Reporters detained, arrested across the country in "Occupy" protests

Kirsten Berg | Newsgathering | Feature | November 4, 2011

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photographer is the latest journalist to be arrested while covering the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that have sprung up across the nation, raising questions about how police should define and handle reporters documenting the protests.

Although the detentions and arrests have raised alarm with some media organizations, police contend that it is often difficult to separate the journalists covering the events from those participating in the protests, especially when making mass apprehensions.

The Sentinel’s Kristyna Wentz-Graff was photographing the arrest of a protestor Wednesday, who was marching as part of a solidarity rally that started at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, when she herself was restrained and arrested by an officer. She and the other two protestors have since been released without charge and the city attorney's office has yet to determine whether they will issue citations.

The Milwaukee Police Department said in a series of posts on their Facebook page that Wentz-Graff and the two protestors they arrested ignored repeated orders to clear the streets, and that officers did not know that the photographer was a journalist until she arrived at the Milwaukee Police Department.

“She never identified herself as a journalist to officers. We know there are often many people with cameras at these events and they are not always news people,” they wrote.

In a statement to the paper, the Sentinel editor Martin Kaiser disputed that account.

"At no time did Kristyna Wentz-Graff ignore any commands by any officer," Kaiser said. "She came upon the scene to do her job as a photojournalist. She was clearly not part of the protest. She was wearing her Journal Sentinel photo press credential. She was carrying photography equipment while taking photographs of police making arrests when she was grabbed by a police officer and handcuffed. Her arrest was completely uncalled for and violates the First Amendment. No reason for her arrest has been provided."

In a video taken by the university's PantherVision, a man watching the photographer’s arrest from the sidewalk can also be heard yelling “she’s a journalist.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has also come out in support of Wentz-Graff and the Sentinel.

Wentz-Graff’s apprehension is not the first arrest of a reporter in Milwaukee this year, nor is it the first arrest of a reporter covering demonstrations related to the Occupy Wall Street movement that started in mid-September.

Perhaps garnering the most attention are the reporters who have been arrested at the original Occupy Wall Street protest in New York, where some journalists had voiced concern over being arrested or roughed up by police.

The Columbia Journalism Review for example, in an article titled “Who’s a Journalist?” published in October, wrote critically of the New York City Police Department’s policy of credentialing journalists.

The piece highlighted the arrests of three individuals, a reporter with WNET’s Metro Focus, a freelancer for The New York Times’ “City Blog” and a freelancer for AlterNet, all of whom had some press identification but not the specific NYPD credentials.

“Why did this happen?” the article asks, referring to the general policy of the NYPD to handle journalists separately from the protestors. “Part of the answer is simply a byproduct of the everyone’s-a-journalist rhetoric that defines our media these days. The more proximate answer, though, has to do with how the NYPD has decided to determine who is a journalist.”

The article noted that the NYPD recently began extending credentials to bloggers and journalists from nontraditional media organizations, but that they still need to meet requirements such as proving their reporting history. Applicants often have to wait behind a backlog of requests to get a credential that does not guarantee any specific access.

However, New York Press Club Consulting Director Peter Bekker told CJR that "it’s not a high hurdle."

Bekker added that the important distinction to make is “are these people marching with the protesters? Or are they covering them?”

And with so many of the protestors documenting the demonstrations themselves, as the Milwaukee Police Department noted, it can be difficult to tell and determine how to handle these different kinds of documentarians.

Many journalists are just temporarily detained, while others are charged with offenses such as disorderly conduct or unlawful assembly.

Just last week a reporter from the Nashville Scene—who was charged with public intoxication—was one of dozens arrested at the Tennessee protest, according to The Tennessean. That charge was complicated by the fact that the alternative-weekly reporter, Jonathan Meador, caught his own arrest on tape and sounds lucid as he tells officers that he is a member of the media and is getting off the plaza police were raiding to enforce a city curfew. A voice can also be heard on the audio, presumably an officer, saying “Tell them when you get him up there to charge him for resisting arrest.”

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security told the Scene that the commissioner will review the arrest and respond appropriately and that “It is not our intent to interfere with a journalist doing his or her job.”

Also this week freelance journalist-cartoonist Susie Cagle was among 101 people arrested at the Occupy Oakland protests, days after the controversial clashes with police and protestors there. According to a KGO-TV San Francisco interview, Cagle said she was wearing her press pass visibly and told police she was covering the event, to which they said they would “take care of that” in a minute.

“But then it turned into 14 hours at two jails,” she said.

According to KGO-TV, Cagle will have to appear in court next month to sort out her case. She also said that she planned to return to the Occupy Oakland protests because she feels obligated to report this story now more than ever.