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Police Violate Rules Meant To Protect Journalists

Allison Kilkenny Jan 3, 2012

The narrative that the NYPD might be behaving in a slightly authoritarian way during Occupy Wall Street's protests has finally permeated the mainstream media. Michael Powell in the New York Times penned one of the most honest –if not, at times, condescending– descriptions of what actually happens to journalists attempting to cover Occupy events.

Unfortunately, bystanders oftentimes sympathize for the victims of police brutality only if they are white establishment journalists, who are still granted a high level of respect in society. Observers frequently express little compassion for activists –Powell annoyingly refers to a group of them as "ragamuffin demonstrators"– who had been victimized by police. 

The general attitude seems to be that protesters, unlike journalists, are somehow asking to be hurt by officers even though they're merely attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Where the Times article stands apart from others of its kind is in one of the subjects Powell chose to interview. Ryan Devereaux (@rdevro), a reporter from Democracy Now, was the victim of police brutality on Dec. 17 during the Duarte Square protest held to celebrate the three-month anniversary of OWS. I previously wrote about the NYPD abusing Devereaux and his cameraman:

Journalist Ryan Devereaux tweeted at length about being assaulted by an NYPD officer. Devereaux details the officer "pushing his fist into [Devereaux's] throat." Despite repeatedly insisting he was press, the officer replied, "get the fuck back." Devro's colleague, a credentialed cameraman, was punched in the kidney three times.

The other journalists, AP and Daily News reporters and the Times' own Colin Moynihan, who experienced being arrested and harassed by an officer, respectively, also suffered serious violations at the hands of NYPD. However, it would have been familiar territory if Powell had limited the scope of his article to the "serious" establishment reporters from the AP, Daily News, and New York Times. 

In widening the net to include Devereaux, Powell was perhaps unknowingly making a fairly radical statement: the mainstream media are not exceptional nor should be privy to special protections by the NYPD. Press, including press from independent, alternative outlets like Democracy Now, should be protected by the police so they can do their jobs. Unfortunately, as Powell writes, "the decade-long trajectory in New York is toward expanded police power."

Officers routinely infiltrate groups engaged in lawful dissent, spy on churches and mosques, and often toss demonstrators and reporters around with impunity.

Powell uses the shameful events of Nov. 15 as his example of how wrong Mayor Bloomberg was when he insisted the press were not kept from doing their jobs during the raid on Zuccotti Park. Nothing could be further from the truth. Police bullied, intimidated, and in at least one case, physically dragged a reporter away from the park.

Rosie Gray, a writer for the Village Voice tried to beg her way into gaining access to the plaza, which the police quickly quarantined during the raid, preventing media from seeing what was happening. "I'm press!" Gray reportedly exclaimed, to which a female officer replied, "not tonight."

Josh Harkinson from Mother Jones reported being "violently shoved" by police as he tried to photograph a man being placed into an ambulance on a stretcher, in addition to being removed from the park's area even when he told police he is press and has the "right to be here and observe what is going on." As the officer dragged him from the square, he told Harkinson if he stayed in the park he "could get hurt."

Powell quotes from the police patrolmen's guide, which reads, "Members of the media will not be arrested for criminal trespass unless an owner expressly indicates…that the press is not to be permitted." Trinity Church's landlord told Powell that they made no such call before police moved in and arrested protesters occupying a lot owned by the church, in addition to arresting AP and Daily News reporters. Paul J. Browne, a deputy police commissioner, said that is why the reporters arrested at Duarte were "voided."

But the Browne confession is stunning. Surely, the NYPD are familiar with what the patrolmen's guide states. This means they ignored the clearly expressed rules guaranteeing press access to protests in order to detain reporters just long enough until the story was over whereupon they were promptly released. Without charge. Because they shouldn't have been arrested in the first place.

This article was originally published by In These Times.

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