Jan 1 2012

Journalism Under Arrest

Clamping down on reporters at Occupy crackdowns

Former FAIR intern John Knefel arrested for being a journalist at OWS--Photo Credit: Salon

Former FAIR intern John Knefel arrested for being a journalist at OWS–Photo Credit: Salon

Responding to a report in the online publication the Awl (11/17/11) about 26 journalists who had been arrested around the country at Occupy protests, New York City mayoral spokesperson Stu Loeser declared in a note to the press (New York Observer, 11/17/17), “You can imagine my surprise when we found that only five of the 26 arrested reporters actually have valid NYPD-issued press credentials.”

Since the Awl story was tallying arrests nationwide, it’s not surprising that few of the journalists had credentials issued by New York’s police—who are notoriously reluctant to issue such credentials anyway. What’s telling, though, is the triumphant way the spokesperson reveals this fact—as if reporters who lack “valid” permits from the authorities should expect to be arrested if they try to report the news anyway.

The idea behind the First Amendment, of course, is that no one is required to seek permission from the government before attempting to report the news. And few situations call out more urgently for independent journalistic scrutiny than the state’s use of force against nonviolent political protest.

But as police forces in various cites took a militarized, increasingly coordinated approach to the movement that began as Occupy Wall Street, reporters were frequently treated as the enemy—with tactics designed to prevent them from documenting exactly how activists were being removed from public spaces.

When the NYPD evicted Occupy Wall Street protesters from Manhattan’s Liberty Plaza in the wee hours of November 15, they did their best to keep journalists far from the scene. Before the park was cleared, police asked reporters present to show their press credentials—and then made them leave the park.

Most media ended up behind barricades blocks away; reporters for outlets like the New York Times and NPR were arrested (Gothamist, 11/15/11). When Village Voice reporter Rosie Gray told police, “I’m press!” she said one officer responded: “Not tonight” (Media Decoder, 11/15/11).

Lest you think such treatment was only given to members of the “liberal media,” police hostility to journalism crossed ideological boundaries: Police clearing Liberty Plaza put a New York Post reporter in a headlock; earlier, a photographer from another Murdoch-owned outlet, New York’s Fox 5, was pepper-sprayed in the eyes (My Fox New York, 10/5/11).

Journalists from the right-wing Daily Caller (11/17/11), unable to get out of the street while covering the protests, were beaten with police batons—and received help from the activists that their outlet generally dismisses as vermin: “The protesters came up to me right away and asked if I needed any medical assistance,” Caller reporter Michelle Fields told a colleague. “They were actually very kind and helpful. It was the police officers who were very aggressive.”

A coalition of media outlets complained to the NYPD that “the police actions of last week have been more hostile to the press than any other event in recent memory,” while the New York Civil Liberties Union charged that “the NYPD is aggressively blocking journalists from doing their constitutionally protected work and in some instances is even targeting journalists for mistreatment” (Huffington Post, 11/21/11).

When the Occupy L.A. encampment was thrown out of City Hall Park, that city also took steps to restrict press coverage. “Police announced they would be allowing only a small group of print, television and radio journalists past police lines when the eviction is finally carried out,” the L.A. Times reported. “Police said the rules were to protect journalists from being harmed during the operation.”

“Uncredentialed” media who remained in the park were threatened with arrest—though the office of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa promised that “during the park closure, a First Amendment area will remain open on the Spring Street City Hall steps” (LA Weekly, 11/30/11).

All around the country, journalists have been arrested when they strayed out of whatever police decided was the “First Amendment area”:

  • Nashville Scene reporter Jonathan Meador was arrested by Tennessee state police during an October 28 crackdown on Occupy Nashville. The Middle Tennessee chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists complained to Gov. Bill Haslam (Tennessean .com, 10/31/11), “The conduct of state police in this matter was outrageous, interfered with legitimate newsgathering, and clearly violated Mr. Meador’s rights as a journalist under the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions.”
  • Ian Graham, a freelance photographer for RVA Magazine, was arrested for trespassing while crossing the street to cover the crackdown on Occupy Richmond. “There were people on both sides of the crosswalk where I was arrested, and none of them were arrested,” Graham wrote (RVA, 11/1/11). “But none of them had cameras, either.”
  • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photographer Kristyna Wentz-Graff was arrested covering Occupy Milwaukee on November 2, despite press credentials hung around her neck. “According to the officer at the scene, he didn’t notice her ID,” Police Chief Edward Flynn said, defending the arrest (Journal Sentinel, 11/4/11). “He perceived her as part of the problem he had to solve.”

If police forces nationwide seem to be taking similar steps against the Occupy movement, it’s not a coincidence: Police chiefs in cities with occupations going on have been getting together to discuss strategies and tactics, including via conference calls organized by the Police Executive Research Forum, an association of law-enforcement officials.

A San Francisco Bay Guardian article by Shawn Gaylor (11/18/11) gave a sense of who’s directing that conversation. PERF’s board chair is Philadelphia police chief Charles Ramsey, who headed D.C.’s police force when it used preemptive mass arrests to squelch protests against the IMF and World Bank (Extra!, 7-8/00). Before Ramsey, PERF’s board was led by John Timoney, the former Miami police chief whose crackdown on the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas demonstrations attached the name “Miami Model” to this approach to protests (New Standard, 6/8/04)—based on a militarized approach to crowd control, tactical use of “less-lethal” violence (e.g., pepper spray) and, crucially, control of information.

A 2006 PERF report, Police Management of Mass Demonstrations, advocates the use of military-style “embedded reporter programs” of the sort that were used in the L.A. evictions. “Camera shots from the police side of a confrontation can capture a more comprehensive view than if cameras are only on the protesters’ side,” the report notes. Of course, if everyone on the protesters’ side gets arrested, whether they’re taking pictures or not, that would leave the public with only the police-eye view.

But as the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal (11/19/11) pointed out, advances in technology may be making the Miami Model obsolete:

The large-scale deployment of video recording technologies combined with high-speed media diffusion channels have allowed everyone to see what only a tiny number did back in 2003 in Miami. They are seeing kids getting pepper-sprayed and hundreds of protesters getting arrested. They’re watching police throw flash grenades into groups of American citizens. These images are coming to them through the same Twitter accounts and Facebook updates that show them photos of their friends’ new babies and the score of the USC game.

Efforts by police to embed or expel professional journalists may be a Maginot Line in an era where anyone with a smart phone can be a reporter, and the impact of a YouTube video can be as great as a network news story. That doesn’t mean that authorities will stop trying to control the public view of their activities, but increasingly the right to free assembly and to a free press are becoming the same right, where suppressing the one necessarily requires suppressing the other.

Which makes it doubly important to insist that public spaces are a public sphere—one not subject to being redefined as a free speech-free zone by government fiat. As Allison Kilkenny of InTheseTimes.com (12/1/11) put it, “The First Amendment doesn’t need a zoning board, nor does it need the permission of any mayor or police force.”