Nearly 400 people were swept up in mass arrests at an Occupy Oakland protest on Saturday night, according to a city of Oakland press release, including six local journalists.
Most of the reporters were arrested during kettling—a police tactic officers use to contain individuals during demonstrations, usually to ease the process of making arrests—in or around the downtown Oakland YMCA. The number of journalists arrested during the coverage of a single Occupy-related event was the highest since last November, when 10 reporters were arrested during the police raids on New York’s Zuccotti Park.
The journalists arrested on Saturday in Oakland include the San Francisco Chronicle’s Vivian Ho, KGO Radio’s Kristin Hanes, Mother Jones’ Gavin Aronsen, independent graphic journalist Susie Cagle, the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Yael Chanoff and John Osborn, who was working that night in his capacity as an East Bay Express intern, but is also a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and a reporter with Oakland North.
All of them were covering what Occupy organizers had dubbed “Move In Day,” an attempt to take over a downtown building and use the site for a festival. The demonstration quickly turned into a chaotic confrontation between protesters and police, during which some protesters threw rocks and bottles at officers, who in turn used tear gas and smoke grenades on the crowd before arresting hundreds.
Josh Stearns, journalism and public media campaign director with the nonprofit media advocacy group Free Press, has been tracking journalist arrests during Occupy-related events since September. He said there have been more than 55 arrests of reporters nationwide, including citizen journalists. Many of these reporters have run into problems during kettling and mass arrests, Stearns said.
“Often with the [journalist] arrests, it’s in the melee of action as they’re arresting that police are not respecting press,” Stearns said.
All of the journalists arrested over the weekend who spoke to Oakland North said they tried to identify themselves to police as reporters.
Kristin Hanes, who was doing live radio coverage for KGO, said police surrounded demonstrators earlier in the evening at Henry J. Kaiser Park and issued a warning to disperse. At that time, she showed an officer her press pass.
“I said, ‘I’m a reporter, can I please get past you?’” Hanes said. “And he said, ‘No, you shouldn’t be here.’ I think it was an odd thing to say initially.”
Hanes eventually left the park and continued following the protestors for about a half hour until the police gave another dispersal notice outside the YMCA and began kettling protestors. Although the police were asking people to leave the area, Hanes said there was nowhere to go, as riot police enclosed the group on all sides and did not indicate an exit point. At the time, Hanes was with fellow reporters Ho and Aronsen. Ho told Hanes that a San Francisco Chronicle photographer managed to get out of the crowd by showing a press pass, and so the group decided to make their way to the front to speak with police.
“I showed [an officer] my press pass and asked if I could get out of here and he said no,” Hanes said. “Then I asked if I could talk to a sergeant and he said no.”
The trio next went to an officer who was arresting protestors, but the cop rejected their press passes.
Reporters often carry badges to show their media affiliation, but these passes may be issued by different agencies, including local law enforcement groups or the media organizations themselves. There is no single protocol for how law enforcement officers must treat pass holders, and Stearns said one of the biggest problems with covering protests is how officers regard credentials.
“Around the country, the sense I get from people when talking to them about the credentialing issue, is that in every city and every state the credentialing issue is handled differently,” Stearns said. “Even night-to-night, it’s handled differently.”
Oakland Police Crowd Control and Crowd Management Policy states that, “The media shall be permitted to observe and shall be permitted close enough access to the arrestees to record their names. Even after a dispersal order has been given, clearly identified media shall be permitted to carry out their professional duties in any area where arrests are being made unless their presence would unduly interfere with the enforcement action.”
Aronsen said he carried a press pass from Mother Jones while Chronicle reporter Ho and Hanes both had official San Francisco Police Department press badges.
“I let [Ho and Hanes] take the lead because I thought they would have more authority than I would have,” Aronsen said, referring to the fact that their badges had been issued by police agencies. “They told Kristin no and started arresting her. They made it clear that they wanted to arrest me then, so I backed up a few steps and started interviewing people … a few minutes later, the officer [I had been talking to] pulled me away and put my hands behind my back.”
Ho told Oakland North that she was detained, but never processed.
John Osborn was reporting inside the YMCA when protestors began streaming through the doors to avoid the kettling outside. Osborn, who has been covering the local Occupy protests for months, said there was a time when you could show a business card to the police “and your business card was basically your pass and they would let you in and out of the police zone.” This time, he said, police reactions were different. What’s more, as a graduate student at UC Berkeley and an intern with the East Bay Express, Osborn did not have an official press pass and he said he had also recently run out of business cards.
“Police stormed in [to the YMCA] and said, ‘Everybody sit down, you’re under arrest,’” Osborn said. “I went to one of the officers and I said, ‘I’m a reporter and I’m with media.’ They asked if I had a press pass and they said, ‘Then you’re not media.’”
Officers bound Osborn’s hands with zip ties and brought him outside where, after an officer spoke to a superior, he was let go.
“They admonished me out front, basically framing it that it was for my safety that I have a press pass,” Osborn said. “No one apologized for detaining me. I was zip tied but no one apologized. Basically, in not so many words they said get a press pass or you’ll be arrested next time.”
Stearns said that freelance journalists and citizen reporters, who are less likely to carry press passes or business cards than reporters working for professional media organizations, can have difficulty identifying themselves if they are swept up in mass arrests. “Overall, what we’re seeing is that the demographics of journalists are changing and police departments don’t always know how to make sense of people who are freelancers or independents or in some cases citizen journalists,” Stearns said.
Student journalists face a unique challenge, as many journalism programs and school affiliated news organizations do not provide press passes, and many interns are also not allotted press passes with the media organizations they work for.
Saturday night marked the second time an Oakland North reporter was arrested during protest coverage. In March 2010, Jake Schoneker was arrested along with three other reporters while covering a protest that resulted in a freeway takeover.
While Osborn and most of the other journalists were released Saturday night, Aronsen and Yael Chanoff were detained and taken to jail. Aronsen was taken to the Santa Rita county jail, where he said he spent about an hour in the drunk tank before Mother Jones editors convinced police to release him. Chanoff tweeted that she was also sent to the Santa Rita jail and was released Sunday at 3 p.m.
Reporter’s rights while covering protests are a bit unclear, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit focused on advancing free speech. Under the First Amendment, journalists do not have any particular privilege to cover demonstrations, but allowing press access is a matter of convention, historical practice and mutual benefit between reporters and police.
Yet even when police want to allow the press to cover demonstrations, it can be difficult to identify who is a protestor and who is a journalist, especially because there is no uniform way to distinguish the press. Scheer said he thinks the issue should be taken up by a journalistic association.
“The media is very poor at coming up with credentials that are recognizable to everybody,” Scheer said. “If you hear me placing some of the responsibility on the press, that’s on purpose.”
And, Scheer added, the police have the legal power to protect the public, which includes reporters, during volatile situations.
“In a nonviolent situation there is some legal authority for press being able to have more access than the ordinary public, but when things are out of control and rocks are being thrown and there is some violence, the police also have broad powers to protect the public,” he said. “In that circumstance, if reporters are told to disperse, they should disperse. If they choose not to disperse they should be very clearly credentialed and they may have to assume some risk of being arrested mistakenly or not. It shouldn’t happen, but you can understand how in chaotic situations it might happen.”
But when journalists show adequate identification and are clearly not participants in the protests, Scheer said it is inexcusable for police to arrest reporters.
“That’s what the press are for,” he said. “The public needs the press, we depend on objective press and the physical presence on the scene to tell the rest of the world what happened. So if there were instances in which reporters were doing that and are identifiable as reporters and were nonetheless arrested, we need to make some changes in practice and policy and training with the Oakland police to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Stearns said one way journalists can protect themselves is to save the numbers of lawyer’s guilds in their cell phones in case of emergency and to make sure someone knows where they are. Osborn said a group of reporters and locals who are not affiliated with the Occupy protests have discussed plans to draft proposed legislation to present to the City Council that would create more protection for journalists.
Stearns said he thinks the public is also responsible for looking for solutions, particularly with a surge in citizen reporters who are not affiliated with professional media groups but report via blogs, social media and other online platforms.
“Honestly, I think in some ways we as citizens—not just a matter of news organizations and police—we as citizens have taken the First Amendment for granted too long and we need to take a hard look at the First Amendment in the context of the digital age,” he said.
As of Tuesday morning, the Oakland Police Department had not responded to requests for an interview.
You can see Oakland North’s complete coverage of Occupy Oakland here.
Correction: This story was updated to note that Vivian Ho’s press pass was issued by the SFPD, rather than by the OPD, as reporter Gavin Aronsen previously stated. Oakland North regrets the error.