1/2/2013 UPDATED BELOW
“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.
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 …