Journalists covering the May 1 Occupy demonstrations across the country encountered some police obstruction, including a few arrests, and an uptick in cases of demonstrators confronting journalists.
According to Josh Stearns, of the advocacy organization Free Press, who has been intensively tracking arrests and harassment of journalists covering demonstrations nationwide, May Day marked a slight improvement in police treatment of the press compared to the peak of the occupy movement last fall.
“We didn’t see a lot of coordination in advance from police departments specifically focused on press suppression,” he said.
There were some arrests reported, often via tweet, around the country. In San Francisco, reporter Jenna Lane of KGO radio was reportedly detained by police inside a building occupied by protesters. In New York, photographer Jessica Chornesky was arrested after climbing on top of a food cart to get an overhead shot. Another journalist was reportedly arrested in Seattle. In several cities, journalists said that police impeded their movements and blocked access to arrest situations.
Still, the number of reported arrests during this latest Occupy movement push was low compared to November, when New York City police kept journalists away as they cleared the protest camp in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. Eleven journalists, including me, were arrested in New York on that day alone. After those arrests, news organizations and advocates rebuked the Police Department, causing Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to order officers not to obstruct journalists from doing their job.
Stearns said that this public scrutiny, plus cooperation between police and media groups, may have played a role in the sligh improvement in press treatment during the protests.
“I’d like to think that the amount of attention that this issue has gotten over the last six months has helped with that, as well as the fact that in a number of cities journalists, individuals, and organizations have had direct meetings with the police departments about this to try to resolve some of this, to try to address it in advance.”
But that doesn’t mean journalists had an easy time covering the demonstrations, Stearns added.
“I think we’re still seeing a lot of officials and police who either don’t understand or don’t care enough to pay attention to upholding really clear and simple civil rights,” he said.
In New York, journalists found themselves caught between hostile police and protesters during a militant, non-permitted “black bloc” demonstration that began in Sarah D. Roosevelt Park in lower Manhattan.
C.S. Muncy, a freelance photographer on assignment for The Village Voice, was one of those journalists.
“I had a couple people make grabs at my camera, which is never cool,” he told me. “There were a couple of people who got paint-bombed, which if you don’t have a filter on your camera can cause irreparable damage. A couple of people on bikes made grabs at cameras…. I don’t like it when a cop tells me not to take photos; I don’t like it when a protester tells me not to take photos.”
During that demonstration, a police officer also yanked me backward by the strap on my backpack while several officers ordered journalists to stand back. Then, as the black-clad crowd took off running south of the park, several photographers encountered hostility from protesters. I saw protesters shoving one photographer.
Photographer Jeremy Sparig, on assignment for Metro, reported that some members of the black-clad group kicked him to the ground and assaulted him before other protesters pulled the assailants away. In Oakland, protesters also reportedly smashed the windshield of a CBS affiliate’s news van. In Seattle, a local TV news cameraman said he was bloodied after black-clad demonstrators jabbed him with a wooden rod.
Mickey Osterreicher, general council for the National Press Photographers Association, said he is concerned that photographers in particular are in a tough spot, with neither police nor protesters desiring their presence.
“Both of those situations infringe, unfortunately, on the public’s right to know what’s going on out there,” Osterreicher said.
Another factor contributing to the challenges for police and media is the question of defining who is a journalist in an age when everyone has a camera in their cellphone. In New York in particular, a battle has taken place over police credentialing of journalists from non-traditional news outlets.
However, journalists who do have the NYPD press pass can face a different set of problems. Muncy, the photographer, said a plainclothes police officer took him aside on Tuesday and threatened to cancel his police-issued press credential for running into the street while taking photos.
“Those press passes, they’re like big targets on your chest, you know—it’s one more thing that can be used against you,” he said. Police will threaten, “get out of here or we take your card.”