Philadelphia, PA – After a day of marching the streets of Philadelphia photographing a protest against student debt at Occupy’s National Gathering on Sunday, July 1st I escaped the oppressive heat for some air conditioning as one of my journalist friends offered a beer. After a good meal and conversation we reemerged into the now slightly cooler Philly summer night and walked down 10th Street towards Market Street when we suddenly heard the familiar chant of “Whose street? Our street!” ringing around the corner. Shortly thereafter the first marchers came into view and we knew right away that after the very orderly and disciplined march from earlier in the day, this was the after party for those who had wanted more action. The daytime march was routed to bring the occupiers close to Penn’s Landing, where a rightwing group was holding their annual July 4th weekend festivities. However, Philadelphia PD clearly didn’t want a confrontation on their hands and blocked the NatGat march outside shouting distance from the Tea Partiers. The marchers had stood in a stand-off with PPD for a brief time during which they debated whether to push their luck or return to Franklin Square Park where gatherings and teach-in’s were taking place. Worn out from the immense heat, most marchers opted to return to the park. As everyone turned around, I noticed a group of protesters clearly disappointed.
As we encountered the evening march, I still had my camera in my bag and my friend his notepad ready, so we decided to tag along with the group of 40-50 protesters flanked to the left and right by about maybe 30 bicycle cops, dressed in neat dark blue shirts and the ominously sounding “Police Strike Force” printed in light reflective letters on their backs. I did notice a heavy presence of Philadelphia PD brass marching along with the group. One protester pointed out the commissioner, Charles Ramsey out to me as being among them. The other three were his deputies.
We headed down towards City Hall following the marchers into the street and running against traffic. Philly PD tried to herd the group into the lane flowing with traffic but marchers kept changing direction, often by running in sudden dashes in and out of the admittedly very light Philly evening traffic, choosing to swim “upstream” rather than going with the flow. Some of the protesters were definitively agitated and chants ranged from the productive to the unprintable, but I didn’t notice anything excessively unruly. No trash or paint was thrown, no attempts at breaking windows or other property were made, and no overtly aggressive or threatening behavior was evident to me. This was a group letting off some steam by running in the streets and at some point trying to jump into a public fountain for a cool off before the bike cops managed to get in the way. I’ve seen more unruly behavior at “orderly” marches in New York … Still, the presence of senior brass worried me. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly hardly ever comes to OWS marches. When his deputy Ray Esposito shows up, mass arrests are almost par for the course …
That said, it was also clear that this was not part of the official NatGat program, whose organizers have spent much time and energy on putting together a program focused on movement building, alliance forming, and constructive dialogue. One of the organizers later expressed great frustration to me at what was about to transpire, stating that they did not look to force confrontation with the police. I had heard some rumblings on twitter and from New Yorker participants pro and contra the use of black block tactics during marches at NatGat events, an argument that has been ongoing in the movement ever since the police crackdowns started in the fall. That energy needed somewhere to go at NatGat, and it came out in this march in the form of running in the streets while dancing, singing and shouting. But nothing more than that.
After about 30 minutes of us marching and running along with the protesters, my friend decided to return to the Greyhound station to which we were originally headed after dinner, as he had a bus to catch back to New York. I chose to stay on to see what would transpire. Something was up, but I wasn’t clear as to whether trouble would come from the protesters or the police. I remember one moment, as we were making a mad dash around a corner near City Hall, one protester called out that he had been talking to a cop who said that people would get arrested if they kept running in the streets. I remember that clearly, because the kid was right next to me when he said it. I don’t know if anyone else actually heard him. Most were busy running, catching up, and catching a breath. It was still a very hot night even as the clock struck 10pm.
In New York, when I tag along with wild cat marches, I stay on the sidewalk, as cops tend to block the edge of the streets to prevent protesters from running in the streets and grab those that make it through anyways. NYPD takes a very dim view on marching in the streets without a march permit. In Philadelphia I had noticed during the march earlier in the day that protesters took to the streets unimpeded, even though the march in itself was not permitted. The march had a pacer who cooperated with the PPD Community Service officer who then passed on the information to the commander of the officers lining the march and directing traffic. So, when I saw the kids run in the streets during the evening wild cat march, I didn’t expect that to be the cause for trouble. I also noticed that I could not walk on the sidewalk per usual, as the bike cops were taking up the entire breadth of it as they flanked the march. My only option for staying with the march was to follow the protesters into the streets.
As time wore on I noticed that one of the units fell behind and started to group at the end of the march rather than on the sides. Reinforcements had arrived, too. Had the ratio cop to protester been about 1 cop for 2 protesters when I happened upon the march, the ratio now was passing 1 to 1 towards having more cops than protesters on the scene. When we passed Cherry Street while marching on Broad St I heard the community affairs officer tell one of the protesters to turn into Race Street which lead us back towards Franklin Square. A unit of bicycle cops blocked Broad Street, so that the march really couldn’t turn any other way than directed. The park was closed at that time, but it was in the general direction of where most NatGaters had found sleeping quarters for the night. It seemed police was starting to lose patience and wanted people to go home. A protester at that time also popped up next to me and told me “we’re going to disperse shortly, stand by for the signal”. The marchers had grown tired, as well. So, at that time it appeared as if we were headed to a peaceful resolution.
As we were marching down Race Street I noticed that the unit of bike cops that had been riding along side the march had slowly one by one regrouped at the front of it. I looked back and saw a second unit of bike cops bring up the back of the march. At that point we passed a side street that the marchers wanted to turn into, but decided not to when they noticed it was lined on both sides with police vehicles. We just passed Philly Police Headquarters, and this is where they kept their vehicles parked. So the march trotted on along on Race Street and looking back and forth I remember thinking “we’re kettled.” Just about then I saw the bike unit in the front get a signal at which they spread out across the street and blocked the marchers from moving forward. One kid, whom I did not know, charged the bike unit, trying to break through the blockade and was taken down quickly and shoved back into the herd. The rest of the group while getting agitated did not charge the police line, as was later claimed in the arrest notices, but rather stood and shouted, then turned around trying to get out the back when everyone realized that the second bike unit had also closed off the street and we were captured. At no point was an official dispersal order or arrest warning given. No illegal assembly had been declared. Protesters were not given the option to quietly go home. The kettle closed, everybody in it was told they were being arrested, and that was the end of that.
Some protesters got angry and started shouting at the cops “why are you doing this? We didn’t do anything wrong” and some other things, not all of them printable. Others just sat down on the sidewalk resigned to the fact that they would spend the night in jail. All in all the group did keep it together and while some were standing up for themselves and complaining about being trapped I did not see any aggressive behavior after that first kid that had charged the police line.
Still, within maybe 3-4 minutes in which the two sides stood there in a standoff, the bike cops shoved everyone onto the sidewalk, using their bikes as barricades as they closed in. Everyone was ordered to sit down and await their arrest. I tried to get out of the kettle by showing the cops my ID card from the National Press Photographers’ Association, and two of the cops responded “Don’t worry, you’ll be safe.” As they were about to let me pass through their ranks a protester came up from behind, called out my name, grabbed my bag and pulled me back in, which aroused suspicion in the cops.
“Are you with them or are you a reporter?” one of them asked.
I responded “I’m a photographer and I’ve been covering the movement for the past nine months. So, of course I know many of them.”
The Lieutenant then instructed his unit “she’s with them, keep her in,” pointing at the NLG number I had written on my arm.
I said that this was a safety measure, since photographers had been arrested in other cases, so the Lieutenant took a closer look at my NPPA press pass.
“Never heard of them” he said, tossing my credentials back at me. “Who you shootin’ for?”
“I’m an independent photographer”, I responded.
“So, you sell your pictures?” the Lieutenant asked.
“Yes, I do, if someone wants them,” I replied.
“So, you’re a papparazzi, not a reporter”, the Lieutenant concluded, repeating to his troops “she’s with them” and ordered me to keep in the corner.
All the while this conversation was going on I kept shooting pictures of protesters getting arrested right next to me. Some tried to get up and move around, others just sat there waiting. The arrests were very methodical and mostly without violence. A couple of protesters who had gotten up and tried to sit close to their friends got grabbed and pushed against the wall a little harder, others complained about tight zip ties. Still, for a mass arrest of close to 30 people accused of unruly behavior, the entire procedure was very orderly.
As I kept photographing, the Lieutenant got annoyed and said, “stop doing the press thing. You’re a papparazzi. Put your camera away or you will be arrested.”
At this point I asked “Am I under arrest, Lieutenant?” to which one member of his squadron replied
“Hang in there, we’re getting the boss.” The Lieutenant looked a little unhappy but said “in the meantime, put that camera away.”
I still believe I had every right to photograph where I was and what I saw but was a little weary of pushing things further, so I did take the flash off my camera and stuffed it into the bag I had hanging around my shoulder. As cops ordered the protesters to sit down or get hurt I stood quietly in the corner, waiting for things to evolve and tweeting about my possible arrest while feeling the full force of a splitting headache, I had tried to ignore for the better part of the evening march. It had been excruciatingly hot all day, and photographing protests is a physically demanding undertaking, so I sweated enormously. While I had been drinking a lot of water, I did not resalinate, and was now paying the price for that.
The boss, I believe it was the Commissioner himself, but I might be mistaken – it definitively was a very senior white shirt cop – eventually came and took another look at my press pass and told his troops “It’s ok, she can go.” And so, after about 15 rather tense minutes, they finally did let me leave the kettle. I crossed the road, while tweeting that I was now out, when an officer in a light blue shirt came over and introduced himself to me as the “media relations officer”. Why he was there at the ready when at that point the TV crews had not yet shown up I do not know, but he demanded to see my press pass, wrote down my name and the fact that the pass was from the NPAA, and then asked for my address and date of birth. I know I should have told him to call my lawyer, but was frankly a little out of it, so I gave him the info.
After a couple of minutes I regrouped, pulled out my camera again and started taking pictures of the arrestees lined up and waiting for the paddy wagon. At that point I also noticed the Fox News crew running around filming the protesters being loaded in, talking to the Commissioner and other brass. I don’t think they interviewed the protesters. As the first paddy wagon drove off, I heard a choir of voices from inside singing in union “solidarity forever” …
As word of the arrests got out, other occupiers arrived on scene, many shouting at the cops, protesting what they saw. I was particularly impressed with an older lady who in a quiet but determined way heckled the police for arresting these marchers. She didn’t use any unfriendly words, but clearly got the point across that she felt what the police did that night was wrong. The cops and the news crew ignored her and kept going about their business.
A group of occupiers that had congregated at the arrest scene by then marched on further down the street to the police headquarters for jail support. I wanted to join them but felt I needed a break from my headache, especially since a text had gone out saying that most arrestees were expected to be released within 3-4 hours. So, I found the group from Occupied Stories who by then had bedded down outside a PNC Bank branch on Walnut and 9th Streets and to my delight found a couch standing on the sidewalk that I could crash on. Halfway through the night I woke up to find a man a few feet away from my face taking pictures of me sleeping on the couch. He was not a photographer and looked more like an undercover cop armed with a cellphone. So, who, exactly, was the papparazzo in this piece?
On Monday morning, as we walked back to Franklin Square, we passed by the police headquarters and saw that jail support was still ongoing. At 9am, a good 10 hours after the arrest, only about 5 protesters had been released, telling stories of being kept in the paddy wagon without water for close to an hour, and realizing that their belongings had gotten mixed up between different protesters, indicating a thorough search of everyone’s bags. I sat down with the protesters to catch up on what had transpired after I had left the kettle. Slowly, usually in groups of two and three, the arrestees emerged, all very happy to be greeted by their friends, several voicing complaints about their treatment. One protester read out the charges levied against him, while another added pantomimic underlining for entertainment. In essence, Philadelphia Police’s version of the story is that the protesters disrupted traffic, blocked a highway (which Race St on which we were kettled technically is) and then charged the police line, upon which they had kettled the group. That is not what happened on Sunday night, as the wild cats went running in Philly.