While some Ferguson residents (and visitors) were out on the night of August 10, holding protests along West Florissant Avenue over the police shooting death of Michael Brown, Manuel Blair of nearby Florissant County was getting ready to catch some of the local news before going to bed.
Or so he thought.
“I usually go to bed before 10, but with everything going on I just wanted to see if everything was okay,” Blair says. “But when I turned to local channel five, the TV started scrambling. So I scanned through the channels and even the major network news channels like Headline News and Fox were also scrambled. But when I went to HBO and Showtime – you know, the premium channels – those channels were still up. So it was just the news and local channels.”
Also at home during the first night of the unrest was Charisma (who does not want to give her last name), a resident of nearby Jennings County. Although she is in a separate county, she is only 10 minutes away from the central location of the protests. Charisma said that rumors of rioting and tear gas being thrown compelled her to check out what was being reported on television. However, as the 10 p.m. news was about to start, her screen started to scramble too. Cable in Ferguson didn’t seem to be working.
“At first I just thought maybe it was a signal and then when I turned to other channels, I could see that they were working,” she says. “It was just the news channels.” Since she could not access any of the news stations, Charisma said she went to bed instead and hoped that whatever was happening down the road didn’t make its way into her neighborhood.
“It was pretty scary not knowing what’s going on so close to where I’m at, especially something that was breaking news all day. It will upset you.”
Alicia (who also wanted her last name withheld), is also a resident of Jennings, however, she was out on West Florissant Avenue, right as the protests started. She left when she started seeing police form lines and when some of the protesters began to smash the windows of the nearby QuickTrip gas station/convenience store, which had been rumored early on as playing a part in the shooting of Brown. Alicia said she rushed home just so she could follow the events on television, but just like the others, she could not access any of the local stations, nor the national news stations.
Her daughter, however, was sitting in her bedroom quietly watching cartoons on Cartoon Network.
“Yeah, I was upset because I was actually down there and I saw what law enforcement were doing to the actual protesters and to the rioters,” she says. “So to go home and not be able to see it on the news makes me feel like they are trying to hide something. And that freaks me out.”
Although Blair was able to watch reports from that evening on his smartphone, he too is disturbed by the idea that his news stations could have been scrambled intentionally.
“I just don’t think they should be able to block information. And in essence that’s what happened; they blocked people from being informed. It was almost like law enforcement didn’t want people to see what they are doing.”
It’s probably the oddest story I heard during my visit to Ferguson. But as I asked around, the story was verified again and again among the more than three dozen local residents I spoke to. Reports of the cable television outages were also on Twitter and on Reddit. Another person who spoke on this is Patricia Bynes, Democratic committeewoman of Ferguson Township, who tweeted this on the first night of the unrest: “The cable is cut off here in the area to prevent incitement of more looting.”
In a brief phone interview with Bynes, she said that while she does not have cable television and can not personally verify all that went on that night, she too heard from neighbors and friends that there cable was out. More specifically, residents who had Charter cable.
“It was a big conversation here,” Bynes says. “People’s cable went out around here. I don’t know the official reason, I could speculate, but I don’t if that helps your story. I believe it was certain zip codes targeted.”
There are lots of different theories floating around about who might have been responsible. Some think it was the police, who intercepted the cable lines and scrambled them in hopes of keeping residents in the dark about their tactics or to discourage further looting. Some say it was Charter Communications, which is the fourth largest telecommunications provider in the country with a customer base of 27.6 million people in 29 states, who might having interfered with the news stations at the behest of law enforcement.
As unbelievable as it sounds, the theory isn’t without a kernel of plausibility. The Boston area became the first city in the country to have its local basic television channels scrambled by cable provider RCN, rendering any televisions without a cable box completely inoperative. That particular action came less than a short year after the FCC gave the okay for digital cable providers to encrypt access to HD televisions from local channels unless the consumer buys a cable box. Prior to that, cable companies were required to transmit all local channels “in the clear.”
I sent an email to Charter Communications asking them about the blackouts during the unrest. Through a brief statement, provided by Wes Shirley, senior manager of communications for Charter, the company says: “Charter did not stop service. We experienced outages that were beyond our control and our technicians worked as quickly as possible to return service.”
And in fact, Charter, which was was founded in St. Louis, is notorious for its bad stability issues, particularly when it come to the Internet. During the weekend of my visit, they were experiencing a mass DNS server outage, which lasted from August 23 through August 24, which affected the ability of thousands of customers across multiple states to access the Internet.
However, that was Internet and we’re talking about cable. And the statement from Charter does not quite explain why the outages only impacted local and national news stations, particularly the ones carrying news and information about the unrest and protests in Ferguson.
I also reached out to the local Ferguson police department to find out if it had interfered in any way with the signal during its operations on August 10. The spokesperson informed me that the area where the unrest was happening was under the jurisdiction of St. Louis County Police and the highway patrol, and that the Ferguson Police Department has no information about operations during the night of the unrest.
A call has been placed to the St. Louis County Police Department, but at the time of publishing, we have yet to receive a comment. Once we do, we will update the story.