Photojournalists Caught Between Cops and Crowds in East Bay Protests

A man in a mask stands near a spray painted message on Dec. 5, 2014 in Oakland, California. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

A man in a mask stands near a spray painted message on Dec. 5, 2014 in Oakland, California. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

By Alex Emslie

I used to half-joke that I just didn’t know where to stand when covering protest marches and that I learned by placing myself directly between a charging line of Oakland police officers and an angry crowd of demonstrators.

That was in July 2010, and I was reporting on the reaction to former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle’s conviction for involuntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant.

I caught a baton cross-check and ended up on my belly in the street, cooperatively placing my hands behind my back for handcuffing. But as soon as a colleague alerted police that I was from the media, officers picked me up and set me back on my feet. I was a little dazed and bruised, but otherwise unhurt.

Covering similar events over the last 4½ years hasn’t always been so cordial. I’ve been lucky to have escaped serious injury while dodging “less lethal” projectiles and probably getting entirely too close to the fringe group that’s at every one of these things — smashing windows, threatening, and sometimes injuring protesters and those of us in the middle.

The hazards of covering these demonstrations come to mind as the San Francisco Chronicle reports that one of its photographers was hit with a hurled wine bottle while covering a Christmas night march in Oakland that featured several episodes of vandalism.

“At some point, we’re going to have to kind of decide how to proceed,” Judy Walgren, the Chronicle’s director of photography, told KQED’s Ted Goldberg on Friday. “I can’t really keep sending people into situations where they’re almost certain to get hurt, either from the law enforcement side or from the vandals’ side of the marches and protests.”

The Christmas night incident is just the latest in a series involving Chronicle photographers. Over the past month, one was struck in the head by a baton-wielding Berkeley police officer, another had his camera damaged when a California Highway Patrol officer swung a baton at him, and a third found himself face-to-face with an undercover CHP officer who pulled his gun in the middle of a crowd of protesters. (The National Press Photographers Association and the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists have both condemned assaults on members of the media.)

Professional photojournalists are at a disadvantage in turbulent street events. They carry heavy gear that puts them off balance, and when they’re shooting, their peripheral vision is blocked. They can become targets, too, because they’re carrying equipment that’s expensive and easy to steal. And beyond all that, they know the adage from Robert Capa, the famed war photographer killed in Vietnam in 1954: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Walgren says her staff is “committed to covering this and want to be there and want to document an historic situation happening here in the Bay Area right now.” But she says coverage is complicated by the nature of what they’re seeing in Oakland:

I actually include the staff in the discussions. They are adamant about continuing to cover this. They do not want this rogue element — they really believe that these are the rogue elements, the people who are trying to intimidate the photographers from the quote-unquote “protester” side — they do not want them to feel like they’ve actually succeeded in quote-unquote “scaring off” the photographers, so I have to respect that.

On the same hand, we’ve got to set up the right way to cover this so that we can be as safe as possible. So I no longer want to see images between protesters or the rogue element people and the law enforcement agencies. I’m more interested in the people that are really out there to protest the death of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, because we can always go back the next morning to cover the aftermath of the looting and the burning and all that.

It’s a conversation likely taking place in other newsrooms. How do we protect ourselves and each other while doing what we are compelled to do — cover an important story?

“That’s our role in society — to try to document what happens” Walgren said. “Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong. But our heart’s in the right place, and we want to get it right.”


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