On the night of November 14, when the NYPD sprung a surprise raid to evict Occupy Wall Street’s foundational Zuccotti Park encampment, credentialed press were pushed back by police into a pen, unable to watch the eviction at close hand. Mother Jones magazine’s Josh Harkinson live-tweeted how he was physically dragged along the ground and removed from the park by officers. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg defended police action the next morning, stating that journalists were kept at a distance to “protect” them. Commentators on Twitter, meanwhile, decried the move as a “media blackout.”
The Occupy Wall Street movement has proven a consistent challenge for journalists since demonstrations in New York first began in mid-September and spread to over seventy U.S. cities. Diffuse, amorphous, and leaderless, it has resisted traditional media narratives about the nature and structure of protest groups. Beyond the theoretical challenges, newsrooms are having to adapt to volatile crowds and unpredictable police actions. Over half a dozen professional journalists have been injured or detained covering Occupy events in less than two months.
Reporters from Oregon’s KGW-TV News will no longer be covering Occupy Portland protests in groups of less than three. After a masked demonstrator shoved one reporter and a man with a bloodied face approached another in a threatening manner, the station management changed its policy in order to have more staff on the ground, looking out for each other.
“The situation is constantly changing, we can’t use old solutions and old tactics for what appear to be new and developing circumstances,” said Mary Cavallaro, the assistant national executive director of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), a national labor union that represents over 70,000 artists and journalists. Cavallaro said that AFTRA was looking to employers to provide resources and training, communication networks, and equipment for reporters in the field.
Portland is by no means the only site where reporters have been viewed with hostility by protesters. While covering the general strike in Oakland on the night on November 2, a Russia Today broadcast van was trapped by a crowd on the streets. From the scene, senior news producer, Lucy Kafanov, tweeted “R[ussia] T[oday] crew surrounded by protesters. Voting on whether to let us through. Half support us. Half don’t.” The reporters were eventually allowed safe passageway, but the incident is telling: journalists cannot work on the uniform assumption that everyone involved in the Occupy protests welcomes media presence.
The International News Safety Institute North America (INSI-NA) has advised that journalists who are heading out to protests, particularly where huge crowds and clashes with police are likely, should prepare themselves as might a foreign correspondent covering conflict. While the situation, of course, is not as dangerous as a combat zone like Afghanistan, metro reporters need to know where to position themselves in a crowd, need to have the right protective gear, and need to understand their rights under law. Indeed, dealing with police at Occupy demonstrations is proving the greatest challenge of all for many reporters.
“Stopping or detaining a journalist for even a few minutes can really hurt their ability to give a full and accurate account of a situation. And if journalists have to be in constant fear of arrests at Occupy protests, that will have a chilling effect on coverage,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild, Communications Workers of America, adding that many police do not recognize local journalists or their press passes, let alone freelancers and reporters for small startups.
Susie Cagle learned that the hard way.
“I had presumed a sort of bubble of safety because of my press pass,” said Cagle, an Oakland-based independent reporter, cartoonist and founder of the Graphic Journos collective. Cagle was among the 101 arrestees in Oakland on November 2. “That presumed safety has been burned in the past few days,” said Cagle.
Detailing her experiences for Alternet, Cagle wrote, “When I told my arresting officer that I was press, I was first told, ‘We’ll take care of that in a minute.’ That next minute turned into fifteen hours in two different jails.”
Like Cagle and a number of other reporters, I too was detained during a mass arrest of Occupy Wall Street protesters. On October 1, while reporting for The New York Times, I followed a surging crowd onto the Brooklyn Bridge. I was arrested alongside 700 others, as was Alternet staff member Kristen Gwynne. Despite wearing a New York Times identification badge and explaining that I was a reporter, I did not have an NYPD press pass and was not allowed to leave the bridge.
AFTRA’s Cavallaro emphasized the importance of newsrooms equipping their journalists with credentials that the police will recognize. But predicting police responses from city to city, even from precinct to precinct or from day to day has proven challenging for reporters and demonstrators alike.
Some general patterns in crowd control tactics have emerged: Where the NYPD have tried to corral crowds with orange nets and have deployed batons and pepper spray against protesters, police departments in Denver and Oakland have used tear gas and rubber bullets. Indeed, the editor of the Bay Citizen, Steve Fainaru, was hit in the stomach by tear gas canister fired by the Oakland police, which singed the skin on his hand. INSI has urged journalists and their employers to pay close attention to how police tactics may vary in different regions and situations and to share information learned from experience.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters are experimenting with new political formats, relationships and spaces. The media, in turn, are learning to adapt to new reporting terrains. I, for one, have learned to stay near the edge in a protest crowd, always ensuring I can spot an escape route, lest I find myself in plastic handcuffs again.
Natasha Lennard is a project officer for the International News Safety
Institute - North America. Visit INSI-NA’s Facebook page for more