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December 12, 2011

Filming the Police at Occupy Wall Street Protests

Posted in: Occupy

(update below)

A “dance party” or flash mob action organized by Occupy Wall Street broke out in the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center just after a larger Occupy Wall Street action outside of Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York this morning. The flash mob spread throughout both levels of the area until police moved in to break up the action and make arrests.

Video from Logan Price (@kstrel) shows New York Police Department officers walking down the stairs. Some of them are wearing riot helmets. The officers single out Justin Wedes of Occupy Wall Street, who is handling the livestream (people might recognize him from his appearance on “The Colbert Report”). Wedes is forcefully brought to the ground and someone barely manages to rush in to save the laptop he was using to do the livestream.

Others in the video are arrested in addition to Wedes. The police form a line to block people from going near the individuals being arrested. Press move up close to the police line to try to get a shot. That is when one photographer, Robert Stolarik, a long-time New York Times freelancer, is interfered with by a police officer as he tries to go take a photo of the arrests. The officer uses a baton to prevent him from moving in to take a photo.

Then, another officer, who quite frankly looks a bit like Horseface from Season 2 of The Wire, starts to lay his hands on Stolarik. Another officer comes in as “Horseface” and Stolarik are going back and forth. He says, “Alright, guys, let’s back up.” Stolarik holds his position so he can get the photo he should be allowed to take. “Horseface” continues to touch Robert. A TARU officer walks over to film the argument. “Horseface” keeps touching Stolarik.  And then, like a child, he moves side-to-side intentionally putting his body in the way of Stolarik’s camera.

Stolarik says, “Are you really doing that right now?” He takes out his iPhone and turns on the camera and asks Stolarik if he was blocking his camera. The officer says he isn’t. Stolarik says, “You know that camera has video? So now you’re lying.” He then takes photos of “Horseface” as he again moves and blocks the shot like a child might. This time Stolarik has his professional camera and his iPhone filming at the same time.

This farce ends with another NYPD officer coming up from behind Stolarik to push him out of the building. The officer says, “Step out, sir,” and physically removes him from the premise.

This treatment is but another example of how the NYPD increasingly appears to loathe, mock and target press who are trying to do their job. It is possibly one of the best examples yet of the NYPD’s contempt for freedom of the press.

Joshua Stearns of Free Press, a nonprofit that works to reform and further democratize media in the United States, works with the organization’s “Save the News” campaign. He has been tracking arrests of journalists along with instances where police interfere with press trying to cover Occupy Wall Street protests.

Stearns comments, “While arrests and press suppression have been reported in cities around the nation, New York City has been by far the worst. Even after NYPD Commissioner Kelly ordered officers not to interfere with the press, journalists are still being blocked and targeted. If this keeps up, journalists in NY are soon going to qualify for hazard pay, just for doing their job.”

Yesterday, Joe Pompeo for Capital New York wrote a post about an “uptick in complaints from photojournalists—both in New York and other cities—claiming police interfered with their work. Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers, told Capital:

I’ve been dealing with this issue more over this past year than anytime before…It just seemed like the situation with the police was getting worse. Many of the credentialed members [of the media] felt almost better off not displaying their credentials, or being very low key and looking like Joe Public rather than to be out there with actual credentials that could sometimes lead to them being identified for specific targeting.

Highlighting incidents where press were forced to go into a pen to cover a news story that was unfolding, Pompeo’s story shows how relations with NYPD were poor before Occupy Wall Street. The protests are just amplifying the tensions between NYPD and the press, as police refuse to allow them to be close enough to take decent photos, video or simply witness firsthand what is happening for a news report. They were penned in and kept two blocks away from Zuccotti Park on November 15, the day Occupy Wall Street was raided.

New York press came together and wrote a letter to the NYPD condemning the police for how press had been treated over the past weeks. This letter led to a meeting. That meeting led to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly issuing an internal memo that essentially ordered police not to “interfere” with press trying to do their jobs.

Pompeo put up a post on the video of Stolarik being interfered with by police and wrote, “It seems like not all New York Police Department officers got the memo from their boss a few weeks ago.” He notes “Stolarik told The Village Voice that his press pass ‘was clearly visible and [the officer] was very aware. That guy clearly didn’t follow the departmental directive from Kelly.’” Also, “Eileen Murphy, New York Times Co. vice president of corporate communications, tells Gothamist that they are ‘disappointed that it seems, in this instance,’ Kelly’s directive to the police was not ‘followed or implemented on the ground.’”

*

There is much to dig into here. Let’s consider what the NYPD is preventing this credentialed photographer from photographing. Police officers had just taken down a known personality from Occupy Wall Street. It is very possible the NYPD targeted him because they knew he was doing a live stream for Occupy Wall Street. Additionally, they were in a piece of real estate owned by Brookfield Properties, the entity which owns Zuccotti Park. Brookfield may not tolerate cameras or these kinds of flash mob actions and NYPD may be carrying out orders for “protection” from Brookfield Properties.

Citizens are also witnessing a full transformation of the journalism profession, where who is and who is not a journalist is increasingly difficult to discern. So, it appears when you watch videos of police violating freedom of the press, they are in some cases not even bothering to ask whether someone has credentials or not. They don’t seem to care and move in to make arrests or obstruct press freedom first and ask questions later. (In fact, it is worth noting that Wedes is not asked for credentials. He just is arrested.)

Stearns says of this transformation, “As our media grows more participatory, more networked and more dynamic we need to value and understand the new ways that people are speaking, printing, and assembling. The Internet and technology have democratized the tools of media making, now we have to protect people’s right to use them.”

He directs my attention to a quote from a ruling that Judge Kermit Lipez handed down, where he addressed this transformation of journalism:

[C]hanges in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw. The proliferation of electronic devices with video-recording capability means that many of our images of current events come from bystanders [and] news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper. Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.

Yet, it is currently widely accepted among authorities that those without credentials should not be allowed to report. That is why today Tim Pool (@Timcast), well-known live streamer, was at the Long Beach port covering West Coast port shutdown activity, and was told by an officer that he could not be anywhere near the action or else he would likely be arrested. In fact, at one point, the officer essentially suggested he should get into a car and leave or else he might be under arrest before the action was over.

UStream personalities like Spencer “OakFoSho” Mills (@OakFoSho) and PunkBoyinSF (@punkboyinsf) have become well-known for their live coverage of Oakland and San Francisco action. OakFoSho routinely goes up to the police and tries to engage them. He usually reads off badge numbers and tries to figure out where all the police are from (in fact, he had an officer point a gun at him during the Occupy LA raid). PunkBoyinSF is usually right near the line of riot police ready to move in to arrest or disperse occupiers.  Two female live streamers, Korgasm_ (@Korgasm_) and OccupyFreedomLA, have also covered Occupy demonstrations. Korgasm_ streamed action today that showed Houston police and fire fighters using a tent to make sure no one, not even the press, could see arrests of occupiers at the Port of Houston (see video here). And OccupyFreedomLA was down at the Long Beach port action, too, and in a position where she could be arrested. They all face a level of risk because they are not what authorities would consider official press.

The work of these reporters offers the same value to the public that credentialed press offer. They do what credentialed press do except they are not with any organizations, which authorities are willing to issue credentials. Though, in a way, not having credentials can have its own benefits.

The night of the Occupy LA raid, as LA Weekly reported, a “last-minute media pool” was setup for press. Media that wanted to cover the raid had to enter a “lottery” and were chosen by the Los Angeles Police Department. The chosen news outlets were kept in a chosen area. They were asked ahead of time to not reveal police tactics that would be used [KCAL9 was running an aerial live stream and abruptly halted it to protect the “integrity of the operation"].

The chosen news outlets were also technically ordered not to use Twitter. This was not really obeyed but the fact is that LAPD made certain credentialed press had to do as they were told or they would not be able to cover the raid and would be treated like independent journalists and photographers, who faced arrest immediately when police rolled in to remove occupiers from the Occupy LA encampment. So the press played the game and, as Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! might say, covered for power instead of covering power.

Perhaps, that is one of the biggest problems NYPD and other police forces face. Live streamers and other citizen journalists, even individuals like John Knefel (@johnknefel), who was arrested at the flash mob action while tweeting, are not going to censor their reporting to keep their credentials because they do not have credentials. They will report everything. They will report police movements. They will eavesdrop and report what one officer said to another officer. They will note what weapons each officer is carrying. They will describe what each officer is wearing. They will report how many officers are deployed. They will share estimates on how many police vehicles are the scene of protests. They will talk about orders that are given to disperse. They will say when the first, second and third order is issued.

When police move in, live streamers will get the names of each protester that is handled roughly by police. They will have video that can instantly be posted to YouTube. While the video in this post did not come from a live streamer, it came from an entirely independent reporter on the scene, who instantly posted the video. The video belongs to him and his interest was in getting it out for the public to view and not how it is going to fit into tonight’s evening news broadcast or whether it can be edited down to make a nice, tight few minute clip for a news website.

Police are no longer able to control the story coming out of protests. They are no longer able to dominate how the public perceives their handling of protests. They will always have their crew of officers with prosumer video cameras to get a view of the action that can be used in court against arrestees, but they no longer can just hold a press conference, have a spokesperson state how things went down in the department’s opinion and then have that be considered the unquestionable truth.

So, when Lieutenant John Pike casually pepper sprayed a line of UC Davis students and UC Davis police chief Annette Spicuzza said, “It was for the safety of the police officers and the arrestees so we could get out, so we could leave,” that is entirely laughable because citizens uploaded video that shows the police were not surrounded by protesters that were threatening them at all. And when NYPD police spokesperson insisted Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna had used pepper spray on female Occupy Wall Street protesters appropriately and that evidence of this was “edited out or otherwise not captured in the video,” that was nonsense too because there was video from multiple angles showing Browne was simply wrong.

In both instances, citizen journalists can be credited with forcing police departments to discipline officers responsible for brutality in some way. Citizens journalists can also be credited with giving news organizations what they need to properly scrutinize police. For example, on MSNBC’s “The Last Word,” host Lawrence O’Donnell had this to say:

Every day in America, police are too tough. Every day in America, police cross the line and abuse citizens.

Every day in America, police get away with that. White America was shocked at what they saw police doing to Rodney King. Black America would have loved to have been shocked by what they saw police do to Rodney King. But black America only could have been shocked if what the police did to Rodney King was something completely alien to their community experience, was something they couldn`t imagine the police doing in their community.

There`s a Rodney King every day in this country. And black America has always known that. Everything those cops did this weekend to those protesters they`ve done to someone else when there were no video cameras rolling. They`ve done it and they`ve gotten away with it. They know just how much assault and battery their department will let them commit.

They know just how many false arrests their department will let them do. They know just how much latitude their department gives them on abusing citizens. They do it because they know they can. They do it because they know — they know they will get away with it.

That is what was said when video from citizen journalists was available. Contrast that with situations where the police prevent citizen journalists from being anywhere near the scene of arrests, like the eviction of Occupy Boston. The Boston Globe‘s coverage of the raid is a good example. From their point-of-view, because they had little video or independent reporting to support questioning the Boston Police Department’s official story, the eviction was, as they cheekily put it, “a 99 percent success” and there was no reason to care about any of Boston occupiers upset by how police handled the raid.

*

For the most part, NYPD can still get away with whatever they want to do. But, how is the public perception of police changing? Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights commented, “Let the cops push you around, let them slap you, let them arrest you, but it’s absolutely crucial to get your cameras out there. Because all the lawsuits we can bring, which we should resolve five years from now, won’t make the same difference as putting that stuff on YouTube and the evening news will do.”

Filming the police has never been so important. Now is also the best time, if there ever was one, to put your body on the line and film the police, even if they don’t want you there. The very act of them challenging your right to film or to exercise freedom of the press will get attention. It will go out all over social media and people will know how you were abused, arrested, mistreated, mocked or obstructed (which is why there has been a clear and conscious war on photography that goes back years before Occupy Wall Street with eavesdropping laws being used to throw people in jail for filming police).

And, this boldly comes through in B. Dolan’s new track “Film the Police,” which is a call to action for those in “the digitized media movement” and a response to “the recent explosion of police brutality all across the world.” The rap, which pays tribute to the rap classic by NWA, “Fuck the Police,” features Buddy Peace, Sage Francis, Toki Wright and Jasiri X presenting the struggle citizens face as they rise up against their governments and how they can fight back and win.

As the description to the video reads on YouTube:

With the Occupy Movement bringing various forms of injustice to the forefront of people’s consciousness, “Film the Police” is a reminder that cops have been a continued and increasingly militarized presence in public streets. Thanks to the widespread use of smartphones and video cameras, along with the popularity of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, the power of the media has been put back into the people’s hands as they document the injustices perpetrated by those who have sworn to serve and protect them.

Here’s the music video for this rap that should be part of anyone’s soundtrack for the people’s rebellion against the 1%.

Update

Molly Knefel, John Knefel’s brother, who was arrested yesterday during the flash mob action, posts a full account of seeing her brother arrested. Knefel was arrested for “resisting arrest.” How did he “resist” arrest? “He didn’t produce an official press pass, so that means he was resisting arrest,” a cop told Molly.

Knefel was “busted for tweeting” and shooting video. He was tackled to the ground because he was, like Justin Wedes, one of the “eyes” there and Knefel reported from the paddy wagon, eight out of ten were there at the action with cameras or iPhones covering the action. “Lots of eyes” were picked off by NYPD.

As Molly concludes:

The role independent journalists have played in documenting and disseminating Occupy is one of the things that makes the movement so powerful and unique. After the media blackout during the Zuccotti raid, the significance of citizen photographers and citizen tweeters became even more clear. Today felt like a blatant crackdown on the individuals who were documenting the behavior of the police. But whether it was a tactical decision or a wild coincidence, the police were unable to silence the cacophony of voices. The entire morning was still captured in pictures, in video, in livestreams. Lots of eyes were arrested today, but thankfully, many more eyes saw it happen. [emphasis added]

It is unknown why it seemed NYPD was targeting citizen media. Beyond the charge that they just hate freedom of press, which sound kind of adolescent even if it may be true, there is no evidence that police had express orders to remove media. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have orders. Occupiers were again in an area owned by Brookfield Properties. There is likely a cozy relationship between Brookfield and the NYPD now, especially after the Zuccotti Park raid on November 15. Some quid pro quo might be going on and swiftly cracking down on Occupy action at any locations owned by Brookfield Properties may be an unstated agreement between Brookfield and NYPD.


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