On Sept. 24, while working on a story about citizen journalism for my employer, I found myself arrested, along with many other people. My arrest gave me a unique vantage point on the risks and rewards of citizen journalists, those non-professionals who capture stories (usually without pay) using videos and images via portable technology like a cell phone camera. Anyone, even a passerby or a police officer can be a citizen journalist. That’s its power.Here’s what happened.
My colleague Sam Lewis and I had previously covered Occupy Wall Street, an ongoing demonstration
against economic inequality, on the first day it began, Sept.17.
Throughout that day we noticed many protesters using their mobile devices to document their own experience, sometimes for themselves or their own blogs, sometimes to share with bona fide
media organizations. So, midday this past Saturday, Sept. 24, we headed to Union Square, where the Occupy Wall Street
protesters had marched that morning from Lower Manhattan.
When we first arrived on the scene, protesters were marching along the sidewalk in unison, chanting. There was no sense of chaos. Many held video and audio recording devices, including camera phones.
However, the stream of protesters did disrupt traffic. Pedestrians wove in and out of the mass of protesters, some on their way to do Saturday errands, others who joined in for a block or two, chanting with the masses.
Sam and I were on the sidewalk observing the action. She was taking photographs, while I was juggling my reporter’s notebook and the audio recorder we’d brought along to interview protesters about how they were using media throughout the day.
As more people spilled into the street, police started to demand that protesters stay on the sidewalk. But as people seemed to be retreating from harm’s way, police began pushing the protesters. I saw police use large nets to corral people en masse. I watched as police pepper sprayed several young women in the face. (An NYPD spokesperson confirmed the use of pepper spray to MetroFocus
.) I saw senior citizens and teenagers get arrested. I saw about 20 or 30 police officers tackle people and prod them roughly with police batons.
With nearly every arrest, the demonstrators called out for “cameras, cameras” — urging others to document the events — and chanted in unison “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”
When I saw the young women get pepper sprayed, I ran over to interview them. While holding a microphone and wearing a badge identifying myself as an employee of “WNET – New York Public Media,” I found myself suddenly roped into one of the large nets. I was thrown against a wall and handcuffed with hard plastic zip-tie restraints. I sat on the sidewalk with about 50 others. I yelled over and over “I’m press! I’m with WNET MetroFocus
! Please do not arrest me.”
I did not possess the press credentials that NYPD allocates to journalists. (As MetroFocus
is less than three months old, neither I nor my journalist colleagues have yet met the NYPD’s qualifications.
) So even though I work as a professional journalist, the NYPD lumped me in with everybody else.
Lumped me in indeed. I was in police custody for nine hours, eight of which I spent in a jail cell at the 1st Precinct
An NYPD spokesperson told MetroFocus
on Monday that 87 people have been arrested in total since the Occupy Wall Street protests began last weekend; however, the Daily News
reported that at least 80 people were arrested
on Sept. 24 alone, mostly on charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing traffic. The NYPD would not comment further on my arrest.
Before we were all jailed, they took away everybody’s possessions, including our notebooks, pens, cameras, recording devices and mobile phones. We were separated by gender.