It only takes a quick glance at the media scrum on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to realize that reaction to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a city police officer is really big news. The St. Louis suburb is thick with people working feverishly to tell the story not only in the hometown paper, but around the world (notably in the United Kingdom’s Guardian, on CNN, in the New York Times, the Washington Post and Qatar’s U.S. version of Al Jazeera.)
When the tear gas dissipates and the big name journalists have gone home, this story may be remembered not only for how it played in the mainstream media, but for the international platform it gave to a little guy.
Until last week Mustafa Hussein wasn’t a reporter at all. He was focused on earning a Master’s degree in political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. He spent his spare time exploring the St. Louis music scene. Two summers ago Hussein joined forces with four friends to start Argus Radio, an Internet-based station that plays urban music, Torsten Burks reports in Good Magazine. Hussein said he recently bought a video camera so Argus could start live streaming concerts. But the video gear was pressed into action earlier than planned when a subject of far greater importance to the radio station’s core audience emerged last week — the slaying of Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man who was shot six times by a white police officer in Ferguson.
The decision to go live was an instant success. Driven by social media, Hussein’s Argus Radio live stream reached an audience far beyond the African-American community in St. Louis. His stream, I am Mike Brown Live from Ferguson, MO, was viewed 1,366,826 times and generated 33,881 comments in five days. It was his first night as a journalist.
At 2 a.m. Tuesday, a re-run of the overnight Monday stream was still playing on more than 24,000 browsers.
Hussein attracted attention from the police, too. The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit following the first night of protests, naming Hussein as plaintiff, after police using a loudspeaker allegedly “ordered everyone on the street to stop recording.” The ACLU argued that the order abridged journalists’ free speech and due process rights. The ACLU thrust Hussein further into the limelight, contending that he “chose to continue recording, putting his liberty and physical safety at serious risk.”
In his video that night Hussein can be heard saying, “We’ve just been told by the St. Louis Police Department to turn off our cameras.” But he assures his new-found audience, “We will not be turning off our cameras. We will continue to broadcast, even if it is at our own peril.”
The next day the ACLU, officials from St. Louis County, the city of Ferguson, and the Missouri Highway Patrol agreed that public events could be recorded by Hussein and other reporters “without abridgement unless it obstructs the activity or threatens the safety of others, or physically interferes with the ability of law enforcement officers to perform their duties.”
His victory was short-lived. Four nights after the shooting Hussein was again at the receiving end of a policeman’s wrath, this time an obscenity-laden rant from an officer who objected to the bright light mounted on his camera. “Get the fuck out of here and keep that light off, or you’re getting shelled with this,” the officer yells. “You’re in our way!” Video of the Sunday night confrontation shows a supervisor, identifying himself as Captain Todd, stepping in to keep the situation from spiraling out of control as Hussein stridently voices his Constitutional rights.
Hussein faced physical challenges in his new role as reporter, too. On his second in Ferguson Hussein escaped serious injury when he was hit by a projectile he later identified as a tear gas canister.
The station’s camera was not so lucky. It took the brunt of the hit, abruptly shutting down the Argus Radio live stream. The video rig sustained enough damage that Argus Radio launched a GoFundMe campaign the next morning to raise $7,000 “to buy more camera equipment and keep the people informed about what is happening on the front line in Ferguson.” After four days the station is still more than $6,000 shy of that goal.
Despite the setback, Hussein and Argus Radio have cobbled together enough functioning gear to post 56 video reports in the five days since Michael Brown was shot.
The success of Mustafa Hussein shows that in a digital environment anyone with guts, determination, a few thousand bucks, a hot story and access to the Internet can become not only a multimedia reporter, but a player on the world stage. In the last 24 hours, more than 300,000 people have viewed video reports by a man who a week ago wasn’t a journalist at all.