Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Panel Mildly Critical Of RNC Policing

The Minnesota Independent reports:

Nearly 800 people were arrested. Pepper spray and flash-bang grenades were repeatedly utilized to disperse crowds. Store-front windows were smashed and vehicle tires slashed. If nothing else, the four days of the Republican National Convention certainly succeeded in bringing some excitement to the normally sleepy streets of downtown St. Paul.

Before a sometimes rambunctious public audience today, a seven-member panel, led by former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, presented an 82-page report on policing during the Republican National Convention to the St. Paul City Council. While the panel generally concluded that the St. Paul police acted appropriately in overseeing security arrangements during the four-day gathering, it did offer numerous criticisms of the department’s preparations and tactics.


Continue reading
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Given my experience being arrested while observing the RNC protests as a journalist, I remain quite interested in the truth about the police commanders' motivations.

In the hours immediately after my release from jail, I wrote the following editorial:
In St. Paul, Minn., riot police detained and ticketed journalists who were covering a peaceful protest against the Republican Convention on the night of Sept. 4. The officers' actions against these reporters were a grossly outrageous violation of the most foundational and sacred of American values.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads as follows: "Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

That unqualified statement of idealistic principle was ratified and became law in 1791, but it seems that 217 years was not enough time for the authorities in St. Paul to get the message. Although the American press has long been one of the freest in the world, the events of Sept. 4 are an ominous indication that perhaps that is no longer the case.

The Minnesota Independent reported that Nancy Doyle Brown, a media-reform organizer from the Twin Cities Media Alliance who spoke at a press conference on the morning of Sept. 5, defended the rights of the reporters ticketed the night before.

Journalists have "been detained and arrested, subjected to raids, pepper-sprayed, and more simply for showing up to work," she said. "These have been dark days for press freedom in the U.S."

Among the journalists detained Sept. 4 were Christopher Patton, a member of the Daily Iowan Editorial Board, Matt Snyders, and Dean Treftz. Snyders and Treftz are both former Daily Iowan writers who were covering the convention for other outlets; both of them were wearing press credentials, enabling them to enter the convention center itself at the time the police detained them. All three of these reporters conducted themselves in a thoroughly professional manner and at no time did anything that could be reasonably construed as identifying them with the protesters they were observing.

There is no question that the police specifically intended to detain journalists.

Writing on a blog maintained by City Pages, a Twin Cities alternative weekly, Snyders described how a police officer responded upon seeing his press credentials.

"Well, I heard that press are going to jail tonight, anyway," Snyders reported the officer said. "So it doesn't matter."

Treftz, blogging as a Youth Vote '08 correspondent for UWire, also described what the police told him when he asked how many people were being arrested.

"You're not press," the officer said. "You're prisoners."

Yet another member of the press who ended up becoming a prisoner on the night of Sept. 4 was Art Hughes, a freelance writer and board member of the Minnesota Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Hughes had written a guest opinion in the St. Paul Pioneer Press decrying the police's treatment of journalists in St. Paul in the days before his own arrest.

"[The police] have the choice of whether they're portrayed as brutish thugs trying to squelch the rights of citizens or as protectors of public safety tolerant of the First Amendment they're sworn to uphold," he wrote.

Unfortunately, the authorities made the wrong choice. Rather than simply acting to keep the crowd of protesters from disrupting the convention or damaging any property, the police choose to act aggressively to break up the demonstration. And rather than allowing the journalists observing the unfolding events from the protest's periphery to leave once the decision had been made to arrest all of its participants, the police instead elected to forcibly detain them as well, indiscriminately using pepper spray against those who had the misfortune of crossing paths with some of the more trigger-happy officers.

On Sept. 4, the police in St. Paul ceased being the public-safety officers they were supposed to be and became the sort of brutish thugs who harass and intimidate journalists simply trying to do their jobs. If it's against the law for journalists to observe the police's interactions with protesters, even those who are protesting without a permit to do so, then there is no one to watch the watchers. And history shows that no government can be trusted with such unaccountable power. Thus, this brazen assault on America's most basic freedoms must not go unchallenged.

I plan to write a thoroughly researched series of follow-up pieces at some point during the next few months.

8 comments:

taco said...

"Well, I heard that press are going to jail tonight, anyway," Snyders reported the officer said. "So it doesn't matter."

Having used this quotation multiple times, you obviously think it's significant, but answer these questions: Do you honestly believe that a press credential is literally a Monopoly-like get-out-of-jail-free cards? Do you honestly believe that being issued one exempts you from law enforcement jurisdiction?

And rhetorically, do you believe that press credentials exempt you from being shot on open ground in a warzone?

Christopher Patton said...

"Do you honestly believe that a press credential is literally a Monopoly-like get-out-of-jail-free cards?"

No.

"Do you honestly believe that being issued one exempts you from law enforcement jurisdiction?"

No.

"And rhetorically, do you believe that press credentials exempt you from being shot on open ground in a warzone?"

No.

However, about two months after my arrest, I received a letter in the mail from the St. Paul district attorney. He informed me that they had conducted an investigation into me and concluded that I was a bona fide journalist and ought not face charges of any kind. A copy of this letter was also sent to the St. Paul police.

So, answer me this: If the city's own top criminal justice attorney didn't feel that I had broken the law, why was I arrested? There's nothing he knew that the officers on the scene shouldn't have known as well.

The police don't just get to arrest whomever they want. The law requires that they have probable cause. Given that it was exceedingly obvious to the arresting officers that Snyders (we were arrested together) and I were journalists and not actually participants the the peaceful (though illegal due to the event permit's expiration) protest, we should not have been detained let alone processed through the county jail. If I had more financial resources at my disposal, I would have already filed a law suit against the arresting officer and the department as a whole.

taco said...

"So, answer me this: If the city's own top criminal justice attorney didn't feel that I had broken the law, why was I arrested?"

I'll answer your question with another question: What exactly where you doing that put your credibility as a reporter in doubt?

Just in case you want to avoid the question and quibble about the wording there, I'll ask the same question another way: What exactly were you, Amy Goodman and "independent media" blogger types doing differently that got you arrested that did not get the majority of traditional media reporters arrested?

Maybe the Minneapolis is the headquarters of the national blogger suppression task force and they have a dossier on you and Trentz so they can take you down on site and protect their corporate mass media overlords. </sarcasm>

You mention in a posting today that you want to redefining journalism ethics. Well, perhaps you could consider that if you blogger "journalists" start some kind of social movement redefining what journalists are, it's inevitable that the government and the public are going to redefine their understanding of journalist rights and privileges accordingly. I have nothing against your love of the medium, but you need to acknowledge the flaws of the model and recognize its considerable opportunity for abuse and its potential to destroy the respect and trust that the traditional hierarchical structure that brought this country to where it is today.

Christopher Patton said...

"What exactly where you doing that put your credibility as a reporter in doubt?"

Nothing.

"What exactly were you, Amy Goodman and 'independent media' blogger types doing differently that got you arrested that did not get the majority of traditional media reporters arrested?"

First, I'll say that your qualification about "the majority of traditional reporters" is quite warranted, as a number of people who work for traditional print publications as well as two Fox News producers suffered the same fate as Treftz and I in getting caught up in the fray. And second, I'll tell you exactly why Snyders and I got arrested: It was because we were within visual distance of the protest on the last night of the convention. Everyone within a large commercial block got arrested, including plenty of random bystanders and passersby as well as more than a dozen journalists working for a variety of different types of outlets.

I'm not even asserting special assembly privileges as a journalist. Merely following quietly a block behind a peaceful protest and taking notes and talking with Snyders does not constitute legitimate probable cause to arrest me. I wasn't breaking any law--and any law interpreted in such a fashion clearly runs afoul of the First Amendment.

The only relevance my personal political opinions have in any of this is that I believe in the American Constitution and the rule of law.

You're living in a fantasy world if you believe no one ever gets arrested illegally. Frankly, I just think the cops were pissed that we were watching how they were being unnecessarily forceful with the often silly, but entirely harmless, likes of David Goodner. So they decided they'd bring us in to teach us a lesson. Less not learned.

I'll say once more, taco, before you continue in your irrational visualization of me as some sort of scary left-wing activist, you should really meet up with me for a cup of coffee sometime. I'm confident that a face-to-face encounter with me would make you realize that I'm nothing but a sweater-wearing and obsessively polite gay guy.

taco said...

"Nothing."

That's what we all say, of course...

"First, I'll say that your qualification about "the majority of traditional reporters" is quite warranted, as a number of people who work for traditional print publications as well as two Fox News producers suffered the same fate as Treftz and I in getting caught up in the fray."

Let's not even play games with this. No reporters from ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CNN, MSNBC, BBC, NPR or other full-time professional organization were arrested. The vast majority of them are older than you, have been doing their jobs longer and have had their opportunities to reflect on their ethical duties and responsibilities as journalists. You and some other recent grads and alternative news "reporters" who "coincidentally" haven't been at the typewriter as long and haven't had to face the full professional pressure of a traditional journalism position, did manage to get arrested in noteworthy numbers, and now you blame the police for it. Pull your head out of the blogosphere for one minute and look around at your other industry peers. A journalist's role is what it is for good reasons. If you behave like you're something different you'll get treated like something different. You need to stop being so egotistical thinking you're already capable of crafting a better definition of professionalism than the millions of journalism professionals who came before you.

"I'm not even asserting special assembly privileges as a journalist. Merely following quietly a block behind a peaceful protest and taking notes and talking with Snyders does not constitute legitimate probable cause to arrest me."

I don't know, I can't keep your "FUCKING FACISTS" Twitter posting from coming to mind when we start talking about your role in events. You obviously were caught up in the moment and without video of the incident I have no way of knowing whether this is the truth or not. Like I said, everybody thinks they're innocent. But I can see how its very possible that by standing in a certain place or moving around in a certain way in a hostile environment, perhaps without you even realizing it, you could be seen as contributing to the disturbance. Not entirely unlike being shot at if you were reporting from somewhere in Iraq and got shot at by one side or another when you took the wrong step. You may not have intended to do anything wrong, and the shooter could hypothetically have a high personal regard for journalists. But if you make an imprudent move, even accidentally, severe consequences could await.

Even if you're right - and yes I'm skeptical of personal accounts of one's own arrest, but I admit, you could be right - then I regard your personal situation as unfortunate but not necessarily improper action on behalf of the police, not so much their "being pissed and ... deciding to teach you a lesson." Based on the above lack of mainstream journalist arrests, it just doesn't seem likely to me that this was an organized sting on journalists by police as you suggest with your choice quote. They have a job to do too. You have your own duty to the University of Iowa community and they have a duty to the city of St. Paul. The fact that they went to the extent of sending you an apology letter confirms this in my mind, admitting to you that they made a mistake and that they seemingly don't bear you any ill will upon reflection.

Christopher Patton said...

I'm not saying it was an organized sting on journalists. They just decided to arrest everyone anywhere near the protest. They arrested journalists on purpose, but likely hadn't planned on doing so ahead of time. And I personally heard the comment the officer made to Snyders in my editorial, so I know what was going through at least one of the officers' minds. Ultimately, the DA's letter to me just indicates that he actually knows what the law is and cares about enforcing it. The police on the other hand didn't care. They decided they wanted to arrest everyone they came across and they did. It was illegal. Period. And the police should follow the law--obviously.

Regarding my Twitter posts at the time, it's hard not to react strongly when one is getting tear-gassed for no reason. I was mad about it then and am still mad about it now.

And you're just wrong about no mainstream journalists getting arrested. Do a little research and you'll find out otherwise. But I'm sure you'd rather continue to make unfounded assertions. Have fun with that.

taco said...

"And you're just wrong about no mainstream journalists getting arrested."

Kthx, no need to give any specific counter examples after my 173 word expansion of that statement. Thank you, Mr. Cutting Edge Reporter.

Christopher Patton said...

Here's a list of journalists who were detained that includes the names of the outlets they were working for:

http://minnesotaindependent.com/8190/cataloging-the-journalist-detainees-connected-to-rnc-protests

I suggest learning how to use Google--it's quite useful.