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Why MSNBC’s Chris Hayes almost got maced in Ferguson

Scott Olson

On Sunday night, police officers in Ferguson threatened to mace MSNBC's Chris Hayes. "Media do not pass us," you can hear them saying on the video. "You're getting maced next time you pass us."

I spoke with Hayes on Monday about his experiences in Ferguson.

Ezra Klein: I saw the video of the cop threatening to mace you. What happened before that clip?

Chris Hayes: Up the street there were a number of protestors. But a line had been drawn. We were behind a bunch of SWAT vehicles and cops in riot gear. I had inched up because I couldn't see over them. To my left was a line of officers also marching up and now I was a bit ahead of them. And one of them just flipped out and began screaming at me.

I think it's a fair assessment to say police don't really enjoy doing this job while being recorded all the time. That press freedom is beautiful is not the prevailing sentiment. In their defense, they're in a high-stress, highly adrenalized situation. It's dark. They're hearing over the police radio "shots fired!" I heard that over a police radio. It turned out to be fireworks. But they're worried they might be in danger.

EK: You arrived, I think, last Thursday. How have things changed since you got there?

CH: I was there Thursday and Friday night. I left Saturday morning and came back last night. But one thing I think people should understand that's being overlooked right now is the protests started within hours at the site of the shooting. These are low-rise apartment buildings with a street running through them on both sides. It's almost like a college campus. Brown was shot on a Saturday in broad daylight. People were home. The outrage against police began almost immediately. The family was out there screaming. Rumors were flying. The County Police came in immediately for back-up. There were these pictures of them holding long guns.

Sunday night there are protests and someone burns down the QuikTrip. Then you get the heavily militarized police presence. Then Wednesday you have the tear gas, the arrests, all that. Thursday I get into town and Jay Nixon announces he's taking control away from the local police. Thursday night feels victorious. People feel like they won. There's almost a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere. Then Friday night it's a similar atmosphere but really late there's some looting. We're talking here about politicians from Missouri and St. Louis County who are just not going to let stores get looted on their watch. So Saturday night we see the curfew and there's this high drama as it approaches. And then last night we don't even get to the curfew. Police say there were molotov cocktails in one specific place. I spoke to three members of the clergy who say there was no such thing. I can't tell you which side is right. One of MSNBC's reporters did see a protestor with a gun.

There is a small group of people on each side who desire escalation. And they're the most empowered in this scenario because it takes so little to bring it about. I was there when Captain Ron Johnson said people were intent on provocation and so they provoked and we escalated. So Johnson is saying he gave them exactly what they wanted. It creates these cycles where it's hard to see how the night doesn't end in violence.

EK: How different are the local politics from the national politics? Given the national press on this you would think that Nixon would want to do almost anything to avoid more violence, including being a bit more permissive with the protests. But it's not obvious that that's good politics locally.

CH: I can't stress the importance of that enough. Even listening to the questions being asked by local press — and the local press here is doing a great job — you notice there's a lot of law-and-order sentiment. Jay Nixon was an attorney general before he was governor. He was one of the DLC/Clinton-generation Democrats who got elected in relatively hostile territory by showing his bona fides on law-and-order. The politicians here are just not going to tolerate images of looting.

Tonight they're getting rid of the curfew. There's been this high drama to the clock striking midnight. So getting rid of the curfew is probably a smart idea in terms of removing the obvious flashpoint for a standoff.

EK: What would break the cycle here?

CH: People want to see the officer in question arrested and charged. That is what you hear across the board. Should charging decisions be made based on popular calls? No. They should be made based on facts on the ground. But there are three eyewitnesses with pretty similar stories. There's the autopsy. If the situation was reversed and Michael Brown had shot and killed Darren Wilson, he would've been arrested and charged by now.

The St. Louis County prosecutor is a guy named Bob McCulloch. Among the members of the community I've talked to there is zero trust in him to prosecute this case. There were two police shootings where he did not prosecute. He called some of the victims of one of the shootings, who were drug dealers, bums. So there's no community confidence. You have a state senator calling for a special prosecutor to be appointed. The county executive is also calling for that. But is there pressure on that from the governor or anyone else, I don't know.

Correction: This transcript originally said that Governor Jay Nixon had made the comment about provocateurs looking to escalate. It was Captain Ron Johnson.