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In Philly, Police Bullying and Suppression of the Press Appears to Be Policy September 18, 2009

Posted by scmla in Article.

In another article about the arrest of journalist Cheryl Biren, Rob Kall (founder of OpEdNews) said, “I believe it was the work of a rogue cop– maybe a rightwinger who was angry he couldn’t be in Washington with the other teabag protesters, so he took it out on Cheryl Biren.”

Still drinking the left-right-paradigm Kool-Aid, Rob?

I remember getting an e-mail from Rob Kall immediately after the 2008 Presidential election where he gloated, “Everything is going to be different now.”

Yes, indeed. It certainly is “different,” isn’t it, Rob?

— Kim

In Philly, Police Bullying and Suppression of the Press Appears to Be Policy
Rob Kall
September , 2009

Ordinary citizens enjoying “the Army experience.”

On Saturday, September 12, at the Franklin Mills Mall, I watched in shock as the police arrested a photojournalist, on assignment, as she was photographing protesters being arrested after they’d demonstrated against the Army Experience Center. Cheryl Biren told the police she was with the press and offered to show her credentials. The police didn’t care and didn’t let her show them. They handcuffed, fingerprinted, and put her in a prisoner transport bus, then threw her into a precinct jail, and moved her once more to the main police jail for Philadelphia, the “roundhouse.” She was released 14 hours later.

I was there. I watched the police threaten to arrest other members of the media if they stayed. The other media left. This is very wrong. The more I think about it, the more onerous this arrest appears to be a dangerous step that threatens freedom of the press for all.

It is one thing to warn protesters to leave and then arrest them if they don’t leave. But it is the job of the press to cover the arrest of protesters. One could say it is one of their most important jobs. I assure you that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks were very media savvy and included media coverage in the thorough planning they engaged in before executing the civil disobedience actions they became famous for. What if the police had kept the media away? Our world would be different today.

The arrest phase of a protest event is probably the most important part of the story– that Americans care enough about an issue to engage in peaceful civil disobedience with the understanding they may be arrested. Since the arrests are often the most dramatic elements of the protest they are the part of the story most likely to draw media attention. The police, by threatening the press, are sabotaging the message and the voices of the protesters. This means that the freedom of speech is not only violated but systematically opposed and attacked. America was founded by people who engaged in civil disobedience, like the Boston Tea Party.

On Saturday, the Philadelphia police bullied all of the members of the press into leaving before the arrests occurred. They steadied and lingered their cameras on the reporters. They threatened to arrest those reporters and camera crews. Those journalists obeyed orders and left the scene, unable to view or capture images of the arrests. Freedom of the press was oppressed there. The police seem to feel that if they say the press has to leave, then the press has to leave. That is not right. The police were wrong. If it is a policy, it is outrageous and unconstitutional.

If it is the policy of the city of Philadelphia for the police to intimidate, threaten and harass journalists so they don’t observe or capture images of arrests, then there is something very wrong and serious work must be done to quickly change this policy. If it was a bad cop or a bad supervisor’s decision, that person should be reprimanded, disciplined and put on another beat where he can no longer abuse the press or protesters.

One thing I am sure of. Opednews.com photojournalist Cheryl Biren, who was not a protester and who did not take part in the demonstration, is not guilty of the charges of criminal conspiracy or failure to disperse filed against her.

She is a hero who had the courage to stand her ground like many before her, like photographers who captured police using riot hoses on defenseless citizens, images captured that have been seared into the American consciousness.
Biren writes;

“What if Alice Paul played “nicely” with the rest of the more “established” suffragettes and didn’t engage in civil disobedience to the point where she was locked up, force fed with a metal contraption to keep her mouth open and a large tube shoved down her throat and deemed mentally ill just so our daughters and I could have the right to vote? What if she did all those things and the media looked the other way?

What if John Lewis decided to play by the “rules” and what if someone wasn’t right there to capture the image below of (now congressman) Lewis beaten and arrested? Look how close the photographer was. That picture means something. That is history. What if that photographer had been hauled off in handcuffs before snapping that shot?

It’s ironic how kids are taught today – and rightfully so – in history books how courageous Black Americans were to sit in at the lunch counters or the Berrigan brothers who in 1968 removed hundreds of draft records and burned them in protest of the war in Vietnam. What if the press were prevented from filming that now memorable scene? Why do today’s press not only realize their role in covering these actions, but their rights?

Biren was shocked to be arrested for exercising her first amendment Freedom of the Press. Surprisingly, the Army Experience Center was closed that day, purportedly to host a private event for a right wing extremist group, The Gathering of Eagles, known for their loud, megaphone enhanced heckling of Quakers engaging in peace vigils. So when journalist Biren was arrested, she walked past a crowd of laughing, jeering bikers giving her the finger, waving signs reading “treason.”

When the police prevent the press from covering protests and arrests, they are making their operations secret. President Obama and the Democrats promised a new age of transparency in government. Well, the police are part of the government. Responsibility for transparency applies to them too. The police take an oath to protect “individuals’ rights.” What happened? What went wrong?

I’ve spoken to several lawyers who have all responded similarly, saying that the US at all levels is becoming more authoritarian. Should the police be allowed to order the press around? As long as a reporter or video crew is not interfering with the police doing their job, as long as they are not threatening or endangering anyone, the members of the press should have the same right as anyone else in a shopping mall.

You can write this off as one single mom who is a photographer and writer for an online news site. (Opednews.com is one of the top ten media sites, traffic-wise, in Pennsylvania, with over 350,000 unique visitors a month) But, she was the only member of the press who had the guts to stay and document the arrests, to show the truth of that day.

None of the Philadelphia area mainstream newspapers or local TV stations covered the story of her arrest—the arrest of a journalist. Maybe they don’t want to give credibility to one more online news site. But the story received wide coverage on-line, with dozens of sites covering it, including huffingtonpost.com and Democracynow. Over 13,000 people have viewed the photos she took that she was seemingly arrested for taking which she then posted on flickr.

Without her, the only people seeing pictures of the arrests would have been friends of the protesters who took pictures. Oh yes. There were many protesters and shoppers– dozens, with pocket cameras, phone cameras– who took pictures, who were not arrested. Some of those pictures clearly show that Biren was apart from the demonstrators who refused to move, who were engaging in civil disobedience. Biren was capturing their arrests on film when the police roughly grabbed her — so roughly that another policeman had to take her out of the hands of one enraged cop who was out of control.

I was there with my iPhone, taking photos and watching it happen. I told the arresting police she was a journalist. Biren told them she was with the press. They didn’t care. They didn’t give her a chance to show her credentials. I wasn’t arrested. The many people all around me weren’t arrested.

America was built upon civil disobedience and the coverage of that civil disobedience by a free press. Freedom of the press is the first right in the Constitution. The actions Cheryl Biren took are heroic. She deserves accolades and wide media coverage, not abusive treatment, imprisonment, too tight handcuffs that caused visible injuries and charges of criminal conspiracy. It is the responsibility of the mainstream press to cover this story and demand the wrong be righted.

The leadership of the city of Philadelphia has a lot of clean-up work to do.



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