Oakland Police Assault Freedom of the Press

By Alex Emslie
Bay News Movement

To employ a saying that may be more appropriate in my home state of Colorado than in the Bay Area, covering Occupy Oakland’s Move-In Day through clouds of smoke and between lines of cops of and protesters, each in their own respective riot gear, was not my first rodeo.

I began this type of coverage in earnest for the SF Bay Guardian in July 2010, when Oakland learned that Oscar Grant’s killer, Johanes Mehserle, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. An angry mob erupted from the plaza that was not yet unofficially renamed for the slain Grant, smashing store front windows, lighting dumpsters ablaze and battling groups of skirmishing police officers who ventured away from the police-established perimeter into the chaotic city blocks around 14th Street and Broadway.

Actually, “chaotic” doesn’t really do that scene justice. The riot didn’t start until night fall, and street lights kept flickering off leaving police, protesters, and a smaller group of people always right in the middle, the press, in pitch black. I was caught in the first charge from police. I screamed “Press!” and held up my press pass when I realized I wasn’t going to be able to avoid the dozen officers hurtling toward me with night sticks.

I switched from “Press!” to “I’m not resisting” when the officers hit me and knocked me down. Lying on my stomach, I felt my right and then left arm pulled behind my back as I heard my video camera being flung away from me. I was already thinking about who I was going to call to get me out of jail when a knee and shoe came into my view. Then I heard the voice of my colleague Don Clyde.

“He’s with the press,” Don said calmly.

“Oh, he’s media?” the officer on top of me responded, and just as quickly as I had found myself up-close-and-personal with the asphalt, I was back on my feet and had recovered my camera.

I’m still using the same press pass, an old (but certainly not expired) one issued from City College of San Francisco. It turns out that media organizations are about as equally unwilling to provide freelancers with press passes as law enforcement agencies are.

What’s the point of this protracted history lesson? I haven’t changed. My press pass hasn’t changed. My feeling of duty to document the actions of protesters, some of whom were at times violent toward the news media Jan. 28, has not changed.

But it would appear Oakland Police Department has altered their respect for a free news media and, incidentally, California Law.

Neglected Section (D)

The Oakland Police Department is familiar with Section 409.5 of the California Penal Code. They cited the code on Jan. 28 as the section of law that allowed them to declare the actions of Occupy Oakland to be an unlawful assembly and order the crowd to disburse. They never cite the law’s subsection (d), which states:
“Nothing in this section shall prevent a duly authorized representative of any news service, newspaper, or radio or television station or network from entering the areas closed pursuant to this section.”

But there’s a tricky bit of law here. 409.5(d) only applies to calamities, although riots are specifically mentioned. It doesn’t apply to crime scenes, from which the press can be barred in the name of preserving evidence.

If police declare an area a crime scene and order reporters to leave, police are required to have a public information officer on-site to brief the press on what they are no longer allowed to access. Police are also banned from pushing the press an unnecessary distance from the calamity, just far enough to preserve evidence.

OPD’s Interpretation

As soon as the OPD began issuing disbursal orders from a loud speaker, El-Qare and I began asking officers where the PIO and command center for press briefings were located. Without fail, officers and even one sergeant said they didn’t know, or just stared at us in disbelief.
According to Gavin Aronsen of Mother Jones, he and at least five other reporters were arrested on Jan. 28 after being caught up with “kettled” protesters outside the YMCA on Broadway between 23rd and 24th streets. Bay News Movement photographer Ramsey El-Qare and I were also caught on the wrong side of that police charge, so to speak, but we were able to avoid arrest.

We were together, arguing with officers on the line about the validity of our press passes, and then Ramsey was suddenly gone. I found out later that a police officer had grabbed him by the lanyard of his press pass and dragged him to the other side of the line. I still had some arguing to do.

I showed my press pass to another group of officers, who told me that, because I didn’t have an OPD issued press pass, I was guilty of fraud for trying to pass mine off as valid. After a few more similar arguments, I stopped a sergeant who took one look at my press pass and escorted me through the line.

Unlike some, I don’t fault the police for the occasional mistaken detention of media. In fact, I would characterize the OPD’s conduct in dealing with the news media in July 2010 as stellar – about as good as can be expected.

But on Jan. 28, that professionalism was gone, replaced with an antagonistic bullying and self-important air that astounded me. We have a history of self-accreditation of media in this country, which is tied directly to a few lines of the First Amendment. Not only does that system protect the press’s freedom to define its own ranks, but it also protects the average citizen’s right to free expression.

I am against that system changing. It has spawned citizen journalism, and I’d like to think this society is a little more civically active than we were before. But if the U.S. or California were to initiate some kind of accreditation process for journalists, I think the OPD would be at the bottom of the list of appropriate agencies to handle the task.

Their accreditation doesn’t seem to matter to them anyway. According to Aronsen’s article, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Vivian Ho had an OPD-issued press pass, but that didn’t keep her from being arrested.

A shortened version of this article appeared in El Tecolote on Feb. 2, 2012.

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