Cease and desist
Student journalists face arrest while covering 'Occupy'
In nearly every story, student journalists remain outside observers. But the Occupy movement signified that slim percentage of coverage where reporters become actors in the story.
The images of police pepper-spraying students at the University of California at Davis became indelible icons of the movement and underscored the power of news media. The overnight raid of Zuccotti Park in New York City demonstrated equally the struggles journalists on the ground were having with law enforcement for access.
And then came the arrests. Around the country, police corralled journalists along with the protestors they were covering. At least 31 incidents nationwide arose of reporters, some of them students, being detained or arrested during the course of their coverage.
‘I wasn’t scared, I was just angry’
Alisen Redmond and Judy Kim were covering the Occupy Atlanta protests Nov. 5 for their respective publications. For their trouble, both Redmond and Kim ended up spending a night in jail, caught in a police roundup of 20 people at the event.
The pair of student journalists was arrested while gathering news at the protests near Woodruff Park, which was the scene of a similar police roundup Oct. 26 when 52 people were brought in following a scheduled park closing, according to The Sentinel newspaper.
Kim, photography editor at Georgia State University’s The Signal, covered the Oct. 26 protests and thought she knew how the arrests would play out. She told her editor she would photograph the protests once the situation between police and protestors had time to escalate. Kim arrived at the protest at 11:20 p.m., ready to document the arrests — less than 10 minutes later, she was the one in handcuffs.
“From what I remember, three officers just came at me,” Kim said. “They started grabbing my wrists, and I realized they were arresting me.”
Redmond, news editor at Kennesaw State University’s The Sentinel, was documenting the scene from a street that was closed to traffic but used by other members of the media.
“I was crouching in the street taking video,” Redmond said, “and then this officer comes out of nowhere, comes up from behind me, grabs my left arm and pulls me out of the street and says, ‘You’re going to jail.’”
Redmond identified herself as press to the officer, but he continued with the arrest, she said.
“I said, ‘Why aren’t you arresting channel 5, channel 2, channel 11 and the AJC,’ because they were in the exact same area I was,” she said. “And he ignored me.”
The two journalists were arrested on the same charge — “Pedestrian Obstructing Traffic.”
At the time of her arrest, Kim was wearing a blue T-shirt adorned with the name of her publication, The Signal, and her camera was visible. Her press pass was in her bag.
Unlike previous Occupy Atlanta incidents, the police were not using park or police car speakers, making them difficult to hear over yelling protestors, both Redmond and Kim said.
Redmond said she didn’t hear audible warnings.
“This time they used the bullhorns, and that could not be heard in a crowd of a couple hundred people,” Redmond said. “I was standing about maybe 15 feet away from the person with the bullhorn, and I could not understand what he was saying.”
In a letter to Atlanta Police Chief George Turner, Society of Professional Journalists president John Ensslin urged him to drop the charges against Kim and Redmond.
“They were documenting for the public the details of a newsworthy story,” Ensslin writes. “This was not an act of civil disobedience on their part; it was straight-up journalism, pure and simple.”
The two journalists were kept in holding cells for 14 hours. But once released on bail, the ordeal did not end.
Redmond was told her property — a phone and voice recorder — would be at the Atlanta Public Safety Annex at 8 a.m. Monday. When she arrived, her belongings weren’t there. She was sent to two other precincts, neither of which could locate the items.
Eventually both items were returned to Redmond, but the journalists still face charges and have a court date scheduled for March.
“People ask me if I was scared,” Redmond said. “I was just angry. Very angry.”
An occupied journalist
Jonathan Foster, too, thought he was just doing his job. The photographer for the Reporter magazine at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York was shooting photos at an Occupy event in Washington Square Park on Oct. 28 when he found himself in unfamiliar territory — handcuffs.
A Tweeted photo shows Foster wearing a shirt emblazoned with the word “reporter” being led away from the scene.
In a Nov. 17 post on the wall of a Facebook group called “Occupied Journalists,” Foster wrote about his ordeal.
“The assistant district attorney offered me ‘the same thing as all the other protestors,’ an ACD (adjournment in contemplation of dismissal) with 24 hours of community service or a hearing on the (December) 14th,” Foster wrote. “I was not protesting that night, nor have I in the other times that I have photographed at Occupy Rochester or Occupy Wall St. I wanted to spread the word, and to emphasize knowledge of rights, professionalism, and a belief in the credibility of what we do.”
With more than 900 members, Occupied Journalists bills itself as “a discussion place for working journalists, be they staff, student or freelancer, to share experiences and advice about covering Occupy protests nationwide.”
The group is maintained by The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America.
Foster is being represented by Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. He had an initial hearing in December and as of press time was scheduled to have another court date in January.
Professor v. Chicago Police Department
Though not covering the protests, Loyola University Professor Ralph Braseth had his own run-in Nov. 12 with police while on the job.
Braseth was photographing for a feature on low-income teenagers who flood the Loop, a Chicago community, on weekends when he happened upon a completely unrelated scene inside a subway station.
As he watched two plainclothes officers arrest a teen jumping the subway turnstile, Braseth had his video camera on and recording.
Braseth was standing on the other side of the turnstile about 40 feet away, he said.
“They got through putting the handcuffs on the young kid,” he said. “One of them turned around and saw me and locked eyes on me and started coming toward me.”
His reaction was quickly to put the camera in his pocket, a move that did not go unnoticed by the officer.
The officer told Braseth he was interfering with an investigation and cuffed him, he said.
“The young man and me, we walked up the stairs in handcuffs,” he said.
While sitting in the back of the police car, Braseth was told by officers that it was illegal to videotape police in the course of their duty, apparently a vague reference to the Illinois eavesdropping law, which makes it a felony to record a conversation without the permission of all parties involved. The penalties can be even harsher when a police officer is recorded, though that part of the law is being challenged in federal court.
But Braseth said neither of the officers mentioned that specific law, and he was standing too far away to record audio of their conversation anyway.
After the lecture, Braseth said the officer asked to see the video. He obliged.
The officer then reached down and deleted the file, he said.
Though he knew his rights had been violated, it wasn’t until the next day that Braseth decided he wanted to take action about what had happened.
He has filed a complaint with the department, and has yet to hear back. He will wait for the results before deciding on further legal action, he said.
As to how students should deal with law enforcement, whether at an Occupy event or an unrelated story, Braseth said they should avoid becoming confrontational.
“I don’t believe in heroism when you’re in that kind of a situation,” he said. “If there’s 300 journalists covering it, and you have the opportunity to walk away unscathed, do it. That’s what I’d say to students.”
But he was quick to add that students should be covering Occupy, especially if they know of fellow students involved.
“Do they have the right to cover it? Of course they do,” Braseth said. “I admire the student journalists for being there.”
Newsroom discussions on protocol during these events remain important. Redmond said she was aware of her rights as a journalist because she’d attended a forum the week prior.
Of course, things may still not go as planned, and for students on the scene, it is likely a newsgathering experience they’ll be hard-pressed to forget.
“Those 10 minutes where I thought I was doing my job turned into 14 hours of sitting and waiting,” Kim said. “An awful experience to say the least.”
By Nicole Hill and Peter Velz, SPLC staff writers
reports, Winter 2011-12