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Covering protests ties journalists in with convention arrests

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From the Fall 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 13.

From the Fall 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 13.

By Louis Rolfes

Despite taking precautions to avoid the turbulence witnessed at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, activists and journalists at the two major political conventions last summer saw police conduct quickly get out of hand as several reporters in Philadelphia and Los Angeles were either jailed or allegedly assaulted.

The arrested reporters said they waved media credentials in a vain attempt to identify themselves. Officers either ignored the credentials or mocked reporters who claimed they had a First Amendment right to cover the protests, they said.

Stefan Zacklin, a photographer with U.S. News and World Report, was one of those arrested while covering protests in Philadelphia during the Republican National Convention.

Zacklin was photographing police arresting a group of protestors when police ordered him out of the way. Despite moving to the point where he had his back up against a wall, police ordered him to the ground and handcuffed him. When some of the officers noticed Zacklin was a journalist and prepared to release him, they asked him, “no hard feelings, right?”

Zacklin responded, “You prevented me from doing my job.”

His retort apparently angered the officers and resulted in Zacklin taking a trip to the police station for booking.

Other reporters in Philadelphia echoed Zacklin’s statements about the officers’ general disregard for reporters covering the protests.

In one episode, a Reuters reporter rode in a van with a group of 17 demonstrators on their way to block off an intersection near the convention site. When police stopped the van they arrested not only the demonstrators, but also the reporter.

“I was taunted and poked fun at,” Mark Egan said. “They didn’t seem to care if you were media.”

Egan spent more than five hours in jail before police released him. He said officers also hounded him afterward for information about the group of protestors he had been covering.

“I was harassed by police for about two to three days after,” he said. “They called me three or four times a day wanting to know if I had any notebooks and if I knew what was going to happen in Philadelphia or LA. Each time I referred them to my lawyers.”

After his release, Egan said none of the officers apologized.

Both Egan and Zacklin said the Philadelphia Police Department showed a great deal of patience in dealing with the protestors. Other than his arrest, Egan said he encountered no problems with police while covering the convention.

“They had their patience tested to the extreme,” Egan said. “The protestors were not cooperating, but the police kept their cool.”

Zacklin said Philadelphia police were “pretty restrained” when making arrests of protestors. “It didn’t feel like a full-on military state,” he said. “The police were wearing shorts and polo shirts.”

Reporters covering the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles experienced a much more hostile climate.

Even though he was arrested in Philadelphia, Zacklin said the Los Angeles police were far more intimidating.

“L.A. was out of hand,” he said. “It was frightening.”

Several journalists reported assaults by police and at least two were arrested while covering the protests.

Flynn McRoberts, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and Associated Press broadcast correspondent Brian Bland wound up in police custody while covering a bicycling event staged by protestors. Both were later released and the charges were dropped.

The night of their arrests, McRoberts and Bland benefitted from a media hotline established by the Reporters Committee for journalists who needed an attorney. McRoberts had called in a story and his phone died. When his editors were unable to reach him by cell phone, they guessed that he had been arrested and called the hotline. An editor in Chicago called the Reporters Committee’s regular toll-free legal defense hotline, and was put directly in touch with attorney Gary Bostwick, who was handling calls for the special convention hotline. A lawyer arrived at the jail to assist McRoberts.

“They just did it to scare the press into thinking they could get picked up,” said Bostwick, one of the lawyers who volunteered his services for the hotline.

Lisa Teachey, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, said she has never seen a situation as volatile as Los Angeles. The Columbine shootings, hurricanes and six years covering crime in Houston were no comparison to the chaos outside the convention, she said.

Teachey was injured during the convention when a mounted LAPD officer knocked her over a concrete barricade. With her leg bleeding, Teachey tried to gain access to the convention hall where the Chronicle had a makeshift office complete with a First Aid kit, but officers refused to let her in and told her to leave the area.

“I was told to keep walking at least five or six times,” she said.

A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleges the Los Angeles police deliberately shot at and clubbed credential-carrying journalists in an effort to prevent them from reporting on the protests.

The suit, filed on behalf of seven journalists, claims that police officers fired rubber bullets directly at the reporters, hoping to drive them from the scene. The suit alleges during the various attacks no protestors were between the officers and the reporters. (Crespo v. Los Angeles)

During the first night of the convention, freelance photojournalist Al Crespo was taking pictures of LAPD officers breaking up a group of protestors. Crespo watched closely as officers on horseback charged into an intersection in an effort to disperse the crowd. Crespo grabbed for his camera and began snapping photos as officers, wearing full riot gear, fired rubber bullets at protestors.

Looking through his viewfinder, Crespo scanned the crowd and focused on one officer. With no protestors between him and officer, Crespo suddenly realized the officer had aimed the barrel of the gun at him. He quickly snapped the photo and within seconds was peppered with rubber bullets. Crespo was shot three times, once in the head. At the time he was shot Crespo was wearing two cameras and several brightly-colored media passes.

Other journalists involved in the lawsuit claim they received similar treatment from police. Kevin Graf, a freelance television cameraman, was struck 10 times by rubber bullets, including twice in the head. Rebeka Rodriguez, a freelance photographer, underwent medical treatment for a cracked shoulder blade she sustained after she was reportedly struck by an police officer wielding a baton.

Police spokesman David Kalish denied claims of excessive force. “It would be ludicrous to imagine the LAPD would target members of the media,” he said.