Journalists arrested, detained at Republican National Convention
From the Fall 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 29.
By Cassandra Belter
Kent State University student journalist Beth Rankin headed to New York City in August to report on fellow KSU students protesting the Republican National Convention.
She returned to school with real-life experience no journalism class can impart: that the constitutional right to free speech and the ability to report evaporate when you are trapped behind the walls of a temporary police holding facility.
Rankin, a sophomore, was one of hundreds of people swept up in a mass arrest at Union Square, landing her in Pier 57 — a holding area for detainees — for 13 hours.
The New York Police Department arrested 1,784 people, including an unknown number of journalists, credentialed and noncredentialed, during the convention. New York lawyer Halimah DeLaine, a volunteer for a legal hotline for journalists covering the conventions, said the number of arrests was excessive.
“The numbers probably speak for themselves, especially when reporters who did have the right credentials were getting caught up in the mix,” she said.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has sponsored hotlines at both major parties’ conventions since 1976. The law firm of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz cosponsored the New York hotline and coordinated the efforts of volunteer attorneys.
The hotline received nine or 10 calls between Friday Aug. 27, three days before the convention began, and Thursday Sept. 2, when the convention ended.
The hotlines provided for this year’s Democratic National Convention in Boston and the 1992 Democratic convention in New York — the last time a presidential convention was held in the Big Apple — received no reports of detained journalists. The Boston hotline was cosponsored by the law firm of Prince, Lobel, Glovsky & Tye.
Lawyers from Levine Sullivan, for whom DeLaine works, met with representatives from the NYPD’s public affairs office before the GOP convention to discuss credentials.
A lack of NYPD credentials presented a significant roadblock for some journalists caught up in the chaos. RNC credentials alone did not suffice if a member of the media was part of a mass street arrest, said several journalists and lawyers interviewed for this story.
NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Paul J. Browne said that when a reporter got scooped up in mass arrests, the police did “everything as quickly as we could to get them released.”
“In many instances photographers or people on both sides of it could be obnoxious and escalate a situation, and it’s our job to de-escalate it to let the photographers do their job and to let us do our job,” he said.
Browne said that police on the street recognized NYPD credentials, but also any current credentials of a working reporter.
“We never told them they needed our credentials on the street,” he said. “We did not recognize the credentials of participants in a demonstration posturing as journalists, who claimed to be part of a so-called independent media.”
Before the convention, the NYPD set up an e-mail system with The Associated Press and worked with the wire service to assemble a list of about 1,400 journalists covering the convention, Browne said.
“We are usually just dealing with New York reporters, but here we were dealing with a national press corps,” he said.
Newsday photographer Moises Saman was arrested Aug. 29, the day before the convention opened, as he photographed a protestor being handcuffed by two NYPD officers at 44th Street and Broadway in Times Square.
“Without any warning, I was violently thrown to the ground by an officer who grabbed me from the back,” Saman said in an e-mail interview. “The protestor was being arrested for hassling some delegates on their way to a Broadway show.”
Saman, who had NYPD press credentials, immediately contacted his editor, who got in touch with Newsday‘s lawyer. The lawyer secured Saman’s release.
Saman, who is on assignment in Afghanistan, has been a staff photographer for Newsday since 2000 and covered the Republican Convention in Philadelphia four years ago.
Daniel Cashin, a cameraman for Democracy Now and DCTV New York, was filming at Grand Central Station during a rush-hour demonstration on Sept.1, when he was detained in back of the station’s central kiosk. He had convention — but not NYPD — credentials.
“They searched me and processed me,” Cashin said, who sat in a temporary holding area about an hour.
“While I was being held in a police van, I made a call to the folks at Democracy Now and they were able to get in touch with the police. Once they contacted a commanding officer, they were able to expedite my release.”
There are no pending legal ramifications in Cashin’s case, he said. “I think my record was expunged.”
Kelly Benjamin, a freelance journalist for the Tampa Weekly Planet for five years, had his camera confiscated when he was arrested with others during a demonstration at Herald Square on Aug. 31.
He did not get the camera back until Oct. 7, when he went to court for his arraignment. In order to retrieve his camera, he had to plead guilty to an “adjudication of contemplation of dismissal for disorderly conduct.” That means Benjamin has “to stay out of trouble for six months,” he said.
Dan Perlman, Benjamin’s lawyer, has offered to represent him in a lawsuit for wrongful arrest, which Benjamin intends to pursue, he said.
Benjamin said he had a press pass from Indymedia, an alternative media network in New York, but no NYPD or RNC credentials because he “didn’t know the protocol for it until it was too late.”
Benjamin spent 15 hours at Pier 57 and 31 hours in “the tombs” of central booking, he said.
“I was filming basically the whole time and I have most of it on tape,” he said. “A lot of people weren’t causing the civil disobedience, just rubbernecking on the sidewalk.”
Kent State’s Rankin and Nick Gehring went to New York to cover KSU students participating in protests.
“We were not actually covering the convention because we couldn’t,” Rankin said. “We had our own credentials, but not Republican National Convention credentials or New York Police Department credentials because we didn’t know we needed them.”
On Aug. 31, Rankin was in Union Square when everyone in the area was corralled in a mass arrest, she said. After waiting on a street corner with the others for several hours, the group was bussed to Pier 57.
“I was held there for 13 hours and then taken to central booking,” said Rankin, the political reporter for the Daily Kent Stater student newspaper. “[Pier 57] was really not all that good. Really dirty, really cold, really cramped, disgusting — not fit to put people in.”
Student photographer Gehring, who had been separated from Rankin, was also taken to Pier 57, but was released earlier because his arresting officer processed him first. Once released, Gehring called the Reporters Committee hotline, where a media lawyer acquired a desk appearance ticket for Rankin, allowing her release with a promise that she would appear in court.
“If that person hadn’t gotten me out, I probably would have been in there for 48 hours,” she said.
Tim Smith, KSU journalism professor and the unofficial lawyer for the Daily Kent Stater, said the desk appearance ticket was simply a piece of paper to get Rankin out of jail and out of the state.
“I’ve been trying to contact someone in New York who knows something about it and I’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful,” he said. “I don’t think New York is going to follow up on any of these cases. I think the court will drop them from its docket or they will clutter it.”
The ticket required Rankin to be back in New York on Oct.1, but she did not go and Smith has since taken up the matter.
“I do not plan to take legal action after this,” Rankin said. “I’ll leave it up to activists to deal with the legal [issues].”
Rankin said she was glad she went through the arrest.
“With the coverage the RNC arrests have gotten, hopefully such a blatant human rights violation won’t happen again,” she said, noting that mass detentions at Miami rallies in November 2003 did not receive nearly as much media attention.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office said it has prosecuted or reviewed 1,784 cases from the week of the convention, the “vast majority” of which were misdemeanors.
Barbara Thompson, spokesman for the Manhattan District Attorney, said she did not know what the city did to disseminate information about NYPD press credentials before the convention because the district attorney’s office and the police did not confer on the issue.