Some journalists still facing charges after Occupy arrests

Nicole Lozare | Newsgathering | Feature | December 20, 2011

While many journalists covering "Occupy" protests around the country still face arrest and looming court dates, some are learning that they will not face charges.

The Milwaukee City Attorney’s Office did not issue any tickets to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photographer Kristyna Wentz-Graff, who was arrested on Nov. 2 while covering an Occupy protest near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus, according to Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. The association, along with a number of Wisconsin media organizations, protested Wentz-Graff’s arrest.

At times, charges are dropped immediately once the journalists, who often are handcuffed and transported in the back of police cars, get to the police station.

But some are detained at police stations much longer and are unable to file the stories for that day, like Bob Plain, a former reporter for Rhode Island’s WPRO who was arrested on Oct. 10 while covering Occupy Boston. About 50 protestors were arrested with Plain, who was charged with unlawful assembly, according to a WPRO report. Some of Plain’s recording equipment was damaged during the arrest, he said.

Plain was detained at the police station from about midnight and released at 5 a.m. after his fingerprints and mug shot were taken. He had to go to court the next day and showed the district attorney and the judge a letter from his employer to explain that he was covering the protests and not a participant.

“They dropped the charges,” Plain said. “I wouldn’t say they apologized, but they were surprised I was arrested at all.”

Police have arrested credentialed journalists, such as Plain and Wentz-Graff, and also, at times, have purposefully gone after non-credentialed journalists, according to new reports. LA Weekly reported that on Nov. 30, police threatened to arrest non-credentialed journalists covering Occupy L.A. at City Hall Park in downtown Los Angeles if they were found in the "media area," which Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa named the "First Amendment Area."

In New York, Stu Loeser, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's spokesman, sent an email to "interested parties," believed to be New York media outlets, that was published by the New York Observer on Nov. 17 where he clarified that out of the then 26 reporters arrested while covering Occupy Wall Street, only five were credentialed by the New York Police Department.

"You can imagine my surprise when we found that only five of the 26 arrested reporters actually have valid NYPD-issued press credentials," Loeser wrote in response to an Awl piece listing the journalists arrested in New York. "Note that we didn’t check – and don’t really care for the sake of this exercise – if the reporter’s credential lists the media outlet for which he or she currently works."

One group is saying that 34 journalists have been arrested while covering Occupy protests, and about 5 to 10 of them are still facing charges and have scheduled court dates. Josh Stearns, the journalism and public media director at Free Press, declined to release the names of the journalists still facing charges.

“Some are freelancers with major organizations who are afraid if their arrests get a lot of attention, they will be painted as part of the protests and they want it to be clear that they are journalists,” he explained. The Massachusetts-based organization has gained a lot of media attention as well with its mission to keep – and confirm – a tally of journalists arrested while covering Occupy protests across the country.

About half of the arrests were in New York, followed by Atlanta and then Los Angeles, he said. Charges against other journalists, which range from trespassing to resisting arrests and disorderly conduct, have been dropped.