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Comments and observations about the media and journalism

An ode to Brazilian hospitality

This is the story of a girl who found herself stranded on a curb in Rio and encountered the most incredible kindness of strangers.

Journalists keep strange hours and travel long ways to get their stories. Having just arrived after 7am on an overnight bus from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, I was looking forward to meeting up with two colleagues in their apartment near the beach and to crash on the couch for a few hours before going out in the afternoon to cover yet another anti FIFA World Cup protest, possibly a violent one.

However, once arrived at the proper address, my friends didn’t answer the door. I rang, I called, I knocked on the door, I sent SMS, and even Facebook messages, but there was no answer. After about half an hour even after the janitor got in on the act and almost broke down their door by knocking so hard, but not before bringing me a chair to sit on while I was waiting for my friends to let me in. After about a further hour an upstairs neighbour became curious as to what the ruckus was all about and started making inquiries. The janitor kindly explained to her what was going on, so she offered me to sit on her couch until we could reach my friends. She fed me breakfast, let me use her internet and even showed me her family albums once she learned I was a photographer.

After a couple of hours of still no answer from my friends, my kind hostess had to leave, so I went down to my friends apartment again to wait outside their door. After a while, the neighbours across the hall, an elderly retired couple, started to take an interest in the situation. Once they understood what was going on, they, too, invited me into their home, sat me on the couch, fed me again, offered me to use their shower, and when I told them I would be working in the afternoon, even suggested I sleep in their bed if I needed a few extra winks. While we waited on my friends, we watched a soccer game together and discussed Brazil and its situation, and even though their English was about as good as my Portuguese, we did have a very good conversation. All through this, my hosts were the most warm and welcoming, never ever giving me the sense I was intruding on their lives or daily routine. They welcomed me with open arms like a long lost friend and did everything they could to make me feel welcome. I did my best to thank them profusely for every kindness they extended to me, but I’m still not sure I did their friendliness and generosity justice.

After a while even they had to leave, but, and here comes the most incredible part, they insisted I stay in their apartment, take a shower, take a nap and just make myself at home. Until a couple of hours before that they had never even met me, yet they offered me the run of their house while they were out meeting friends to watch the Brazilian soccer team play in the World Cup.

Fortunately, around 3pm, a short while after my hosts had left me behind in their apartment, one of my friends contacted me, having just awoken from his sleep. All this time they had been inside the apartment fast asleep after a late night’s work. But while part of me was angry at the whole situation, I also think that without my friends’ dopiness I would have never met all these extraordinarily kind people and had such a deep insight into Brazilian hospitality.

The protest in the afternoon was mostly a non-event after police raided a bus with protesters before the march could even start. Part of me was thankful for that, as I realised that I really wasn’t in the mood for getting teargased on three hours of sleep.

Back at the apartment I finally fell asleep halfway through filing my report for the day …

Public infrastructure neglect ahead of World Cup frustrates Brasilia

The Wave Pool in Brasilia’s Sara Kubitschek Park has been closed for renovation since 1997

A pattern of decaying public infrastructure assets, many of them shut down for years with the promise of prompt renovation that never seems to materialize, frustrates many residents of Brasilia in light of massive public investments in the World Cup.

To develop a better understanding as to just why Brazilians around the country are so deeply frustrated with the government’s handling of public investment into infrastructure needed to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup, I visited a number of public facilities around the nation’s 54 year old capital Brasilia. I found many of them shut down, with promises of renovations and upgrades that have yet to materialise, and some of them, situated in Sara Kubitschek Park near the brand new National Stadium, one of the 12 sites of the 2014 World Cup, in horrible state of disrepair:

Brasilia’s Wave Pool has been abandoned since 1997, after 15 years of public use

The Wave Pool, built in the 1980s as a free public facility and a major attraction to Brasilians to use in the public park, was closed down in 1997 for repairs to the wave machinery. Closed ever since, it has become a popular hang out for crack addicts. A revitalisation plan issued by the Secretariat of Urban Planning in 2011 called for a study of bids to revitalise the sports facilities in the park, which at this point call for a complete reconstruction of the public pool, as the old wave machinery is beyond repair after such an extended period of disuse. In his 2011 statement, Brasilia’s Administrator Messias de Souza answered his citizens frequent calls for revitalisation of the pool with the following statement: “We heard the demands of users and we are trying to solve them. Now just wait for the deadlines.” Three years later on the eve of a major event in the city, the citizens of Brasilia are still waiting …

Sign outside the Maria da Conceição Moreira Salles Public Library in Brasilia reading “No bread and games, we want education!!”

The public library Maria da Conceição Moreira Salles in Brasilia’s Asa Sul was shut down on May 6 2014 by the Federal District’s Civil Defence Authority and condemned against further use, citing an immediate risk of collapse, water leaks, and electrical wiring problems in the facility that had been badly maintained since it was constructed 50 years ago. Housing a collection of over 120,000 works, the library used to receive over 1000 visits daily before its sudden shutdown. Problems had been mounting over the past few years: In 2012, pieces of plaster fell from the facade of the building in the gardens and on the balcony. A few months ago, over 2000 works received water damage after a leak from the air-conditioning system. The National Library Foundation issued a statement regarding the potential reopening of the library, saying “we are studying the immediate shoring and recovery project of the reading room” as well as “sanitary analysis of water consumed by users.” The Foundation reports that works on electrical installations are under way, and plans for replacing the water tank are being drawn up. No time line was given for plans to shore up the structural deficiencies of the building, or the replacement of the air-conditioning unit. Signs posted on the front door of the library show the deep concern of its users and staff, demanding immediate renovations “meeting FIFA standards” as one sign declared. A passerby I meet while outside the building tells me however “I’m not holding my breath.”

Brasilia’s Renato Russo Cultural Center closed suddenly in 2013 due to structural issues

The Renato Russo Cultural Space, Brasilia’s leading alternative cultural space and a source of free arts education classes to local public school students since it opened in 1993, suddenly shut down in 2013 with few reasons given. Several months later, the center’s doors are still shuttered, with rumours of faulty wiring and cracked ceilings floating around in the local press. In a safety audit report, Federal Authorities cite the following issues for which the space has been repeatedly fined: Lack of wheelchair accessibility, lack of preferred seating for the elderly and infirm, no handicap parking, and other missing adaptations to make the space usable and accessible to visitors with special needs. The space’s manager, Marconi Valaderes, admits to a local radio reporter, that the center closed in part to avoid further accumulation of fines and violations. No plans for the timeline for reopening of the cultural center are currently known.

Construction workers outside Brasilia’s US$650 million National Stadium one week before the opening of the 2014 FIFA World Cup

Meanwhile, local authorities have spent R$1.5 billion (ca US$ 650 million) on building the new National Stadium, one of 12 sites used to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Once the tournament is over, it is assumed that the stadium will be used to host rock concerts and other arena style shows, as Brasilia currently has no other such venue. The city has no local football team playing in the major leagues.

The lack and delay of investment in public recreational and cultural facilities is not directly a cause of the public investment of FIFA’s 2014 tournament, However, the pattern of decay of such facilities that were originally built for public use, showcase the priority setting of local authorities in where they invest public funds available to them and illustrate one of the driving forces of frustration of Brazilian’s all around the country that has led to recent protests. People I meet and talk to are tired of politicians that make lofty promises ahead of every election, and when they take on public office, that wind up rarely being kept. Walking past the twin towers of the Congresso, which houses Senators and members of the Lower House, I hear a passerby murmur “I wish these twin towers had been hit by a plane.” Asking for clarification what he meant by that, the man, who wouldn’t give his name, said “[politicians] take office, make big promises and then go home to screw their wives. However, we who pay their salaries get little benefit from them being here.”

Protest outside Brasilia’s Congresso, commemorating the death of each worker who died during construction of the stadiums used in the 2014 FIFA World Cup

Brazil – a country seemingly out of love with itself


With the advent of the opening game of FIFA’s 2014 World Cup in Brazil looming on the horizon, I find Brazilians in a pensive mood, or according to some estimations, downright depressed with itself.

I have spent the past few days meeting intellectuals and protesters in Rio to learn more about their thoughts and feelings about the upcoming World Cup, the protests, and their thoughts on why the situation is as it currently is. In those discussions I’ve encountered a litany of complaints about the country’s infrastructure, lack of historical perspective, and much debate as to why the image Brazil projects of itself in the world is so important. It struck me that many of the people I spoke to seem to think that Brazil is in a rut because it doesn’t deserve any better, yet privately they’re upset about that because they really want a better life for the lower classes.

Allan Melo, a tech journalist who just left his job at O Globo, has an interesting explanation for his compatriot’s quandary:

“The public discussion in Brazil mostly focusses on everything that’s wrong with Brazil, the corruption, the World Cup overspending, the bad schools, the botched favela pacifications. Meanwhile, we don’t hear any good news about what’s happening around us. For example, there’s a spectacular exhibit on the works of Salvador Dalí that just opened here in Rio at the National Art Museum. The fact that a Brazilian Museum could attract such an important exhibit is an important news story, but there are no news crews out there reporting on the opening, interviewing people on how they felt about seeing this beautiful art. We hear about Da Vinci exhibits opening in New York, but nobody tells you about that happening here. This gives people the impression that this country can’t get anything right in comparison with other countries”, he says.

“I know from friends in Buenos Aires that they have protests happening there every single day about a broad variety of issues, yet we only hear about protests in Argentina if they concern a very important topic. We may hear about high unemployment in Spain, but we don’t hear at all about economic difficulties in Greece, Italy or elsewhere in Europe. People here think it’s all working perfectly well. In part that is due to the language barrier, as people can’t read or listen to news in other languages and get a different view that way, but we don’t hear much from Portugal either,” he continues.

So, then why not use the World Cup as a distraction from all that? After all, Brazil is very good at football and widely expected to win even this tournament. “Because,” Allan says in a surprising answer, “football isn’t everybody’s lives. Football is used by the politicians to project an image abroad, but Brazilians aren’t as patriotic as it may seem. We suck at celebrating ourselves.”

Most people I’ve spoken to seem to agree that hosting a World Cup could be a good thing for Brazil, once it is actually ready for it. In their eyes that means that the country’s infrastructure is working, poverty has been successfully combatted, and schools give every Brazilian a chance at a productive and constructive life with an education that allows them to compete on an international playing field. “The cup and the Olympics came at least 20 years too soon”, Victor Galdino, a member of Rio’s Pirate Party chapter, explains. “People here think our country is not good enough as it is, and that’s why the foreign perception of what’s happening with the protests is so sensitive. By having the World Cup now, we’re just building castles in the sand.”

Infrastructure building in Rio are underway, as for example the government is building a whole new Metro line, which connects the tourist areas of Leblon and Ipanema to the city’s centre which currently can only be traveled to by bus or taxi, but the project is severely behind schedule, with people questioning whether the construction will be ready even for the 2016 Olympics. Tourist attractions, such as the cable car to the top of the Sugar Loaf are being upgraded, but again, won’t be ready for tourists visiting the World Cup.

Meanwhile, stories making headlines abroad right now circle around a horrific photo posted on the Facebook page of the Police unit entrusted with “pacifying” Brazil’s favela areas, showing a slew of dead children lying in the street in their own blood (this was posted in February 2014, btw, so this didn’t happen recently), as well as this video by Danish journalist Mikkel Keldorf, alleging that death squads march around the favelas, murdering unwanted street children, even if they were not known criminals.

I don’t have any first hand evidence to prove or disprove Keldorf’s claims, but since the police themselves posted the photo, with a caption that indicates they were proud of their achievement, its veracity is hard to dispute. In talking to several members of Rio’s Pirate Party however, I have gained some insight into the situation inside the “pacified” favelas, that make Keldorf’s claims seem credible.

As a brief background, on what the “pacification” of a favela entails: In 2008, the Brazilian government started the creation of the UPP, Unit of Pacifying Police, with the goal of reducing crime in the country’s poorest neighbourhoods. Usually, the army would first go into a neighbourhood, drive out the criminals (often drug traffickers), and then install a UPP in the favela which patrols the streets and maintains safety for its residents. Some successes have been reported, such as a reduction in murder rates, but other problems appeared, such as an increase in kidnappings and rising crime in other parts of the country. “The criminals leave when the army comes,” Victor Galdino explains. “They go elsewhere and continue their business from outside the favela, but the business model is still in place. They just push around the problem.”

However the presence of the UPP is making life difficult for those still in the favelas. “The UPP is micromanaging people’s lives,” Galdino says. ” The UPP is searching people’s bags as they come and go from their homes, searching the homes while people aren’t home and treating everyone like a potential criminal. Sometimes situations escalate, and that’s when both officers and favela residents get killed.” The killing of a UPP police man by an enraged crowd seems to be what sparked the shootings of the children in the photo linked to above.

I have not yet had the opportunity to visit a favela myself and get a first hand impression of the situation, but am working on investigating this further.

Joana Havelange and the unfortunate quote that may define the 2014 World Cup

Joana Havelange, granddaughter to the former FIFA president João Havelange, daughter to Ricardo Teixeira, former head of the Brazilian Football Association, and herself head of the local organising committee for this year’s FIFA World Cup COL is in hot water right now for something she posted on her Instagram account.

Quoting Brazilian communications expert and journalist Thiago Falcão Guimarães, she posted a critique he wrote on his Instagram account about the “Não Vai Ter Copa” (There will be no Cup) protests on May 19th, albeit without accrediting him for the text. Below is her instagram post where she reposts Falcão’s text, adding “Yes there will be a  World Cup and it will be beautiful! Brazil knows how and can do this, will read, is already doing it.”

Of course, as the leader of the local organising committee she should be exalted about the upcoming event and spread confidence in her team in delivering a great sporting event. So far, little surprise, so what’s the problem? Let’s start with a translation of the original quote:

Thiago Falcão writes (emphasis mine):

“No support from me [for the Não Vai Ter Copa protests], I will not wear black and not partake of any of the World Cup games. I want for the World Cup to happen in the best possible way. You won’t find me root against the tournament, because the money that was there to spend and steal, already has been. For protests to be effective, they should have been done sooner. Mostly,  I want those arriving from outside to see a Brazil that knows how to be welcoming, and to be kind. I want that those who come choose to return. I want to see a beautiful Brazil. My protest against the World Cup will be in the next elections. Otherwise, we’re destroying what we have today, and not change what can be changed tomorrow.”

Most Brazilians I have meet since arriving in Rio and those I’ve spoken to beforehand are very much upset about the waste of public money on a private enterprise such as the FIFA World Cup, rather than upgrading the country’s seriously decaying infrastructure. Still, Falcão’s sentiment as a whole seems reasonable enough for someone who is looking for constructive ways to channel his anger. His post would have never caused such a ruckus were it not for that little interjection that implies that there’s no use in complaining now, since all the money that can be stolen already has. So, on the one hand he advocates to trust into Brazil’s political system and to address the corruption issues that besatt the organisation of this world cup at the ballot box. At the same time he says there’s no point in complaining because corruption is so rampant that there is nothing left to save.

Joana Havelange, given her own position and familial heritage, then stepped on a social media land mine by reposting this text without attribution onto her own Instagram account and reinforcing its message with a cheerleading note for her organising committee in response to persistent protests against the event she is in charge of organising. The post went viral, enraging many Brazilians. Thanks in part to the Coletivo Projetação, a protest group that projects messages onto house walls and then photographs the projections for distribution on social media, similar to the Illuminator group during the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, the words “what could be stolen already has” are now seen as hers. The quote, with her face posted next to it, is making the rounds as a Facebook meme, standing as a monument to the indifference of Brazil’s upper classes to the needs of their middle and lower class compatriots. The public’s indignation further increased when other public figures shared Havelange’s original post to show their frustration with the ongoing complaints from the protesters.



In an interview with AdNews Falcão shows himself to be surprised about how his words went viral and maintains he just wanted to express his frustration about the current situation and the government policies in handling the run up to the World Cup: “I believe all of us are unhappy with the current situation of the country. Know that much has been invested in stadiums and we could have investments in many other sectors. However, to attack the Cup is not the way. We should not further tarnish the country’s image abroad. We need to show that, above all, we are not ignorant, quite the contrary, and we’re mature enough to understand that now is the time to do well.”

Falcão also says that no other media outlet has sought him out to verify the origin of his quote. “What could be, already has been stolen, including my text”, he said. “And I think it’s absurd to see the media’s interest in this story without checking who was in fact the author of these words.”

Falcão told O Globo more about why he wrote the original post: “I lived in the U.S. a few months last year, and there the Americans saw those demonstrations [during the Confederations Cup], with horror, as well as some friends from Turkey, Spain and Italy, who told me not to come Brazil during the World Cup. Moreover, many protesters were there like lunatics, with beer in hand.”

Joana Havelange meanwhile has deleted her Instagram post, partly because sharing it was a gross violation of her own committee’s social media ban for all its members, who are not allowed to comment on the World Cup. Havelange’s post reached 671 shares before she deleted it in response to the social media outcry. Still, her problems are not over as Rio State’s Deputy Governor Marcelo announced that tomorrow he will enter an investigation request into the matter with the Public Ministry.

The protests meanwhile are set to continue, despite, or probably just because of the exasperation expressed by Brazil’s social and economic elite. A major event in Rio is planned for Friday, the teachers have been on strike all week, and in some states police has been on strike to protest for higher pay. Whether Havelange and her committee might like it or not, Brazil and the world will hear of its people during the prime event of the country’s favourite national pastime.

Pressing issues

5/14/2013 UPDATED BELOW!

That press freedom and civil liberties in the United States have been significantly and systematically eroded since the dawn of the post-9/11 mindset, isn’t exactly breaking news. Over the years examples have mounted at ever accelerating pace of systematic encroachment on freedom of the press, curtailing of whistleblowers and the erosion of any concept of individual privacy. Today’s news of the U.S. Department’s unprecedented breach of journalistic privilege protected under the First Amendment by secretly collecting phone records of AP journalists and editors merely is the frightening culmination of an ongoing effort by the US government to control the message by curtailing the movement of the messengers and undermining access to their confidential sources.

That is not to belittle the seriousness of the transgressions committed by the Department of Justice against one of the countries leading news organizations (and who knows whether the transgressions were limited exclusively to the AP), but they are a logical continuation of a series of incidents that saw journalists under pressure for not conforming with the intended message sent by the White House for at least a decade.

The incarceration of then New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time’s Matt Cooper over their refusal to reveal confidential sources in connection with the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame was the first, and very poignant, confrontation between the Department of Justice and the media since the Patriot Act has given the government unprecedented surveillance capabilities. Poignant in particular, as the confidential sources turned out to be members of the same administration that was pressuring the journalist to reveal them.

By then the government’s urge to control the media had already brought us the “embedded reporter”, limiting journalists looking to gain direct access to US troops on the ground in Iraq to only move in conjunction with military units, and restricting their ability to report on information they might find on the ground that might impact military operation. While the concern over revealing the position and tactics of particular units was understandable, the restrictions placed on embedded journalists also turned out to cover information critical of the army’s operations, significantly delaying, but thankfully not preventing, the breaking of stories such as the torture tactics used in Abu Ghraib, and the use of depleted uranium shells and their impact on the health of civilians in Fallujah. The wikipedia entry on “embedded journalism” quotes Lt. Col. Rick Long of the U.S. Marine Corps as explaining the origin of the embedding tactic with, “Frankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment.”

In some cases, the government’s war on terror has also kept international journalists from traveling to the US, such as Colombian reporter Hollman Morris, widely known for his thorough coverage of the conflict between the government and armed guerillas inside his country. When, in 2010, he was awarded a Nieman Fellowship to study conflict negotiation strategies at Harvard University, he was denied a student visa under the “terror activities” section of the Patriot Act over alleged links to terrorism. As Morris’ coverage was often critical of the Colombian President Uribe’s handling of the internal conflict, human rights activists have voiced suspicions that the government had pressured the Obama administration into denying him the visa. Only a public outcry and pressure from press organization finally allowed Morris to obtain a visa and travel to Boston for his studies.

But the government, especially under President Obama, is not only pursuing the messenger. Its attempt to dominate the information environment at home persecutes also those that leak information it does not want publicly known:

Danielle Brian, of the Project on Government Oversight, said the US department of justice in the Obama administration “sent a clear of message of fear and intimidation” to whistleblowers in the national security field” by not only threatening whistleblowers inside government agencies, but actually prosecuting them under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Most notably, US Army Private Bradley Manning has spent three years in isolation detention over his role in leaking highly embarrassing confidential information to WikiLeaks, whose founder Julian Assange is now hiding inside the Equadorian Embassy in London for fear of being extradited to the US for publishing that information. On February 28, 2013, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges brought against him at the pre-trial hearings in the military court at Fort Meade. The trial is set to begin in June.

Former CIA employee John Kiriakou was prosecuted, and sentenced to 30 months in jail, by the Obama administration for revealing water boarding and torture as an outspoken policy of the Bush and Obama administrations, and not the deprived actions of a few rogue agents inside the armed forces.

A total of six government whistleblowers have so far been prosecuted by Obama’s Department of Justice for revealing that some at the FBI worried that Israel might attack Iran, wrongdoings at the NSA, or concerns at the State Department over then North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-il’s nuclear program.

The US government’s march against press freedom is not limited to stories of international scope, but regularly involves a claimed national security angle and increasingly entangles local law enforcement agencies in the ongoing confrontation with the media.

In 2002, Toni Locy wrote a series of articles about an army scientist suspected of involvement in the mailing of anthrax filled letters to elected officials after the 9/11 attacks. For refusing to reveal her sources the reporter was held in contempt of court and ordered to pay a fine of $5,000.

In 2006 Blogger Joshua Wolf was jailed for 30 days before being released on bail for refusing to release a video of clashes between police and protesters outside a G-8 summit in San Francisco. Having lost his trial, he was sent back to jail for a total of 226 days, the longest any journalist has gone to jail to protect a confidential source.

In 2007, two journalists were subpoenad by the military courts requesting they turn over interviews they had conducted with First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, the first US officer to refuse service in the Iraq war. Only after significant public pressure and a plea bargain involving Watada, did the Army drop the subpoenas against the reporters.

In 2011, journalists in Puerto Rico covering protests of students against increases in university taxes have been detained and harassed by local police.

Confrontations between press and local police forces came to a head at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the fall of 2011, as over 80 journalists were arrested in a variety of protest actions and raids by the police on encampments in New York City and elsewhere around the country. The International Press Institute reported at the time that journalists had found themselves charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and the intentional causing of public alarm amongst other offenses for covering the protests even while wearing press credentials. As a consequence of the journalist arrests at Occupy, Reporters without Borders lowered the ranking of the United States in their annual World Press Freedom Index by 20 slots down to 47th out of 179 ranked countries, right behind the Comoros, Botswana and just ahead of Trinidad and Tobago.

The American press’ standing in the public eye was not helped by a 2009 report published by the Pew Research Center, which concluded that “only 20 percent of Americans say they believe the media is independent from the pressures of powerful people and organizations”, while “less than one-third of Americans believe their press “generally gets the facts straight”,  accusing it of political bias and lacking objectivity. Some have since tried to shift the blame for the heightened polarization in the US media on bloggers and freelance journalists, but increasing bias can be found both in mainstream and independent news outlets.

Local journalists working in New York have long complained about increasingly repressive tactics used by NYPD against free access by members of the press to internal sources and the coverage of police activity not only in incidents connected to the Occupy movement. Ever since Mayor Bloomberg looked to limit media access to police stations and other parts of the local government, journalists and photographers (including yours truly) have been arrested for documenting arrests and conducting interviews with passersby on public sidewalks, systematically blocked from taking pictures of protester and other arrests and threatened with removal of press credentials and arrest when protesting the blocking of access. At an event held by the New York Press Club on suppression of the media in New York in March 2012, New York Post reporter Murray Weiss, who had worked the NYPD beat since the 1980s commented that the New York Police Department was “so successful in doing what they wanted the way they wanted it to do and get away with it, that they were now afraid of the press.”

A similar reaction appears to be that of the Obama administration’s secret monitoring of AP’s reporting activities over the period of 2 months as part of their investigation over the leaks of the CIA’s involvement in the thwarting of a terror plot in Yemen. First reported by AP, the story was widely criticized for revealing sensitive information about active operations on the ground, even though the newswire had held the story for two weeks after a request by the government. In its effort to prosecute those that have leaked the information from Yemen to the AP and other news outlets, the US Department of Justice had obtained a so-called “secret subpoena” to collect phone records of over 20 lines assigned to journalists and editors at the New York based newswire.

This incident also adds an exclamation point to the debate over who is a journalist and who is not. Individual reporters might not be as well connected inside the government as a global news organization, but they’re harder to control and keep on message.

Of crucial importance here are the questions this incident raises:

– How widespread is secret government surveillance of the media, individual journalists, and their news sources, what other data has the government collected, who has access to it and how will the increased culture of fear affect individual’s ability and willingness to come forward with information of government wrongdoing?

– What recourse do journalists have against the systematic infringement of their constitutional rights to gather and report the news?

– And most importantly: When will the media start pushing back against their harassment and suppression at the hand of the government?

Enough is enough, and hopefully the blatant intrusion on AP’s news gathering operation by the Department of Justice will finally raise up the gander in the country’s media outlets to start protesting in earnest and consistently the erosion of the protection awarded to the fourth estate under the country’s constitution. While all the past incidents listed above have raised complaints about press freedom concerns, they have mostly ended by the media giving in to the government’s stance under the guise of serving national security. However, at this point the media risks being a detriment to the safety of the homeland not by asking critical questions of an ever increasingly overbearing security apparatus, but rather by not asking them.  The Internet and social media have given an outlet to critical voices that are currently being drowned out in mainstream media outlets. Yet it is imperative that news outlets of all stripes keep asking the tough questions for soon we might no longer be able to do so, and then, as a profession, we have truly failed the people of this country.

The laws of diminishing returns applies to matters of national security as much as they apply elsewhere. Right after the 9/11 attacks it absolutely made sense to tighten up cooperation between different federal agencies to make sure we won’t miss another red flag like the group of flight school students who showed no discernible interest in how to land a plane safely. It made sense to take a closer look at what people bring with them onto airplanes once we understood that people were looking to blow them up. We even wrapped our heads around putting our flip-flops through an x-ray machine at the airport to avoid further shoe bombing attempts. But where is the line where the increase in safety that is obtained by a new security measure costs too much freedom? Is it worth to give up free speech and a free press to pursue the utopia of a terror-free world? We all want to sleep safely at night, without fear of terror and intimidation. But, me thinks, that requires more than anything that we do all we can to ensure we hang on to our personal freedoms and a press that dares to ask the important questions.

Pressing issues ahead, indeed!

UPDATE (5/14/2013)

The guys over at Brave New Foundation have interviewed some of the countries leading investigative journalists on what yesterday’s revelations about the government spying on AP means for democracy in this country. Great work!

Getting the memo …

… or how to get your case dismissed in NYC Criminal Court in three easy lessons …

So the day had come for me to return to New York County Criminal Court to finally get my charges dismissed for the arrest I suffered while photographing Occupy Wall Street’s anniversary protests on September 17, 2012. How I ended up in this situation you can read here and here.

My lawyer, lead counsel for the National Press Photographers’ Association Mickey Oesterreicher had, as he put it, “found a live one” at the District Attorney’s office, meaning a member of District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s staff who agreed that there was no point in pursuing my case further given the underlying set of circumstances, and to allow dismissal of my case at my next court date, slated for February 14, the day now best known for celebrating those we love.

I didn’t feel the love much, however, as I arrived in court still reeling from having a gun pulled on me in broad daylight the day before by three men engaged in a nasty fist fight on a Brooklyn bus. Things didn’t much improve when I was called up to the bench, fully expecting to have my case dismissed, yet heard the Assistant District Attorney present say instead “the people are offering an ACD in this case.” ACD stands for Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal, usually coming with conditions of 6 to 12 months during which one cannot get rearrested or face the original charges. While technically not placing a defendant on probation, this legal proceeding does serve as a chilling effect on those issued such orders, as during a second arrest the original charges could be combined with whatever the second arrest brought about into a more severe judgement.

First thinking I didn’t hear correctly, I looked over and saw that my attorney, Jonathan Wallace from the National Lawyers Guild, who had agreed to stand up with me for the dismissal, looked equally perplexed and started to argue with the judge that this was not what we were lead to expect as the outcome of this proceeding. The ADA denied any knowledge that this case was to be dismissed, stating that she didn’t have a note to that effect in her file. My attorney requested a second call, which clearly annoyed the judge who accused him of being ill prepared, but she granted it. I think it seemed obvious that we had been surprised.

We quickly left the court room and both hit the phones, Jonathan communicating with NLG headquarters, and I contacting Mickey Oesterreicher to understand what had happened. I had just learned that a note had been sent but may have gotten lost when we were called back on a rush into the courtroom for our second call. The ADA again insisted that all that she had to offer was the ACD, that she had spoken to the attorney in the trial bureau who was assigned my case, and said that he was absolutely not going to dismiss the case. So, we pleaded no disposition and left the court expecting to file a motion to dismiss to maybe get this resolved at the following court date, now set for April 1st, the irony of the date not entirely lost on me; nor the fact that on this date Occupiers are preparing some protest marches and other actions. Keeping witnesses and key organizers away from Occupy events by tying them up in court on those dates is a tried and true tactic employed by the New York County courts.

Walking out of the court room I couldn’t help wondering if the ADA might have pulled a fast one on me and his boss, the head of the trial bureau in the District Attorney’s office, who had agreed to dismiss the case. In relations to Occupy-related court proceedings, keeping a bullshit arrest alive in court with a jackass move would have only been par for the course. Still that thought doubly disappointed me, because obviously now my court follies would drag on, and I would loose even more work days over an arrest that in my opinion had no justification in the law, but also because I frankly do have higher expectations in an public servant charged with upholding law and public interest in the place I call home, no matter what the circumstances may be that bring me to stand on opposite sides of the bench with him. Now, to the ADA’s defense, it may have really just been a case of a notice of dismissal getting lost on the way from the trial bureau to the court room, but it seemed a little odd how quickly we were called back for our second call. Usually one goes to the bottom of the pile in such instances and often spends hours waiting for the return call. The way the presiding ADA insisted in offering me that ACD, it struck me that they really, really wanted me to take it.

Once outside the courtroom, I called back Mickey Oesterreicher to break the unhappy news to him, but he refused to let go. He pleaded with me not to leave and he’d be back with me. So I waited a short while, in which my attorney had wandered off to tend to another case he was handling in the court house that day. When Mickey called me back, I learned that a copy of the notice for my dismissal was now being walked over to the court house on behest of the head of the trial bureau, and I should give his name and phone number to the ADA if she had any issues with that. So, I had to reconnect with my attorney, get him to convince the ADA to call us back for a third time, and hope the note would arrive before that happened. Jonathan was shaking his head, saying that a third call and such a chaos over a dismissal of a disorderly conduct charge was something he had never experienced in his twenty years of legal practice in New York.

As we stood up for our third call, the judge, now fuming, was regaled with the fact that while the ADA still believed my arrest was justified, she had “received information that I was working as a member of the press that day and therefore she would move to dismiss the case.” The judge immediately granted the request, if for no other reason than to finally have us go away and not come back before her. She didn’t seem at all happy about how this entire morning went down, and I can’t say I blame her.

Even though I ultimately got what I had come for, the process as it presented itself to me deeply concerns me. I was fortunate enough to have two committed lawyers working my case, one on the ground with me pushing through call backs until we got it right, and the other working the back room getting the paperwork sorted. Only thanks to that did I get this matter resolved the same day and in my favor. If we do believe that justice is blind to special circumstance, it cannot be a function of whom my lawyer knows and has a phone number for to get the proper procedural treatment in court. Irrespective of the question whether my arrest was justified or not, once in the trenches of the court system, it shouldn’t be about whom you know, but about why you are here and what you have to say in your defense.

Maybe I’m naive to expect I might find actual justice inside a court house, but I grew up with the image of America as the beacon of justice and liberty, for all the world to see and follow. For me to finally catch a glimpse of that making a fleeting appearance along the corridors of 100 Centre Street, it required the dedicated wrangling of two highly experienced and well connected attorneys. Land of the free, is that what you’ve come to?

People Get Ready …


“Once upon a pretty time there was a girl. She stood outside a big, big house, waiting to get in. She had to wait in a line of huddled creatures, watching those before her file through a golden, glimmering portal, slowly, one by one with heavy paces. When it was her turn to enter, the girl noticed two grimm looking faces with grey eyes, staring coldly at her from both sides of the portal. One grim face pointed to the right, lowly grunting. Following the end of the pointy finger, the girl spied a shining arch, beeping every time someone walked through it. Haltingly, she handed her coat to another grim face and followed the people through the arch, entering a world as she had never seen before…”

Something like that went through my head as I was lining up outside New York City’s Criminal Court early this morning in order to stand up for arraignment on my arrest for photographing Occupy protests on September 17th, the movement’s anniversary celebration. I contribute to a British newswire called Demotix and was looking forward to capturing some attractive photos. I’ve been to court houses a few times before, but always a plaintiff, never a defendant. If you want to know how I landed in this predicament, you can read that story here.

Once inside, I followed the noise from the back of the building, and soon found a group of the occupiers and another photojournalist I had been arrested with, sitting on benches, chatting, laughing, and talking to their lawyers. For many this wasn’t their first trip to the rodeo, and they eagerly shared their war stories from earlier trials and arrests. A novice to such proceedings, I mostly watched and listened, until I noticed Karen, one of the occupy knitters, who came to court for my support. She cheered me up with stories she observed while sitting in court observing other occupy related trials. She should write a book.

The lawyer from the National Lawyers Guild who was standing up in court with me seemed nice and well briefed. My regular lawyer, head counsel for the National Press Photographers’ Association, was unable to make it to New York for the day but they had coordinated. Time flew by remarkably quick as we waited our turn. Some entertainment was brought by the formal charges brought against the other photographer I met in court. He found himself accused of sitting in an intersection blocking traffic, when photos and videos clearly show him standing on the sidewalk taking pictures as he was arrested. But then, the place he was arrested at, the corner of Wall St and Broadway saw many, many arrests that morning, and who can keep the stories straight after the first busload of hippies is shipped off? First contemplating to take the ACD the court was offering, once he heard the charges he decided to fight.  (ACD is short for Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal, essentially a cooling off period after which, if the defendant behaves in the interim, a case is dismissed. A handy tool for courts to clear through a large case load, such as a mass arrest situation as September 17th, 2012.)

I was looking forward, with some trepidation to be sure, to hearing my own charges, my lawyer’s phrase of calling the official charge documents “wonderful works of fiction at times” ringing in my ear. While I still believe that the New York City police had arrested me for no reason, at least the wait would be over and we could start acting on the case the People of New York had decided to bring against me. Waiting for a blow to hit when you know it’s coming is hard; fending it of and making a counter move so much easier. Action a state I much prefer to inaction, especially if I know there is work to be done.

Yet … the People of New York weren’t ready for me. Three months had passed since my arrest, yet there was no formal set of charges ready to be brought forward. I was handed a document which attempts to explain why no arraignment would be made today. In a nutshell, there is no case at this point to be brought against me, yet the District Attorney’s office is refusing to let go. Why? One wonders …

Where things get complicated is, that now, every time I am out photographing and doing my job, I have to contend with the possibility of another arrest, and I’m sure the Sept. 17th arrest will find its way into that narrative, even though at this point I’m still not formally charged with committing anything wrong. Just last week a colleague of mine was arrested in a subway station for, get this, NOT photographing an arrest, because he knew the arresting cop was an undercover and he didn’t want to blow his cover and photograph his face. He had his camera hanging down along his side and wore his press badge visibly, as he was standing there observing the scene. And that got him arrested. My arrest happened two days after a cop threatened me with arrest for photographing the rather brutal detention of two other photographers. Bob Stolarik from the New York Times not only got arrested while photographing an arrest in a public space, he was also physically assaulted and got his equipment damaged. I watched an AP photographer be manhandled by the head of the NYPD Legal Department (!) as she was trying to photograph an arrest on an Occupy march. She had been arrested herself, along with several other journalists during the Fall of 2011 for covering Occupy. On September 17th, the Occupy anniversary, five other journalists were, at times brutally, arrested. Neither of those had an NYPD issued press credential, but this was a public space, so that should not have mattered. It is not the purvey of the police to determine who is a journalist and who is not.

The NYPD has developed a camera allergy, and while I sympathize with that to some extent, I rarely like a picture of myself, it is still a gross violation of First Amendment rights, and the concept of freedom of the press to just harass and arrest anyone with a camera for the simple fact of being there. The police serves the public, and as such is accountable to it for their actions. Having journalists observe and document their interactions with the public is part of this accountability process. Obviously, a differentiated and fair approach from the press is also needed in covering police work, but in any of the aforementioned arrests that was hardly the issue.

I’m hearing stories from other photographers who had to go back to court several times before charges finally were dismissed, the arrest narratives as made up as the one I had heard today. Some protesters tell me they’re back for the fifth or sixth time for a disorderly conduct charge levied against them in Fall of 2011 because they have refused to accept ACD’s. So, time after time, rather than allowing the dismissal of charges, the District Attorney’s Office keeps calling them back, causing people to loose work, wages, and jobs. How this serves justice or the people of New York, particularly given what this city has just been through, I honestly don’t know. I’ve lost close to two days work over this affair so far. And while I will always stand up for my rights, I don’t appreciate my livelihood being interfered with in such manner; particularly in the absence of a compelling reason.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, power demonstration, intimidation, and what not. I hear you. But still …, justice delayed is ultimately justice denied.

UPDATE 1/2/2013

Following the afore-mentioned court follies, I received a rather unpleasant Christmas present from the People of New York just in time for Christmas Eve: A letter from the District Attorney’s office fluttered into my mail box, reportedly mailed on December 12th, 8 days after my non-arraignment arraignment on December 4th, calling me back to court on December 19th since the DA’s office had now decided to file a criminal complaint against me. Why the sudden change of heart, one is left to wonder. While I was grateful to finally know what I’m being accused of after my September 17th arrest, more relevant to me seems to be the question as to why such notice could not have been delivered with sufficient advance warning, let alone on time …

Be that as it may, it meant that I spent Jule tide with a bench warrant hanging over my head. While I was assured by my lawyers that no arrest team would come knocking at my door over this, it left me grateful I had followed my immigration lawyer’s advice not to leave the country until this matter was entirely settled. For the past twelve years I’ve lived in the United States, I’ve usually left the country around the 18th of December to travel to Europe to spend the holiday break with my family back home. Had I done so this year, I would most likely have been arrested upon my return as I attempted to cross immigration at JFK airport … A consequence quite slightly out of proportion given the underlying set of circumstances.

Courts are open on Boxing Day in New York I found out, so one of my lawyers and I returned to court on the warrant to get it cleared. The judge wasn’t terribly motivated to be working that morning, reading his newspaper whenever there was a pause in the steady stream of defendants appearing before him. Still, as my case was finally called, I found my bench warrant vacated and charges finally brought: One count of disorderly conduct since I allegedly had “intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance and alarm and recklessly creating a risk thereof, congregated in a public place with other persons and refused to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse.”

Mind you, what I was actually doing was standing on a sidewalk, not blocking anyone’s way, observing a protest for the purpose of documenting what I saw and reporting on it. To that end I was wearing my press card clearly visible around my neck, and even showed it to the NYPD Captain who arrested me while he was in the process of slapping on the hand cuffs. Such is the state of freedom of the press in New York City, that the mere act of engaging in journalism bears the risk of bringing upon you criminal charges of intentionally causing public alarm … Re-read that last sentence slowly, word for word, to develop a full appreciation of its true implications …

My next court date will be February 14th, Valentine’s Day in this country. I sincerely hope, the representative from the District Attorney’s office arguing this case for the prosecution will bring some chocolates and roses for me. The way this case has been going this is the least he can do …

Occupy Trinity and the Vanishing of Halloween

Occupy Wall Street was just blamed for forcing the cancellation of the annual Halloween party held on the premises of Trinity Church. Fox News has dutifully reported this fact to its loyal readers. Or has it?

It is true that Trinity Church’s Rector Cooper has decided to cancel the Halloween event, and Occupiers have camped outside his church since the beginning of June. Many of the protesters are indeed homeless, and a good number of occupiers have been arrested on a variety of disorderly conduct charges, including some open container incidents. However, while not actually lying in a technical sense, Fox News has still managed to distort the facts by telling only part of the story.

Let’s take a closer look at the issue of homelessness, and Fox News’ claim that many of the Trinity Occupiers are resisting help: Many of the protesters, and particularly those who have spent extensive time outside the church, are indeed without a home. Some by choice, others by circumstance. Many of the younger campers are runaways, fleeing abusive homes or being forced out by parents unwilling to accept their sexual orientation. In fact, An Epidemic of Homelessness, a national Gay & Lesbian task force, estimates that 42% of homeless youth nationwide, over half a million, are LGBT. Many of them can’t find a homeless shelter because there are only very few shelter beds available for young homeless and funding has been drastically cut as recently as 2011.

The New York City Council’s Youth Services Committee, estimates that 3,800 of the city’s homeless are teenagers, 40% of them LGBT, many of them forced to engage in ‘survival sex’ to provide for themselves. However, as the Epidemic writes in their report: “New York City and New York State combine funds to support fewer than 200 youth shelter beds. In 2011 Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature cut funds for homeless youth by 50%, and Mayor Bloomberg sought to cut funds for homeless youth by 60%. … Family conflict, including conflict over a youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity, is the primary cause for young people becoming homeless. In one study, 50 percent of gay male teens who came out to their parents experienced a negative reaction and 26 percent of them were told they must leave home.” The Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 20,000 children aged 0-20 currently live in New York City’s streets.

Trinity Church has asked BRC, a homeless outreach organization operating in lower Manhattan, to stop by the occupation on several occasion, and they have been seen talking to a number of the protesters, including Heather, a young mother of two, whom social services found living with her children in her car. Her car was impounded, her children were taken to foster care, and Heather was sent to live in the streets, told by social services she would only get her children back once she has found work and shelter. Heather now has a job, washes herself in Trinity’s guest bathrooms – until the church recently closed it for renovation- and dresses up nicely every morning, and goes to work. She attends all the classes and meetings social services requires her to complete in order to prove that she is indeed a mother fit enough to provide for her children. After several meetings with BRC in which she hoped she would finally be able to find shelter and reclaim her kids, she was told that the group was unable to help her, because – and get this – she wasn’t homeless long enough!

“Most people who do receive help from BRC have been living in the streets 2-5 years, which is their ideal range”, Fathema Shad’idi, a Red Cross medic who lives in the occupation to do homeless outreach and provide medical support, told me. “They get more money if they help someone who’s classified as long-term homeless, and in the end that’s all they care about.” A call to BRC requesting comment was not immediately returned.

A few of the homeless youth that was drawn to Occupy Trinity now have found shelter in the system, and some even have jobs now. “We try to get them help, and in a couple of cases we’ve managed, where it was just very obvious that the kids were struggling out here,” Fathema continued. “But for everyone we get help, there’s many more out here still needing support.” Another issue plaguing the homeless population are mental issues. “Many of them became homeless after being thrown out of mental institutions,” Shad’idi explains. “If they had insurance, they get thrown out when that ends. Others are being kept in Bellevue, drugged up, and then let go again.” A very detailed article on the subject can be found here.

“Also, many of the other homeless shelters are now filled with the working poor,” Fathema continued. “After the Mayor cut funding for rent subsidies checks 23,000 families are now becoming homeless and pushing into a shelter system that already has no room. Drop-in centers require proof that you’re homeless, or you can’t even go in there. They’ll ask you where you lived and tell you to go back there, even if you’ve fled an abusive situation.”

How exactly would one proof homelessness? “The soup kitchen I work at often sees these cases,”  Shad’idi told me. “We would write letters saying we’ve seen that person at this and that location, so and so often over this amount of time. That sometimes helps them to establish a track record of homelessness. But really, they’re putting these poor people on a hamster wheel, where they have to struggle just to maintain their place in the queue. Those who make it into shelter often have to leave by 6am and can’t come back until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Where are they supposed to go? How are they supposed to be in good enough shape to find work so they can earn enough money to find a place to live? The homeless shelter system in New York City constitutes human warehousing at its worst.”

Another issue with the Fox News article is their insinuation that the camp outside Trinity Church is filthy. Indeed, Trinity Church had hired a company to clean its sidewalk, first once a week, then once and finally twice a day, until the workers refused to continue the job, since there was no need for this excessive cleaning. The Occupiers have had several brooms and mops confiscated by the NYPD, tools they used to clean up the sidewalks themselves. Trash usually piled up in a garbage can further down on the sidewalk, with cardboard next to it. Now workers of the church itself undertake the twice-daily hosing, often, when the boss is not looking, hosing around the Occupiers in order not to disturb them. On two recent trips down to Trinity Church I witnessed food and trash lying in the street on Broadway outside the church, but only after I watched officers of the NYPD throw it into oncoming traffic. The hosing encounters can indeed sometimes be tense, often because NYPD uses these incidents to confiscate personal belongings of the protesters, which then causes tension to rise, as Occupiers protest their treatment, these protests on several incidents bringing on arrests.

Melissa Freedman, a legal observer for the NYCLU, was arrested on one such occasion, as she stood on the sidewalk observing the hosing, shouting at the cops in disproval of their treatment of the Occupiers. “I was told to move, but since I stood on a subway grill, which belongs to the MTA, I didn’t. So I got nabbed.” Other arrests have occurred as protesters tried to hold on to their property as NYPD officers grabbed it, or tried to protect an item left in their care by a fellow Occupier. “If the cops wouldn’t constantly try to grab stuff during the hosings, things really wouldn’t be so bad,” Smiley, another member of the occupation, told me. Recently, NYPD have taken to driving Occupiers and their belongings away from the sidewalk completely during the hosing, with arrests now sometimes taking place across the street from the church.

“People also get weary,” Ed Mortimer comments. “[The NYPD] keep changing the rules on us. First it’s ok to have signs, then we have to hold them, then they snatch the signs or try to ban the cardboard we’re sleeping on. They really have it in for our food and our information table [a tarp on the floor with information flyers spread out on it]. Then they grab our stuff constantly. I’ve personally lost my glasses and two laptops and pretty much everything I own. No wonder people get mad sometimes.”

Not all the officers are comfortable however with the role they need to play in these interactions. On several nights a sergeant would stop by to say “My boss is on the way, so clean up here before he comes. Otherwise we have to throw your stuff out.” Also, some white shirt cops take a more lenient stance with protesters, preferring to reason with them rather than just handing out arrests. Around the corner from Trinity Church Occupiers even observed one NYPD Lieutenant screaming at his captain “we have to stop doing this shit to these people!” That Lieutenant has not been seen down there since, however, and other white shirt cops still do come down hard on the occupation.

As for the open container issue, several individuals living in the occupation have indeed been drunk outside the church on a number of occasions, sometimes leading to conflict within the community. Many Occupiers also suspect that one such individual is in fact a police informant. It should however be noted, that on one occasion, some of the underage Occupiers have been handed cans of beer at a catered event inside Trinity Church’s grounds, without having their IDs checked for age. “We try to keep this space safe for people to be in, both for us and anyone walking by,” Ed Mortimer, a street medic living in the occupation, told me. “Some of these kids really are troubled, and do need help. We do what limited things we can do for them, but obviously, having the church handing out beer doesn’t help.”

“We really try to work with the church workers not to interfere with their services and events,” Fathema added. “When there’s a wedding, we move to the side. When there’s a service, we don’t bother the people coming to attend it. Our beef is not with the couple looking to get married, or the people wanting to worship here. Our beef is with Rector Cooper and his board of directors who try to hide the fact that they’re running a real estate magnate with real-estate assets of more than $1 billion, and is in bed with the fat cats of Wall Street, behind the facade of being a church. We want people to see that this” and she points at the people sitting outside Trinity “is a direct consequence of that” as she points down Wall Street. “People have lost their homes due to the acts of greed of Wall Street bankers. People need to confront that and see the connection.”

Jack Boyle, another frequent visitor to the occupation at Trinity Church, and one of a group of occupiers found guilty for trespassing onto a plot of land owned by the church on December 17th, 2011, thinks the fact that Rector Cooper cancelled the Halloween event is less of a consequence of security concerns and more a matter of shame. “They have eight security cameras up there now, in addition to the ones set up by NYPD and the FBI. Nothing happens here that the government wouldn’t know about, particularly not in the early evening. Also, people here know they’re being watched, so they would be absolutely stupid to try and do something to a kid. Cooper is just ashamed to have people see what’s going on out here.”

The NYPD cameras aimed at the occupation outside Trinity Church are connected to the police’s facial recognition system. Several comments by NYPD white shirt cops to the protesters indicate that the police knows exactly who is who sitting outside this church, and what record they have. Several predators have tried to infiltrate the community, but have been driven away by the Occupiers or by the increasing number of surveillance cameras watching this strip of New York City sidewalk. “Predators are a constant problem for the homeless. Sexual abuse and assault are a huge problem and if you live in the street you have little protection from that,” Fathema told me. “Also, here they make friends with one of the Occupiers and then it’s hard for us to get them out, because we do have the principle of openness and inclusion. But we do try and keep the troublemakers away, because we want this to be a safe place to sleep for people, as we essentially run a drop-in center here. Sometimes the cops have helped us with that, other times they say there’s nothing they can do until these types actually do something. It’s been a huge problem in Zuccotti, and it’s a problem sometimes here. Many of them have taken off though once the cameras went up.”

The caveat of the Fox News article and this story is as readers we do need to remain mindful of which part of the story we are being told, as when one gets the opportunity to look at the complete picture, conclusions often seem less black and white.

NPPA Talks to New York Photographers About Their Rights in the Field

On Monday, October 1 2012, Mickey Oesterreicher, lead counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, and Todd Maisel, NPPA NY Chapter Head and photographer for the Daily News addressed a group of photographers at the Tribes Gallery in Lower Manhattan about the rights of photographers while working in public spaces around New York City, and best practices in dealing with police.

Here’s the complete 90 minute audio of the talk: NPPA Talk (mp3)

Key points:

* Remember, when out in the field it doesn’t matter whether you have the right to photograph or not, it’s about whether the officer commanding the scene cares about that or not. Reasonable requests for distance are ok (two arms lengths or more from a cop are recommended).

* Defining who is a journalist today very difficult. For cops seeing a crowd in a protest, everybody is the enemy. If you can visually distinguish yourself, e.g. by wearing a suit jacket and tie, you will be more easily identifiable as an observer. Also, if at the outset of the event your intent is to document and record, you should qualify as a journalist, whether you have formal credentials or not. However, you can’t go to as a protester with a camera and then claim to be a journalist when you get arrested.

* Work in pairs, groups, watch each other’s back, and make sure somebody is recording video, especially in situation where you expect a confrontational police. Arrest reports are often wonderful works of fictions, and there is a presumption in court that a police officer tells the truth unless you can rebut it. So, if you’re nervous about the police’s reaction to media appearing on the scene, protect yourself by having a video camera rolling from the moment you walk up on to the scene, not just after you or a colleague get arrested.

* Talking back at police will get you in trouble, while you could be out there taking pictures instead of arguing about your rights. That said, if you have a video or audio recording of the police hindering your work, that can always be taken care of later on, in federal court with a 1983 action. However, for you to be able to pursue a 1983 filing, all charges against you have to be either completely dismissed or you have to be found not guilty in court. If you take an ACD or plea down to lower charges, there will be an assumption of wrong doing on your part and any action against your arresting officer will not be successful. A 1983 action claims that your civil rights have been violated under the color of law.

* Often, the police will offer ACD’s to get rid of cases, especially when they just arrested a journalist to stop them from recording what they came to document. NPPA suggests that journalists don’t take ACD’s when they get arrested in the field to reserve the possibility of a 1983 action.

* Key however is, try not to get arrested in the first place. Be respectful and affirmative to police, and don’t waste your time arguing if there’s a way to get a different angle. Your job is to get the pictures or the video, so keep moving and don’t get hung up in an unnecessary argument. Also, try to address officers by their rank. It will get you respect.

* Another caveat: If a journalist is seen as being too close/too friendly to the demonstrators, police starts seeing you as one of them, rather than a neutral observer.

* “Serve & Protect” has evolved in many officers’ minds into “I need to protect this civilian from having their picture taken”, or when they know they’re involved in something they shouldn’t do. Push-back against photographers has definitively increased.

* Link to letter by Mickey Oesterreicher to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, dated October 1, 2012, following issues and arrests of journalists during the September 17th Occupy Wall Street protests.

Unlaced Photography – The Story of My Arrest by the NYPD


9-20-2012 UPDATED BELOW!

There’s rarely a dull moment when they go marching in the land of Occupy, and the weekend of the 1 – year anniversary ramped up to revive a lot of the energy seen swirling around Zuccotti Park last fall.

After a year of shaping their vision, forming their message, and battling with the police, the movement had a broad range of actions planned for Monday, September 17th, the day of the anniversary of the first tent pitched in Liberty Square. The overall plan showed that the past twelve months have forced Occupiers to evolve. No longer would the activity be focused on one massive march, but rather dispersed and mobile, adapting to responses by the police, but with the same goal they had from the beginning: To protest the machinery of Wall Street finance by shutting it down.

As I arrived near Zuccotti Park around 6 am, NYPD forces where already out and ready, Wall Street barricaded from all sides, as was Zuccotti Park, the bull statue and parts of Broadway. The news media was out in force, with TV trucks clogging both sides of Broadway. Little brings out the news crews in New York City like the possibilities of a potential blood bath … Both the police and mass media seemed ready for that. But the occupiers had other ideas.

By 7 am, about 500 protesters had assembled in this one of four assembly points, and led by Episcopalian bishop George Packard and other clerics, started marching down Broadway towards the intersection with Wall Street. The original plan was to block the intersection by sitting down in the street. However, barricades set up by NYPD forced protesters to stay on the sidewalk, and, rather than – as in the past – trying to battle their way through the barricades, the protesters decided to make their point by sitting down on the sidewalk instead. Still, the arrests quickly began, as now they were obstructing pedestrian traffic. The thought, that maybe the barricades and lines of cops the NYPD had set up might do a better job of blocking passage than anyone sitting on a pavement ever could, probably didn’t occur to the police commander in charge of the scene….

I had found myself stuck in the press penn that was handily provided on one corner of the intersection of Wall St and Broadway, so I couldn’t see the actual arrests, but several arrestees were quickly led away.

Looking for more freedom of movement and better angles for observation and photography, I decided to change venue and moved down Pine Street towards Nassau Avenue. As I reached the intersection of Nassau and Pine, the back side of Federal Hall, another popular flashpoint between OWS and NYPD, I encountered mayhem. Police had started to arrest protesters in this location and cops were grabbing at anything and anyone that couldn’t run fast enough, including a legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild, even though he was clearly marked by wearing a bright green hat marked “NLG Legal Observer”. I took some photos of arrests, but soon decided to move on further down towards Wall Street as I heard there were some activities going on there.

As I walked down Wall Street, protesters were marching on the sidewalk across the street from me, chanting and gearing up to block the intersection of Wall St and Pearl St. A massive contingent of police scooters along with cops in riot gear were standing at the ready for the encounter. A police officer started to read out a dispersal order to the protesters assembled at the street corner, and anticipating a new sit-in and some arrest shots, I crossed the street to photograph the officer with his megaphone, as well as any upcoming interactions. As I arrived on the sidewalk I started photographing the scene: The cop with his megaphone, other officers standing around that looking at the protesters, and I was just about to turn around and photograph the protesters, as I hear the voice over the megaphone saying “if you don’t move, you will be arrested.” I took one more shot of the cops standing at the corner, when the white shirt officer in charge of the scene pointed at me and said: “That’s it. She’s done. Take her,” and he promptly grabbed my hand. I shouted out that I’m an independent photographer, and showed him my credentials from the National Press Photographers’ Association. The officer looked at my badge and said “they’re not ours, so I’m not interested.” (an independent account and a great photo can be found here)

I was spun around and felt the zip ties tighten around my hands. This being my first arrest ever, I was surprised that I felt relatively calm and just let them do their thing, but I did notice that the cuffs were beginning to cut off the circulation in my hands. The white shirt officer handed me off to one of the cops standing next to him in riot helmets, and designated him to be the arresting officer, which meant he was now in charge of bringing me to the station for processing and staying with me until I was either released on a Desk Appearance Ticket or sent to court for arraignment. A couple of legal observers took my name, and information, and several other observers asked for it, too while I was being led away. At least I felt people would know where to look for me.

As I was being led to a van, my arresting officer was told that he couldn’t put me there, as only males were in there. So, the officer turned around and called over the radio “I have a body. I need a car.” — Well, while I was out of commission for the moment as a photographer, I still felt very much alive, and found that description of me rather disconcerting. Yet, the numbness in my hands continued to increase, so I decided that, rather than getting into argument with him over terminology, I’d plea my case for getting the cuffs loosened enough for the blood to be able to flow to my hands. The officer explained to me that the zip cuffs they were using could not be loosened without cutting them, and he couldn’t do that unless I was in a van. We walked back and forth searching for a van for me to be put into for another 10-15 minutes, until I was finally placed in front of a door, photographed with a polaroid camera, and placed into the bus – joining four others already in there – with my backpack still on, and my camera and press pass hanging down in front. When I asked again to get my cuffs loosened, the officer said he didn’t have a knife, so that would have to be done at the station.

Other arrested protesters joined us in the bus and a dialogue started soon amongst everyone: About the day’s protests, occupy’s philosophy and other topics. One of the protesters started making his case for occupy to two of the arresting officers sitting with us in the van, who seemed nice enough to engage in the conversation. Whether any hearts or minds were changed remains to be seen, but it seemed clear that once the confrontation of the actual protest was out the way and a civilized conversation was possible to be had – and the boss wasn’t listening – some rank and file officers were not all that unsympathetic. Blue shirted NYPD officers have been working without a contract for four years now, as their union and police leadership seem unable to come to an agreement over the officers’ compensation terms, pensions being a big part of the contention. The law however forbids providers of essential government services, such as the police department, to strike, so the officers have to keep working while negotiations drag on. And the plans being discussed for potential contract resolutions don’t sound attractive to those in the lower ranks.

Before the cops were ordered out of the van again to accommodate more arrestees, one of them finally cut my cuffs, my hands now a darker shade of blue, and deep imprints from the edges of the cuffs visible on both my wrists. I was allowed to take off the backpack, put the camera into my bag, stretch out my fingers for a second, before I had to be re-cuffed, thankfully looser this time.

Overall the atmosphere in the van was quite festive. The other arrestees seemed to be at peace with their situation and were looking to make the most of it.  One of the late arrivals managed to access his cell phone and started livestreaming from our van. Another one, sitting next to him started reciting some rap poems he had written about Occupy, manifesting some accute wordsmanship and creativity, while another protester accompanied him with a drum beat by banging against the backwall of the van.

About 90 minutes after my arrest, we were finally delivered to Central Booking at 1 Police Plaza for further processing. There I noticed that we were referenced to as “perps”, short for “perpetrator”. While this term may seem a tad less dehumanizing than “body”, it still felt hardly appropriate for a group of people arrested for such “crimes” as sitting down in an intersection, or photographing on the sidewalk.

As we here herded across the outer courtyard of Central Booking, had our names and addresses taken, any cary-ons removed etc, the treatment I received seemed reasonably courteous. I had requested that the Swiss consulate be notified of my arrest, which seemed to make an impression. While I wasn’t necessarily expecting the need of diplomatic interference, I felt it important to ensure access to it, should the need arise. Given how little decision room I was given with every step being pre-ordained (“two steps over here, back against the wall, one step over there) it also felt good to mark at least a little corner of my territory.

I was pulled aside with another arrestee still wearing his press credentials around his neck. He was a livestreamer and reporter for a website based in Portland, Oregon. We were asked as to where our work could be seen and what we were doing exactly, then that officer went away. I’m not sure whether he was a regular plain-clothed officer, from the press office or the legal team, but he was dressed in civilian clothing. Finally, my press pass still hanging around my neck, I was led into the back door of central booking, where my identity was verified, I had to pose for another photo – this time with the arresting officer – and was placed into a holding cell for further processing. My arresting officer seemed pleased with the photo of the two of us and showed it to me. When I jokingly asked him whether we should put that on facebook he laughed but said no, that he didn’t want to be tagged.

In the holding cell I met one of my colleagues from the Occupied Stories website, who is also trained as a legal observer. She was arrested for hoola-hooping while directing pedestrian traffic in an intersection, leading her arresting officer to complain “Lady, I don’t even know what to charge you with”. But, on orders of his white shirt officer, he arrested her anyway.

After a while I was taken out of the holding cell and led past the holding den containing many of the male protesters that had been arrested that morning, by that time around 70 of them. They were having a party in there, cheering on every protester who was led by their den, chanting, drumming and even dancing. One officer passing by along with me shook his head and exclaimed “what a zoo!” Others seemed less amused, but unsure what to do about it, so for the time being they let the protesters be. The holding room had glass windows, not merely bars, so the noise level wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been, but they were clearly heard all the way down to the holding pen I was about to be placed into.

I was led to another intake officer who collected all the possessions from my pockets, my press pass, and also my shoe-laces. I was allowed to make my phone call and rang my godmother, who’s number was the only one within New York City I was able to remember by heart under those circumstances. Other arrestees behind me where not so lucky. Several of the out-of-town protesters who had come to New York for the OWS anniversary didn’t have a local number to call. So, they were sent off to their cells without being able to notify someone outside what had happened.

I was led into a block of 9 cells, each designed for one occupant but allowed to hold up to four, furnished with a wooden blank with some mats on top, a sink at the wall and a toilet besides that which didn’t provide any privacy what so ever. The front wall of the cells were metal bars, so everyone walking by could see right in. My colleague and I were placed into the same cell, along with a sleeping medic and two out of town girls. We could also hear and communicate with the occupants from the other cells, which by that point held around 30 other protesters (we maxed out at 37 in our block). The two female intake officers were in a very foul mood, so any chanting or singing between the cells was met with verbal abuse and threats of delaying our release. We knew they didn’t have the authority to make such decisions, but it clearly put a damper on the festive mood in our corner of the building. Still, we quickly built solidarity around the privacy issue of the toilets that were provided. Every time one of us had to use the bathroom, the others lined up in a wall around her, facing towards the hallway, to shield her from view. We called it our Pee-ples Wall.

As the day dragged on conversations swerved from philosophy to politics. Also, my colleague gave advice to us less familiar with legal proceedings surrounding arrests, as to what to expect in terms of release, possible punishment for different charges etc. While at that time I was not given access to a lawyer (I had asked my godmother to contact a good lawyer we both know on my behalf), it did feel good to have somebody knowledgeable on the subject in the room. Still, time is passing slowly in a prison cell even with the best of conversations, and gradually we all started to chomp at our bits to be released.

Some entertainment was provided by our guards trying to assemble a proper count of all female inmates in our block. First the one officer passed by, counting each head, expecting four arrestees to each cell, as they passed by our cell their count got out of synch with their expectations, since we had five people in ours. However, that would take a moment to sink in, so they passed us by, kept counting, and about 2 cells later started to realize that something was amiss. So, they’d come back and do it again, then send a second counter to do the math, and finally a third, and we still had five ladies in our cell. “But it’s not supposed to be that way”, one of them exclaimed, pointing at one of us. “You were supposed to be in number seven”. After a while of headscratching they gave up and left things as they were.

Around 1pm, we were served “lunch” which consisted of two sorry excuses for Peanut butter-Jelly or Cheese Sandwiches, and a small carton of milk. I didn’t mind the PBJ in principle, but these two consisted basically of two pieces of cardboard that had been dragged past a jar of peanut butter and had gotten a drop of sugary something plopped on top. I was grateful for some food, and I do understand the impact of budget cuts, but this was ridiculous.

As the afternoon dragged on, one of the out-of-town girls got increasingly agitated, as she became worried about what would happen to her and her friend. As she got more and more upset and started screaming at the cops about not getting her phone call, her friend tried to calm her down, but to little avail. Irrespective of the tone in which she asked to make the call, it was indeed disturbing that she was denied what is ultimately one of her fundamental rights.

Around 5 pm I was finally released with what is called a Desk Appearance Ticket and a charge of “Disorderly Conduct”, which photography in public apparently now qualifies as in the City of New York. This DAT gives me a court date for later arraignment, so I wouldn’t have to sit in jail until a judge finally had time to see me. Before I was let out, we had to retake those two polaroid photos I had posed for during my arrest. Apparently, they had gotten lost in the shuffle, but I couldn’t help but notice that this time my press credentials were not hanging around my neck … The entire upper body is captured in these photos, so any press pass hanging around my neck would have been clearly visible.

While I found the experience of this arrest very insightful into a part of America I have never personally encountered before, it also angered me that I lost an entire day’s worth of photographic work over a bullshit arrest. I don’t blame the poor beat cop who got stuck with posing as my arresting officer. This issue begins with his superior who decided to arrest me for whatever reasons he had or was given. I can understand how the prison system can break people, given just how little humanity is allowed to those it oversees and is supposed to reform and prepare for re-admission into the general public. Obviously, with the view from my holding cell I’ve only scratched the surface of what prison life in America can be like, but the stories I’ve heard are beginning to make a whole lot more sense. My spirit is fine but my wrists still hurt, and parts of my hands still have no feeling, which sucks when you’re trying to hold a camera.

Also, if intimidation was the goal of me being snatched off the street, the plan has backfired. I have no intention to interfere with events as they unfold, but I believe that the emergence of a movement like Occupy is one of the largest news stories of our time, and as such it needs to be properly documented. That includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. So, I will keep taking my pictures, like it or not. But obviously, I need to take better care of staying one step ahead of the body snatchers …

UPDATE (9/20/2012):

When I first wrote this account, I was still rather shell shocked from the experience. Obviously, I missed a few surrounding pieces, and the story also had a side aspect I only learned of afterwards.

My arrest on Monday was not my first conflict with the NYPD this weekend. On Saturday evening, after a rather intense march from Washington Square Park down Broadway to Trinity Church, two photojournalists had been arrested within seconds of each other. Cory Clark, an independent writer and photographer from Philadelphia, was taken down rather harshly by Deputy Inspector Edward Winski after being warned earlier that he was being targeted for arrest, and a de-arrest by some activists during the march.

New York-based photographer Charles Meacham moved into position to photograph Clark’s arrest, and was promptly himself arrested by Officer Winski.

As I set up to photograph that arrest, Winski turned to me, pointed at me and said “You’re next!”. I walked away without saying anything and continued to go about my work for the rest of Saturday night and all day Sunday without further incident. I didn’t make the connection originally, but upon further reflection I am now wondering whether my arrest on Monday was not indeed a direct consequence of this Saturday encounter.

As I learned after my release, by arresting me, the NYPD even created a minor international incident. As I was being led away from from the scene of my arrest I walked by a fellow photographer and asked her to contact the Swiss consulate. She took down my information and handed it to the NLG, who quickly called the consular legal department. Apparently they were extremely concerned and promptly contacted the State Department. While in Central Booking, I did notice that NYPD tried rather strenuously to make sure they followed procedure with my intake and holding, a courtesy not extended to all of my fellow arrestees.

When I spoke to the consular lawyer after my release I learned that they were clearly not amused about my treatment. I was also informed that NYPD should have called the consulate immediately after I had requested they contact them. Instead, as I was just about to be released, one cop walked up to me and said “You had a call from the consulate. Do you want us to inform them about your arrest?” And after I said yes, he continued “this got a bit delayed, as we first had to clear this with the Mayor’s office, but since you’re now being released, why don’t you just call them yourself?” — According to the Swiss consular lawyer that was a violation of protocol, and also complete nonsense, as NYPD is well briefed on what to do in such cases.

Last but not least, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry about this hack job by the Breitbart crew. I find myself accused of being an activist, rather than a journalist, because I posted a call to join an anti-Syria protest outside their consulate in Midtown on an Occupy forum, at a time when the slaughter of unarmed protesters in Syria was raging at a breath-taking pace but nobody was paying attention to it. How exactly does that disqualify me as a photojournalist? I suppose, I’ve hit a nerve somewhere …

More than 72 hours after my release my hands are still partially numb …

UPDATE (10/25/2012):

My hands still suffer from partial numbness as a consequence of the super-tight flexi-cuffs (quite the misnomer, actually). My doctor says I suffered nerve damage from the extensive pressure the cuffs placed on the two major nerve strings connecting the hands to the arms. Apparently, nerves grow back at the rate of 1mm a month, so I’ll be dealing with this for quite a while longer. Here meanwhile are photos I took of my wrists the moment I got out of jail. Mind you, these were taken about 7h after the cuffs had been removed.

I now have the identity of the white shirt cop who arrested me. That’s the officer who grabbed me and initiated my arrest, not the poor soul who got stuck with the paperwork and with baby-sitting me through the day as I wound my way through Central Booking. It turns out, he is a Captain reporting directly to Deputy Inspector Winski, the man who had threatened me with arrest as I photographed him arresting another photographer a mere 36 h before I was hand-cuffed. Go figure …

Also, this account of Village Voice writer James King’s experience in Central Booking in Brooklyn is a must read.

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