Editor's NotesNews & Opinion

Editor’s Note: In Defense of Activist Journalism

Media's dirty word is nothing to be ashamed of

The recent protests in Charlotte have got me thinking a lot about our role as community journalists, and the age-old condescension around so-called activist journalism.

During an ongoing court case, the ACLU of North Carolina and others, including Queen City Nerve publisher Justin LaFrancois, have aimed to restrict CMPD’s use of chemical munitions and other riot control agents (RCAs) following weeks of protests in which the department deployed hundreds of tear-gas canisters and flashbang grenades.

On June 19, Mecklenburg County Superior Court Judge Karen Eady-Williams handed down a restraining order that prohibits the use of RCAs by CMPD to control crowds of peaceful protesters.

It has been during these hearings that the CMPD’s lawyers have repeatedly referred to LaFrancois — who live-streamed throughout each protest from May 29 on — not as a journalist but as a protester live-streaming under the pseudonym Queen City Nerve.

CMPD knows better, of course, and the repeated attempts to paint our publisher as just another protester in the crowd are a petty way of devaluing him as a human to those in the law-and-order community who see the protesters as thugs and criminals bent on anarchy and lawlessness. That in itself is troubling enough, but it’s not surprising.

Justin talks to Kennell Jackson during a protest. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

What it does not change, as much as they wish it did, is the content of the hours and hours of footage LaFrancois recorded during May and June.

The truth can’t be hidden or edited when the camera is rolling at all times, and that’s what makes LaFrancois’ raw footage so important. Justin isn’t a journalist by trade. He has written up a few quick pieces for us since we launched back in 2018, but for the most part, he remains on the business end of things while I stick to editorial content.

Not having been a “trained journalist” makes Justin’s footage that much more raw, as he often lets his emotions fly free and states his opinions on things as they happen, something traditional journalists are taught not to do.

Even as someone who comes from the alternative media world, which has far more freedom in terms of anti-establishment editorializing and activist journalism, it can make me cringe sometimes to watch Justin’s live-streams. The sheer unpredictability of what is going to come out of his mouth next is what is both intriguing about his live-streams and worrisome for me, his business partner.

All in all, however, I couldn’t be more proud of his work. For weeks on end, sometimes with me by his side, sometimes alone as I was busy working on putting this paper together or reporting on other happenings, he walked countless miles and documented what was happening at the street level — no spin, no bullshit.

Of course, he rubbed plenty of folks the wrong way with his language and his tendency to tell racists in the comment section to fuck off and find another live stream. He also rubbed lots of police the wrong way. Because he was walking with the protesters each night and telling their stories, he was seen as one of them, and in the eyes of many officers, this is an Us against Them situation.

But what is journalism for if not to make the people in power uncomfortable? There’s a reason Donald Trump’s most consistent beef is with the media: He doesn’t like when people tell the truth about him, so he proactively works to denigrate the media as a whole so his cultish fanbase can just yell “Fake news” every time a new story exposes Trump’s loathsome actions.

Justin takes a breather after a long night of activist journalism. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

And such is the case with the CMPD and the live-streamer operating under the “pseudonym” Queen City Nerve. It’s part of a long tradition of condescending to those in the media industry who are seen as carrying out activist journalism, so as to make their work in some way less real.

In the end, however, the true value of journalism lies in its activism. If you were to name some of the best to ever do this job — Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ida B. Wells and Edward Murrow, for example — you’d be hard pressed not to consider them activist journalists.

In no way am I comparing Justin to Edward Murrow or Ida B. Wells, but he saw something occurring that he thought was important for everyone to see without the filter put on it by many mainstream news sources and the CMPD itself, and he took it upon himself to document it raw.

His live-streams have helped lead to court orders like the one mentioned above, a city council vote restricting the purchase of tear gas by CMPD, and a bill introduced by our local congresswoman Alma Adams that would change the way police around the country are legally allowed to deploy RCAs.

I think that’s pretty powerful for a protester with a pseudonym. It’s a pseudonym I’m proud to claim, too.

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