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Hands Up Don't Shoot: Thoughts From The Mizzou Photog Blocked During Protest

This week, anti-racism demonstrations at the University of Missouri's flagship campus in Columbia have been front and center in the news. One of the newsmakers was a journalist covering the story who inadvertently became part of it.

Tim Tai, a senior journalism student, was covering the aftermath of the resignation of Mizzou's president, Tim Wolfe. Members of #ConcernedStudent1950 had gathered on the Carnahan Quadrangle, not far from the tent encampment they had declared a "safe space" from the race-based aggressions many say they have been subjected to for months. The announcement of Wolfe's resignation prompted cheers, hugs and tears from the black students and their allies who'd called for Wolfe to step down after he failed to act on a number of complaints of racially insensitive behavior.

Shortly after, the students declared their part of the quad a no-media zone and told reporters to go away. Tai remained outside their circle, but began taking photos of the human chain that had formed around the encampment. The resulting confrontation with the students and their adult supporters escalated from waving hands in front of Tai's camera to pushing up against him, all the while demanding that he leave.

A video of the confrontation, of Tai trying to explain to the students that the First Amendment protects the rights of him and the students to occupy the same ground, and their angry response, went viral almost overnight.

The confrontation has raised questions far beyond Mizzou about several important journalistic issues: how the media covers communities of color; whether having the legal right to document an event is balanced by a moral right to carefully and respectfully approach communities that are often marginalized and misreported on; and whether one should continue to take photos if the subjects of the story adamantly object.

KBIA reporter Bram Sable-Smith talked with Taiafter the dust was settling and asked him about many of those issues.

Tai says he has no animus toward the students — he's a student, too, and he knows how overwhelming all the attention has been.

"Dealing with the aftermath of this has been far more stressful than covering any protests," he told Sable-Smith. One thing he says he feels badly about is the widespread vilification of the students that has flooded social media. "I think there's a difference between holding people accountable for their actions and sending them nasty messages and threats."

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Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.