My State-Sponsored Assault, Courtesy of the NYPD: Journalist John Knefel recounts his violent arrest by the NYPD during #S17 and his subsequent experience in custody.
A Journalist’s Arrest at #S17: “I’ve learned how to get my story without getting bagged. Or so I thought.”
What’s Wrong With This Picture?: The Story of My Arrest by the NYPD: During the Occupy anniversary protests, a photographer is arrested for taking photos on a sidewalk outside the press pen.
New York, NY–There’s rarely a dull moment when they go marching in the land of Occupy, and the weekend of the 1-year anniversary ramped up to revive a lot of the energy seen swirling around Zuccotti Park last fall.
After a year of shaping their vision, forming their message, and battling with the police, the movement had a broad range of actions planned for Monday, September 17th, the day of the anniversary of the first tent pitched in Liberty Square. The overall plan showed that the past twelve months have forced Occupiers to evolve. No longer would the activity be focused on one massive march, but rather dispersed and mobile, adapting to responses by the police, but with the same goal they had from the beginning: To protest the machinery of Wall Street finance by shutting it down.
As I arrived near Zuccotti Park around 6 am, NYPD forces where already out and ready, Wall Street barricaded from all sides, as was Zuccotti Park, the bull statue and parts of Broadway. The news media was out in force, with TV trucks clogging both sides of Broadway. Little brings out the news crews in New York City like the possibilities of a potential blood bath … Both the police and mass media seemed ready for that. But the occupiers had other ideas.
By 7:30 am, about 500 protesters had assembled in this one of four assembly points, and led by Episcopalian bishop George Packard and other clerics, started marching down Broadway towards the intersection with Wall Street. The original plan was to block the intersection by sitting down in the street. However, barricades set up by NYPD forced protesters to stay on the sidewalk, and, rather than – as in the past – trying to battle their way through the barricades, the protesters decided to make their point by sitting down on the sidewalk instead. Still, the arrests quickly began, as now they were obstructing pedestrian traffic. Though the possibility that maybe the barricades and lines of cops the NYPD had set up might do a better job of blocking passage than anyone sitting on a pavement ever could, probably didn’t occur to the police commander in charge of the scene….
I had found myself stuck in the press pen that was handily provided on one corner of the intersection of Wall St and Broadway, so I couldn’t see the actual arrests, but several arrestees were quickly led away.
Looking for more freedom of movement and better angles for observation and photography, I decided to change venue and moved down Pine Street towards Nassau Avenue. As I reached the intersection of Nassau and Pine, the back side of Federal Hall, another popular flashpoint between OWS and NYPD, I encountered mayhem. Police had started to arrest protesters in this location and cops were grabbing at anything and anyone that couldn’t run fast enough, including a legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild, even though he was clearly marked by wearing a bright green hat marked “NLG Legal Observer”. I took some photos of arrests, but soon decided to move on further down towards Wall Street as I heard there were some activities going on there.
As I walked down Wall Street, protesters were marching on the sidewalk across the street from me, chanting and gearing up to block the intersection of Wall St and Pearl St. A massive contingent of police scooters along with cops in riot gear were standing at the ready for the encounter. A police officer started to read out a dispersal order to the protesters assembled at the street corner, and anticipating a new sit-in and some arrest shots, I crossed the street to photograph the officer with his megaphone, as well as any upcoming interactions. As I arrived on the sidewalk I started photographing the scene: The cop with his megaphone, other officers standing around that looking at the protesters, and I was just about to turn around and photograph the protesters, as I hear the voice over the megaphone saying “if you don’t move, you will be arrested.” I took one more shot of the cops standing at the corner, when the white shirt officer in charge of the scene pointed at me and said: “That’s it. She’s done. Take her,” and he promptly grabbed my hand. I shouted out that I’m an independent photographer, and showed him my credentials from the National Press Photographers’ Association. The officer looked at my badge and said “they’re not ours, so I’m not interested.” (an independent account and a great photo can be found here)
I was spun around and felt the zip ties tighten around my hands. This being my first arrest ever, I was surprised that I felt relatively calm and just let them do their thing, but I did notice that the cuffs were beginning to cut off the circulation in my hands. The white shirt officer handed me off to one of the cops standing next to him in riot helmets, and designated him to be the arresting officer, which meant he was now in charge of bringing me to the station for processing and staying with me until I was either released on a Desk Appearance Ticket or sent to court for arraignment. A couple of legal observers took my name, and information, and several other observers asked for it, too while I was being led away. At least I felt people would know where to look for me.
As I was being led to a van, my arresting officer was told that he couldn’t put me there, as only males were in there. So, the officer turned around and called over the radio “I have a body. I need a car.” — Well, while I was out of commission for the moment as a photographer, I still felt very much alive, and found that description of me rather disconcerting. Yet, the numbness in my hands continued to increase, so I decided that, rather than getting into argument with him over terminology, I’d plea my case for getting the cuffs loosened enough for the blood to be able to flow to my hands. The officer explained to me that the zip cuffs they were using could not be loosened without cutting them, and he couldn’t do that unless I was in a van. We walked back and forth searching for a van for me to be put into for another 10-15 minutes, until I was finally placed in front of a door, photographed with a Polaroid camera, and placed into the bus – joining four others already in there – with my backpack still on, and my camera and press pass hanging down in front. When I asked again to get my cuffs loosened, the officer said he didn’t have a knife, so that would have to be done at the station.
Other arrested protesters joined us in the bus and a dialogue started soon amongst everyone: About the day’s protests, occupy’s philosophy and other topics. One of the protesters started making his case for occupy to two of the arresting officers sitting with us in the van, who seemed nice enough to engage in the conversation. Whether any hearts or minds were changed remains to be seen, but it seemed clear that once the confrontation of the actual protest was out the way and a civilized conversation was possible to be had – and the boss wasn’t listening – some rank and file officers were not all that unsympathetic.
Before the cops were ordered out of the van again to accommodate more arrestees, one of them finally cut my cuffs, my hands now a darker shade of blue, and deep imprints from the edges of the cuffs visible on both my wrists. I was allowed to take off the backpack, put the camera into my bag, stretch out my fingers for a second, before I had to be re-cuffed, thankfully looser this time.
Overall the atmosphere in the van was quite festive. The other arrestees seemed to be at peace with their situation and were looking to make the most of it. One of the late arrivals managed to access his cell phone and started livestreaming from our van. Another one, sitting next to him started reciting some rap poems he had written about Occupy, manifesting some accute wordsmanship and creativity, while another protester accompanied him with a drum beat by banging against the backwall of the van.
About 90 minutes after my arrest, we were finally delivered to Central Booking at 1 Police Plaza for further processing. There I noticed that we were referenced to as “perps”, short for “perpetrator”. While this term may seem a tad less dehumanizing than “body”, it still felt hardly appropriate for a group of people arrested for such “crimes” as sitting down in an intersection, or photographing on the sidewalk.
As we were herded across the outer courtyard of Central Booking, had our names and addresses taken, any cary-ons removed etc, the treatment I received seemed reasonably courteous. I had requested that the Swiss consulate be notified of my arrest, which seemed to make an impression. While I wasn’t necessarily expecting the need of diplomatic interference, I felt it important to ensure access to it, should the need arise. Given how little decision room I was given with every step being pre-ordained (“two steps over here, back against the wall, one step over there) it also felt good to mark at least a little corner of my territory.
I was pulled aside with another arrestee still wearing his press credentials around his neck. He was a livestreamer and reporter for a website based in Portland, Oregon. We were asked as to where our work could be seen and what we were doing exactly, then that officer went away. I’m not sure whether he was a regular plain-clothed officer, from the press office or the legal team, but he was dressed in civilian clothing. Finally, my press pass still hanging around my neck, I was led into the back door of central booking, where my identity was verified, I had to pose for another photo – this time with the arresting officer – and was placed into a holding cell for further processing. My arresting officer seemed pleased with the photo of the two of us and showed it to me. When I jokingly asked him whether we should put that on facebook he laughed but said no, that he didn’t want to be tagged.
In the holding cell I found Nicole, one of my colleagues from the Occupied Stories website, who is also trained as a legal observer. She was arrested for hoola-hooping while directing pedestrian traffic in an intersection, leading her arresting officer to complain “Lady, we don’t have charges for that.” But, on orders of his white shirt officer, he arrested her anyway.
After a while I was taken out of the holding cell and led past the holding den containing many of the male protesters that had been arrested that morning, by that time around 70 of them. They were having a party in there, cheering on every protester who was led by their den, chanting, drumming and even dancing. One officer passing by along with me shook his head and exclaimed “what a zoo!” Others seemed less amused, but unsure what to do about it, so for the time being they let the protesters be. The holding room had glass windows, not merely bars, so the noise level wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been, but they were clearly heard all the way down to the holding pen I was about to be placed into.
I was led to another intake officer who collected all the possessions from my pockets, my press pass, and also my shoe-laces. I was allowed to make my phone call but only to a number within New York City. Other arrestees behind me where not so lucky. Several of the out-of-town protesters who had come to New York for the OWS anniversary didn’t have a local number to call. So, they were sent off to their cells without being able to notify someone outside what had happened.
I was led into a block of 9 cells, each designed for one occupant but allowed to hold up to four, furnished with a wooden blank with some mats on top, a sink at the wall and a toilet besides that which didn’t provide any privacy what so ever. The front wall of the cells were metal bars, so everyone walking by could see right in. Nicole and I were placed into the same cell, along with a sleeping medic and two out of town girls. We could also hear and communicate with the occupants from the other cells, which by that point held around 30 other protesters (we maxed out at 37 in our block). The two female intake officers were in a very foul mood, so any chanting or singing between the cells was met with verbal abuse and threats of delaying our release. We knew they didn’t have the authority to make such decisions, but it clearly put a damper on the festive mood in our corner of the building. Still, we quickly built solidarity around the privacy issue of the toilets that were provided. Every time one of us had to use the bathroom, the others lined up in a wall around her, facing towards the hallway, to shield her from view, all the while singing “Solidari-pee Forever”. We called it our Pee-ples Wall.
As the day dragged on conversations swerved from philosophy to politics. Also, Nicole gave advice to us less familiar with legal proceedings surrounding arrests, as to what to expect in terms of release, possible punishment for different charges etc. While at that time I was not given access to a lawyer (I had asked my godmother to contact a good lawyer we both know on my behalf), it did feel good to have somebody knowledgeable on the subject in the room. Still, time is passing slowly in a prison cell even with the best of conversations, and gradually we all started to chomp at our bits to be released, feeling we were missing things still going on out there.
Some entertainment was provided by our guards trying to assemble a proper count of all female inmates in our block. First the one officer passed by, counting each head, expecting four arrestees to each cell, as they passed by our cell their count got out of synch with their expectations, since we had five people in ours. However, that would take a moment to sink in, so they passed us by, kept counting, and about 2 cells later started to realize that something was amiss. So, they’d come back and do it again, then send a second counter to do the math, and finally a third, and we still had five ladies in our cell. “But it’s not supposed to be that way”, one of them exclaimed, pointing at one of us. “You were supposed to be in number seven”. After a while of headscratching they gave up and left things as they were. Clearly, these ladies are not loaded down with student debt …
Around 1pm, we were served “lunch” which consisted of two sorry excuses for peanut butter-jelly or cheese sandwiches, and a small carton of milk. I didn’t mind the PBJ in principle, but these two comprised basically two pieces of cardboard that had been dragged past a jar of peanut butter and a gotten drop of sugary something plopped on top. I was grateful for some food, and I do understand the impact of budget cuts, but this was ridiculous.
As the afternoon dragged on, one of the out-of-town girls got increasingly agitated, as she became worried about what would happen to her and her friend. As she got more and more upset and started screaming at the cops about not getting her phone call, her friend tried to calm her down, but to little avail. Irrespective of the tone in which she asked to make the call, it was indeed disturbing that she was denied what is ultimately one of her fundamental rights.
Around 5 pm I was finally released with what is called a Desk Appearance Ticket and a charge of “Disorderly Conduct”, which photography in public apparently now qualifies as in the City of New York. Before I was let out, we had to retake those two Polaroid photos I had posed for during my arrest. Apparently, they had gotten lost in the shuffle, but I couldn’t help but notice that this time my press credentials were not hanging around my neck … The entire upper body is visible in these photos, so any press pass hanging around my neck would have been clearly visible.
While I found the experience of this arrest very insightful into a part of America I have never personally encountered before, it also angered me that I lost an entire day’s worth of photographic work over a bullshit arrest. I don’t blame the poor beat cop who got stuck with posing as my arresting officer. This issue begins with his superior who decided to arrest me for whatever reasons he had or was given. I can understand how the prison system can break people, given just how little humanity is allowed to those it oversees and is supposed to reform and prepare for re-admission into the general public. Obviously, with the view from my holding cell I’ve only scratched the surface of what prison life in America can be like, but the stories I’ve heard are beginning to make a whole lot more sense. My spirit is fine but my wrists still hurt, and parts of my hands still have no feeling, which sucks when you’re trying to hold a camera.
Also, if intimidation was the goal of me being snatched off the street, the plan has backfired. I have no intention to interfere with events as they unfold, but I believe that the emergence of a movement like Occupy is one of the largest news stories of our time, and as such it needs to be properly documented. That includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. So, I will keep taking my pictures, like it or not. But obviously, I need to take better care of staying one step ahead of the body snatchers …
Far from reformed, once out of jail I went straight back to Zuccotti Park to reconnect with the day’s events and people I had spent the better part of last year with and grabbing dinner at an Irish pub with some of the photographers I had met on marches and in the park. The park had much of the energy back that swept through it last fall. While the park was surrounded by a sea of cops, inside occupiers had a great time reconnecting, and sharing their experiences. It was fun to hear stories about everything that happened, and annoyed me once more that I couldn’t be there to see it myself. Still, I also realized that I was lucky, in that my arrest was not a violent one, as I heard some of the horror stories of what the others saw and experienced. Around midnight I finally went home, completely exhausted, but also well aware that this thing is far from over.
– Julia Reinhart –
I wasn’t supposed to be sitting in a bar, my right elbow bent like a bastard, on the night of September 17, 2012. It was the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street – a movement I’ve been covering for about a year – and the plan was to be out in the streets, tweeting, taking pictures, and scribbling obscenities in my notepad. That’s what I do. I’m a reporter. It’s my fucking job.
But I wasn’t on the streets, recording so much senseless brutality. Instead I was a victim of it, having gotten viciously tackled and abused less than two hours after reporting for duty. I hardly planned for this; if I had, I would have left my weed at my motel. But having covered comparable actions in more than 20 American cities over the past year, I’ve learned how to get my story without getting bagged. Or so I thought.
I intentionally slept through the early morning Occupy efforts to troll Wall Street suits as they arrived at work. I’d been up late tailing protesters to Times Square, plus I’ve written about journalist mistreatment in such circumstances, and had an inkling that there would be mass arrests during the rush hour festivities. It turned out that hunch was on point; when I showed up at noon in Battery Park, most people were rapping about how ugly the AM actions got.
After surveying the crowd of several thousand in Battery and smacking back some water, at about 1:15pm I went to work, and headed north toward Zuccotti Park. But between the tourists, cops, and activists there, every slab of pavement was mobbed, and I didn’t even enter the old encampment. Instead I followed about 100 protesters – an intriguing mix of hardcore Occupiers and labor picketers – east on Liberty Street.
It was hardly different from any other hot situation that I’ve covered. Signs were held, chants were yelled, and after about 10 minutes of people lambasting Chase bank, cops ordered everyone off of the sidewalk. I was in the street – tweeting, taking notes and pictures – when a cop chased me across the pavement and away from the action: “YOU – GET ON THE [OTHER] SIDEWALK – IT’S THE THING MADE OUT OF CONCRETE.”
No problem. I went exactly where they told me to go. But soon after, so did the crush of protesters, who by that point had been joined by at least another 100 comrades heading north on William Street. Once there, they all began to pile into a courtyard up some steps, but I stayed on the sidewalk, obeying orders, and snapping pics of what seemed like an imminent dispersal. That’s when the ringleader cop in the white shirt and black leather cloves pointed directly at me. All I heard was, “CHOPPER – SICK BALLS!”
I must be a seriously fat shit because, somehow, my nose didn’t hit the ground as I was pushed, grabbed, and tackled while standing alone, with no one nearby to cushion the blow. It did hurt, though, especially since despite not battling back, I was repeatedly jabbed in the lower back and told to stop resisting. Pleas for my cellphone, which went flying when they sacked me, and my screaming “I’M A JOURNALIST” just made the fuzz angrier.
One reasonable cop did rescue my horn, but only after one of his colleagues grabbed my right arm, forced my hand far enough up my back to touch my left shoulder, and twisted until we both heard the uneasy sound of muscle tearing. At that, they stood me up and asked if I was “okay,” to which I just nodded and continued to repeat, loudly, “I’M A JOURNALIST.” Surrounded by more than a dozen cops, I doubt that any civilians or protesters heard me ask for someone to call my editors in Boston.
Nobody was happy about how much shit I had in my pockets. Not me, not the dimwits digging through my pants, and not the nice young cop who was eventually assigned as my “arresting officer” despite having little to do with my beat-down. As they cleaned out my jeans near the police wagon, I was yelled at several times for carrying a notepad, pens, a towel, my camera, and a small container full of trees, which prompted some serious hilarity. When asked why I was holding marijuana, I told the officers that I smoke it to prevent anxiety – to which the biggest dope among them said, “Wait until the media finds out that you were working and doing drugs. You’re finished!”
After the dumbest cop of all accused me of trying to escape – while tied up, with my belongings in their custody, in the middle of a police state – the wagon doors were slammed, and I sat alone with no ventilation or air conditioning for about 10 minutes. Between the lack of oxygen and plastic cuffs choking my hands, I was sure that I would puke or pass out, but then the doors opened, and in came Tyler. A 21-year-old day trader from a wealthy Connecticuit family, Tyler was not a protester or a journalist. He was just a pedestrian who happened to be passing by when I got sacked, and who made the mistake of pulling out his cell phone to record the craziness.
Tyler was absolutely freaked. On his way to lunch near Battery Park, his day had taken a dramatic turn, and by the time he wound up in the meat wagon with me, dude was really bothering the cops. I told him to shut the fuck up – several times – and for the most part he followed my directions, except for when he asked, half-seriously, if we were going to be water-boarded. To diffuse the situation and calm him down, I made a joke about there being seat belts in the bus, which only a contortionist could possibly fasten while cuffed from behind.
While in custody, I made it a point to tell every cop I came in contact with that I’m a journalist, and was either ignored or ridiculed each time. One steroid fiend with a pre-school education quipped, “So you’re one of the blogger idiots who thought you wouldn’t get arrested protesting.” Another cop at the station took my business card to a superior officer, who looked at it, then glanced at me, and determined there was no way that I was really a reporter.
After a not-so-awful booking process in which my balls were barely grazed, I was led into the holding cell where about 75 protesters were hanging and chanting. I realized right away that they were entertaining company, not to mention a diverse scrum if there ever was one. Before long I was trading arrest stories with New York anarchists, a senior citizen from Maine, two teenagers – aged 15 and 16 – who had come down from Philadelphia, an NLG volunteer who still had his green cap on, a minister from Somerville, two Veterans for Peace, and an aspiring MC who spit all types of flames for us to nod to.
If there’s one thing I’ve always found about Occupiers, it’s that they know how to flip shitty situations inside out. This was especially true in the can, a despicable 800-square foot dungeon with flickering fluorescent lights, two turd-filled toilet bowls, and a broken telephone. Given those conditions, activists used the slices of American cheese from our stale sandwiches to cover the security cameras. And when the five-gallon water jug was finished, they used it as a bongo until one of the steak boys came in to confiscate it.
Other highlights included seeing such familiar faces as Noah McKenna from Occupy Boston, and John Knefel, a fellow journalist who does the internet show Radio Dispatch, which I’m sure will be waxing about this. And how could I forget the New York Occupier who, through the bars, kept berating a cop who was watching movies on his phone? Or the officer who entered the pen to tell the 16-year-old from Philly that his father had been contacted, and that his parents were extremely pissed off. We all got a real kick out of that one.
After roughly five hours of watching officers struggle with tall piles of paperwork – the NYPD apparently has yet to upgrade from pens and pads to computers – my name finally got called. So with Tyler and another new friend – Paul Mayer, an 81-year-old Catholic priest from New Jersey who had been in since about 8am – I collected my belongings (though they kept my weed) and walked with a desk appearance ticket for December 5, when I’ll argue that if anyone was guilty of “disorderly conduct,” it was the pack of Neanderthals who rammed me into that “thing made out of concrete.”
It should go without saying that, while I didn’t get to report as planned, the day was hardly a waste. Though half of my cellmates expected to be arrested for civil disobedience, an equal number had been fucked like me, and assaulted, cuffed, and stuffed because some dope in a uniform disliked the way they looked. Hearing their stories reinforced everything that I already knew about the extreme savagery that’s been aimed at this movement, especially in New York. To quote Mobb Deep, “There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from.” No woman either, as it turns out.
As for Tyler – he was kind enough to offer me some bong hits at his apartment near Union Square, where we got wicked stoned and ate tacos before I got to writing this. At 2pm yesterday, he was an aspiring broker who was walking to lunch, when he got violated by people who, up until that moment, he thought were there to protect him. By 4pm, Tyler was chanting in solidarity with a horde of Occupiers. And by the time that we got out, he was itching to head back towards Zuccotti and get more footage of police beatings. If that’s not the best birthday present that Occupy Wall Street could ask for, then I don’t know what is.