Student perspective: On March 4 during the freeway takeover, some reporters got the story. Four of them got arrested.

They don’t allow watches in jail, but I think it was about four in the morning when I discovered that I could use my sneakers as a pillow. This solved several problems for me, hygienic and otherwise, that naturally arise from trying to fall asleep on the ground next to a communal toilet.

There were about twenty others in the cell with me that night at the North County Jail in Oakland, a stone’s throw from the elevated freeway where we had all been arrested. It was mostly a group of anarchists, who were surprisingly relaxed about being behind bars and seemed to be enjoying each other’s company. They passed the time bemoaning their soggy bologna sandwiches, playing chess with orange peels, and telling cop jokes. As I lay back on my sneakers searching for a few minutes of sleep, I thought about the absurd series of events that had brought me into this anarchist jailhouse bonding retreat.

Since becoming a grad student at UC Berkeley’s Journalism School last fall, I’ve been following the ongoing student protests and campus demonstrations with interest. The protest movement, aimed at protecting public education from deep budget cuts, fee hikes and furloughs that have been passed down by the state and the university, has been a source of debate among student journalists here at Oakland North for the entire year. I was one of eighteen first-year grad students who worked full time for the site during the fall semester, and helped cover the occupation of Wheeler Hall on November 20, 2009. This spring, I’m auditing the Oakland North class and continue to contribute to the site on a freelance basis.

As March 4th approached, a recurring debate arose in the Oakland North newsroom: How do we cover a story so close to home? How can we report objectively when, as UC students ourselves, we are being profoundly affected by the consequences of the budget cuts?

Yet there was a growing sense that this was a story too important to ignore. With hundreds of actions planned across the state, we knew that this was an opportunity to connect the larger budget crisis with our community here in Oakland. We planned to focus on the protests planned for Oakland, Berkeley, and Sacramento, and put together teams of field reporters to follow the action. My role for the day was to take photographs of the march from Berkeley to Oakland, the 4 o’clock rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza, and whatever happened afterward — you can see my photographs in the slideshow above.

I, for one, began to think that our role as student journalists could actually make our coverage better. By being near the action and in contact with student organizers, we might be able to cover this story more closely than the mainstream media ever could. I started attending March 4th organizing meetings to make contacts and learn more about what some of the more radical protesters were planning. I knew that something was definitely in the works — but whatever it was, the protesters were keeping it pretty tightly under wraps.

So when the march from Berkeley to Oakland and the rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza turned into a dance party in the streets and ultimately a highway takeover on I-880, I felt the rush of adrenaline that any reporter feels when news is breaking, when you’re seeing first-hand what most people will be watching on TV. I knew I was taking a risk by following the protest, but I also knew that this story was about to reach its climax, and I wasn’t about to miss it.

I sent a quick text to another student who was working that day as an Oakland North site editor (“They’re taking over the freeway!”) and ran off after the mob, along with an entire contingent of journalists. I caught up to and photographed the protesters as they ascended the Nimitz Freeway off-ramp, passing cars and commuters (some angry, some amused) who had been stopped in their tracks.

Everywhere else, though, there was movement. Look: Protesters chanting! A sea of faces behind black bandanas! Everyone shouting: “They say class cuts, we say class war!” Fists in the air! Traffic flares and megaphones, the whole scene spiraling out of control, and flocks of people along for the ride, just to see what comes next. And orders! So many orders, coming from all sides: Stick together! Slow down! Pick up the pace! Fuck you! Get OFF the freeway!

Not far behind the protesters, there was another group charging up the off-ramp: a squadron of riot police, jogging purposefully and in tight formation toward the crowd. For those who wanted off the freeway, it was too late to turn back, and there seemed to be no exit in sight. One high school student, presumably trying to escape, fell 25 feet off the freeway.

At the core of the protest was a group that huddled together on the south side of the freeway with an “Occupy Everything” sign, many locking arms as the first wave of police reached them.  The officers hacked at their knees with nightsticks, felling them one by one until those resisting were arrested and the rest had lowered themselves to the ground. Another group of police rounded up those who were spread about the freeway, mostly protesters trying to find an escape route and cameramen (including myself) who had fallen back from the action to avoid impeding arrest.  

About 150 arrests were made in all. Along with the protesters, I and at least three other reporters from small or independent news outlets were arrested, cited with unlawful assembly and obstructing a public place, and forced to spend the night in jail.

Among them was another student reporter, Cameron Burns of the Daily Californian, who took this video footage on the highway. In it, an officer can be heard telling Burns to get off the freeway. Burns replies, “Where do I go, sir? Where do I go?”  In his voice-over narration accompanying the video, Burns says that the officer responded by shoving him, causing him to flee. “I didn’t know what else to do, but run away from them and towards the mob. After being tackled to my knees I ended up face-down on the asphalt as the cop handcuffed me,” he says in the video.

Two video journalists, Brandon Jourdan and David Martinez, were covering the protest for the independent daily news program Democracy Now. Both were arrested. Take a look at their footage, and watch the scene depicted from 3:00 to 3:10 to get a sense of what I was witnessing.  In it, a group of journalists are taking pictures and video of a protester being beaten to the ground by a police officer. You can find me in the brown jacket leaning against the median, being ordered to kneel by another officer. I turn to see the punishment being unleashed next to me and quickly comply. I continue to take photos from my knees, capturing the final image in the slideshow above. A few moments later I was approached by another officer, and I explained to him that I was a reporter. But instead of being asked for proof, I was ordered to the ground and handcuffed.

You can also clearly see Jourdan in the video (dressed in black, in the background of the second shot). He is approached by an officer and presents his Democracy Now press credentials, but, like me, Jourdan was headed for a long bus ride and a cold bologna sandwich.  After we were both released from jail, I contacted Jourdan and asked him about what happened. “When the police officer approached me, I showed him press credentials,” Jourdan said. “He told me, ‘You’re under arrest,’ so I got on my knees and stopped recording. At a certain point I told another officer I had credentials. He seemed like he was thinking about letting me go, but the other officer said ‘No, he’s under arrest!”

This screen grab from Jourdan and Martinez’s footage shows Jourdan (in black, showing press credentials), Sullivan (far right, taking photo), and myself (kneeling in foreground). Jourdan and I were arrested, while Sullivan was allowed to continue covering the story. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Jourdan and David Martinez)

 

If you go back and watch the scene again, you’ll notice a third reporter on the right side of the frame. His name is Justin Sullivan, and he’s a staff photographer for Getty Images. At 3:05, you can see him taking this picture with one camera, while a second, bigger camera hangs off of his shoulder. Unlike Jourdan and myself, Sullivan wasn’t arrested. He and several other mainstream media reporters were ordered to sit on the ground, and then told by another officer that they had to leave. They were relocated to a freeway off-ramp, where Sullivan later used his big camera to take this photo of me being taken away by police. The picture was quickly picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle, where it was published that evening on the front page of SFGate.com.

While the video makes it appear as if Sullivan was completely removed from the action by being on the other side of the highway median from me, this isn’t entirely true. The core group of protesters and the center of police action was located about thirty feet to the right of this frame, on Sullivan’s side of the freeway. In fact, Jourdan and I had relocated to the left side of the barricade in order to avoid being in the way of the police as they made arrests.

I’m not here to gripe about my being arrested—whether or not we journalists were “obstructing a public place” by following the protesters is up for debate. But what I would like to call into question is why some reporters went to jail, and others were able to keep doing their jobs.

As our picture was being taken by Sullivan, I asked my arresting officer why some photographers were allowed to be on the freeway, while others were being taken away in handcuffs. I saw no discernible difference between the two groups, except that the journalists who went free had bigger cameras, indicators of their professional status. It’s also likely that police were more familiar with some of the mainstream reporters, having had more exposure to them over the years. My arresting officer, though, said nothing. Later that night, as I lay on my sneakers, listening to the political banter of my dissident cellmates, I still didn’t have a good answer.

While the ascent of new media has enabled anybody with a camera and a web site to report the news, old stereotypes still shape the question of what makes someone a journalist. For the OPD and other law enforcement officers who may encounter similar situations in the future, it will be important to recognize that the rules of media are changing. While it’s easy to recognize the traditional tools of the trade—giant TV cameras, multiple professional quality lenses hanging from shoulders, and big plastic press badges—most independent and student reporters (who make up an ever growing part of the flailing journalism industry) don’t have access to them.

Even obtaining a press credential—a government-issued laminated card that identifies one as a member of a newsgathering organization—can be tricky, especially for students who are not yet employees of media outlets. Credentials have traditionally been issued by government agencies, including local police departments, but there are few regulations governing who gets them and where they must be accepted. Some of the agencies that once supplied Bay Area reporters with credentials no longer do so, like the California Highway Patrol which stopped issuing them in 2004. In lieu of a government-issued credential, the CHP and some other law enforcement and government agencies will sometimes accept a simple photo ID or business card provided by a news organization.

I’m 23 years old. I’m a student. I was wearing street clothes on the day of the protest. I borrowed a camera from a friend, and followed a bunch of protesters onto a freeway to take pictures for a news web site. The only press credentials I had to offer were a business card and a student ID. I could have been anybody. In the eyes of a cop trying to resolve a chaotic situation, it’s easy to see how someone like me could be swept up in the process of making arrests.  But people like me—young, under-resourced, and underpaid (if we’re lucky enough to be paid at all)—represent the future of journalism. It’s no longer the size of your camera that counts.

3 Comments

  1. Jake,

    Good work. I was expecting some sort of self-congratulatory grand-standing piece but it was honest and helpful. Cops will always be in charge at the scene, always have been. Police don’t have time to worry about who is the journalist. I think all you can do is keep drawing attention to such issues and keep working for Public Records and press access. Oh, and eat well before you go cover the protest.

    Mike

  2. No Valle

    Dude have you ever applied for a press card? They’re not that hard to get.

  3. Student journalist on the freeway. Left with the mainstream press.

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