cover politics, what do you think is the biggest difference in political coverage all over the US – elected officials at highest levels (President, Congress, governors, state legislators) vs. everyday people in your interviews, or different areas of the country, like East Coast vs. Midwest vs. South, or even DC / Beltway vs. outside DC (everywhere else)? Do DC politicians and the media really have its own collective mindset about politics apart from the rest of country, thus the “Beltway media” term mentioned a lot, or is this more of an urban myth and Beltway coverage really isn’t that much different as say, reporting from Ohio or California?

(My best guess – if “Beltway media” reporting is unique among national reporting, I suspect it comes from DC’s sole existence as our nation’s capital and thus politics is a daily livelihood for nearly everyone there …so politics might be seen as a game to be played (and manipulated) instead of a daily job of tackling everyday issues and keeping things running, though of course, Congress is failing to do even this bare minimum, but I digress.)

If I understand your question, the biggest difference is the stakes, both political and monetary. Read coverage in, say, mid-sized metro newspapers around the U.S., and you will see the same focus on incremental inside-baseball news, fleeting “scoops,” partisan bickering. “Beltway” reporting heightens these tendencies, because the characters are bigger, there’s more competition, and there’s an entire industry that wants this kind of coverage and is willing to underwrite it. Believe me when I tell you that a lot of reporters are even more frustrated with some of the industry trends than you seem to be.

@AprilHollowayJD asks: Did you hear any police officers disagree with the actions of the other police or is it mob/protect your own mentality?

There’s definitely a protect-your-own mentality. However, it’s just as dangerous to generalize about the behavior of police in Ferguson as it is to generalize about the protesters. Is some of the criticism of police behavior valid? Absolutely. But I also saw and spoke to a lot of police officers who were respectful of the protesters’ right to assemble, who were doing their best to lower the temperature, and who are caught in a very difficult situation not of their own making.

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