Last week, New York City police officers arrested four well-known activists for filming them. Copwatchers — people who regularly film and document police activity — have often been targeted by cops who don’t want to be recorded, despite reminders that recording police interactions is legal in the city. While legal protections for filming police are still unclear in some parts of the country, the invaluable role that copwatchers play as journalists — acting as the eyes, ears and media of the streets — deserves to be recognized.
Much was made in the media about the 2014 arrests of the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly and the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery by local police in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown. HuffPo released a statement condemning Reilly’s arrest. The Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Columbia Journalism Review also objected. Reilly, a reporter at media powerhouseHuffington Post (where I occasionally blog), and Lowery, who has produced some top-notch copaganda since then (FAIR Blog, 2/12/16), were roughed up and arrested, apparently for nothing.
A few months later, CNN’s Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo would be ducking tear gas canisters as a militarized police response to protests over Brown’s death was netting even mainstream media members in its sweep.
When a Time magazine photographer was neck-slammed WWE-style by a Secret Service goon at a Trump event last month, social media lit up with outrage. Most outraged were members of the media, reporters and photographers alike, aghast that this could happen to one of them. A photog from Time magazine, can you imagine? Freedom of the press was being violated at Trump’s rallies — never mind the protesters who’d been assaulted before and since.
Similar solidarity among the media was expressed for a New York Timesphotographer, Robert Stolarik, who was falsely arrested for interfering with an arrest in 2012 by supposedly flashing pictures in a cop’s face (Stolarik’s camera didn’t have a flash.) What Stolarik had done was essentially copwatch. Over a dozen reporters stood with him outside of a Bronx courtroom as he faced down the cop who’d arrested him.
While the media shared a sense of violation that they could be as casually brutalized or arrested as any one of us, for Stolarik there was also the satisfaction of actually having the cop who arrested him punished. The NYPD officer who arrested Stolarik was convicted of a felony for falsifying a report. Convictions, of course, are a rare outcome for police who falsely arrest, or even kill, people of color.
So this all begs the question of whether members of mainstream media, with their giant news organizations to back them, should be the only ones accorded the at least theoretical protections afforded by freedom of the press.
All of the copwatchers and activists who were arrested last week in New York City are doing the work that most traditional media are unwilling and incapable of doing. Dennis Flores, a longtime copwatching advocate, was arrested Monday night while filming cops who were chasing a protest through the Bronx. Five Mualimmak, a criminal justice activist, and Jazz Hayden, a longtime activist and media-maker in his own right, were arrested Tuesday night filming the police interact with a homeless man in Midtown Manhattan. The following night, Ramsey Orta, who made the infamous video of an NYPD officer choking and killing 43-year old Eric Garner in Staten Island, was locked up after recording a cop arresting a man in the Lower East Side.
There was also the arrest of photographer/activist Michael Nigro as he took pictures of the NYPD at a march against Donald Trump on Saturday. Nigro had just a few weeks prior blogged a passionate and prescient piece at HuffPo titled “Let’s All Commit Acts of Citizen Journalism” (3/3/16), which said in part:
Having witnessed the news of their lives being dismissed or ignored, more and more people have put their bodies on the line, their ink on the page and their images on the web. With defiance, tenacity and boots-on-the-ground bravery — and often with little or no financial backing — independent and citizen journalists are utilizing tools of the digital age to change the conversation at a grassroots level.
It so happened that Nigro was violently arrested by Deputy Inspector Andrew Lombardo, the same head of the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group who was hounding protesters on Monday night in the Bronx (and who sharpened his skills at the Abu Ghraib US military prison in Iraq). Perhaps the police can also no longer distinguish between protester and journalist. More likely they can and just don’t care. But to Nigro’s point, regardless of whether cops care about one’s right to speak and protest, or document and report, it’s our responsibility to blur those lines and flood the system with a blend of all of those elements: citizen journalism.
As the name suggests, the mantle of “citizen journalist” belongs to everyone using media to document their reality. But not everyone is afforded the same rights.
While the New York Daily News was awarded a local Emmy this past weekend stemming from its publishing of the Eric Garner video, Ramsey Orta, who shot the video, has been a frequent target of police. There is no media outrage. No reporters stand by his side. And yet he and members of other local copwatch groups, like Copwatch Patrol Unit and Flores’ El Grito de Sunset Park, are producing media every day, challenging the official police narrative that’s often regurgitated by local reporters.
Orta and others are the media. Not only are they willing and able to document what happens on the street, their life experiences give them insights that most members of the media don’t have. This is particularly crucial when dealing with issues of policing or criminal justice, which impact communities of color the most. These copwatchers are independent and self-organized volunteers. What protections can we provide for them? It’s not enough to simply say they should be allowed to film. We should be collectively outraged when they are arrested or harassed. For a copwatcher/citizen journalist, having police arrest you, confiscate your phone, erase the footage (as often happens) would be the equivalent of law enforcement raiding the offices of CNN, MSNBC or Fox News and destroying their files and equipment.
If freedom of the press means anything, it should protect the growing number of people who use media to hold powerful institutions accountable. If it doesn’t protect copwatching, then it’s totally useless.
Amateur videos of police brutality incidents or of protests and direct action that would be otherwise ignored by the mainstream media: These are expressions of both free speech and of emerging popular media that create a new dialogue that challenges power. This combination of independent media-makers and damning videos is how we can put dents all over the system, together.