Sunday, January 22, 2017

When Pictures are Lie-Breakers, and Watching the Watchers in the New Wild, Wild West of Journalism

Journalist Rachel Gay Films Pipeline Protester
Image by Hive Swarm Independent Media

Cops Bust Journalist, Chase Another into the Bushes in MLK Day Media Block

If Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe brought us “gonzo journalism” in the 1960s, are we in the new era of “gonzo,” of gathering info while embedded as participants, and of telling it like it is without equalizing competing opinions – such as the Earth is in trouble vs. the Earth is flat?

Maybe “Wild, Wild West” of journalism would be more like it.   Corporate media is in decline, shrinking in size, distracted by celebrity news, spin-fed by the powers and threatened by politicians looking to shift blame.  Citizens depend on other citizens with cell phones to post on social media.  We also depend on the few independent media that exist around the edges -- even if they risk getting arrested or have to run away and hide in the bushes to escape capture by the police.

Such was the case in Memphis, Tennessee, ironically on the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and in the unlikely location of an oil refinery. 

(Video of Watchers Arrests)

Independent journalist Rachel Gay of Hive Swarm News & Media was covering an environmental protest when police arrested her and chased her associate Aaron Murphy about a third of a mile, across a railroad track and into some bushes where he hid with his equipment for about an hour until things cooled down.

Police shut down Mallory Avenue and the Interstate exit to it and blocked out local network TV and print press.  They even shielded reporters’ views by parking a hook-and-ladder fire truck across an intersection as down the street seven activists obstructed driveways at the Valero Energy pumping station.   They were protesting the 440-mile Diamond Pipeline, which is to run from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Valero refinery on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Fire Truck Blocks the Press from Viewing Protesters
Image by Fox 13 TV
Calling themselves water protectors and flying under the banner of Arkansas Rising, the seven were chained together through 55-gallon drums filled with concrete.

How’d they do that, anyway?

The police responded, upon the idea of not allowing people to “stop business, destroy property and defame the King holiday,” police chief Mike Rallings said later.

On the contrary, if there was ever a case of King-style civil disobedience, this was it.

The police chief presumably is aware of his department’s policy which acknowledges that “members of the general public have a First Amendment right to video record, photograph and/or audio record” police and to “express criticism of” police.   They say culture beats policy, however, and perhaps we are experiencing a Trump-era sentiment of relaxed police accountability.

It was a fairly surreal street scene -- but as a political scene, it was even more surreal.   The lasting images were of the police en masse guarding the oil and arresting the people. They were not protecting any physical structures from damage, because there was no threat.  The purpose police served that day was to protect a political ideology, to protect capitalism, to uphold corporations’ ability to use eminent domain to seize private land for a pipeline that would enhance profits and CEO bonuses -- and to punish anyone who spoke out against it.  

Police were being used by powerful forces, without realizing they had been had, to protect the oil industry and its government assistance and subsidies.  It was like they were protecting the oil, at taxpayer expense, from the people, who were making a statement, not jeopardizing tanker trucks. 

The protesters provided a clever nuisance, but they could not have been more passive and immobilized.   They were chained into concrete!   They and those who paced or chanted or held signs or cell phones posed no threats.  In fact, they did not entirely block the Valero entrance and exit driveways.  There was room for trucks to come and go. 

Although Arkansas Rising touted that they had shut down the refinery for about five hours, joining three other environmental protests around the country on MLK Day, it was the police, not them, that closed I-55 Exit 9 and blocked both ends of Mallory Avenue.  Therefore, the police got played at both ends -- not only by the capitalists, but the protesters as well.

Meanwhile, Paul Garner, organizing coordinator at Mid-South Peace and Justice Center of Memphis, had learned about the action.

“We have peaceful protests in Memphis, and we hold signs and chant and go home.  But, we’ve not seen anything like this around here,” Garner marveled at the dramatic spectacle of people chained together in the huge barrels on which were printed, “Stop Diamond Pipeline.”

Garner was not chained to any persons or concrete, nor did he hold a sign.  He held his cell phone and shot video, thinking that such an unusual action in Memphis needed to be observed.  The point was to let the public have a view that the press was not allowed to see; to let the police know that people were watching, and that if they abused anyone, he would have an irrefutable record of it.

Little did Garner know he would be the first to go. 

Police arrest Paul Garner as he live-streams
Image by Aaron Murphy Hive Swarm Independent Media
Police nabbed Garner as he live-streamed on Facebook.  Garner’s video clearly shows that police never warned or ordered or said anything to him.  A line of about 30 officers march up the street and grab Garner while he is rapidly back-pedaling on the sidewalk.  Garner is blocking no one.   Just filming the scene.

Garner’s video gives lie to arresting officer B. Parker’s affidavit in which he writes that Garner “prohibited the lawful use of Mallory Avenue,” blocking the entrance to the refinery and blocking the sidewalk.  Although Garner was sympathetic with the protesters’ cause, his chief role on this day was as observer, and on Facebook he implores people to come down and be witnesses.

“We could really use some folks out here helping out,” Garner says on his Facebook video.  “We need boots on the ground.  We need eyes on the police, because they are trying to keep media out.  Usually that’s a sign that things are going to get ugly.”

Garner also interviewed Jessica Reznicek, who was chained into a concrete-filled drum and who asked people to come and observe, even if they could not get near the Valero site.

“We need eyes on us,” Reznicek tells Garner.  “Not just in solidarity and support of what we are doing,” but in order to see “whatever measures are going to be taken by the police as they get the crowd out of here…recording, watching and exposing any violent tactics that may or may not be used.”

Rachel (Rae) Gay of Rutledge, Missouri, was filming with an HD-DSLR camera.  In the video of her arrest, she moves along as police herd her and others.   She is arrested while shooting video on a sidewalk, presumably attempting to stand her ground.  In the affidavit of complaint against her, however, officer Daniel Dermyer cites that the protest was illegal since no one pulled a permit.   What does that have to do with a journalist?  A journalist needs a permit?

Gay “felt a responsibility to document the abuse by the police, that as press she should be there,” Murphy said.  “And they basically arrested her because they didn’t agree.

“He (Garner) was right behind me, and we were both briskly walking away from the  police,” said Murphy, who was filming with an HD-DSLR camera.  “They started marching toward us.”  

Murphy and Gay have traveled the country covering environmental actions, and they spent about a month at Standing Rock.  They have seen some things.

“Normally, police give you a dispersion notification, and they normally do that through a bullhorn,” he said.   “Even though it’s a public sidewalk, they can declare it a police zone.

“But, there was no public announcement, no clear warning.   There were two officers, like lieutenants, and they were reading something, talking very quietly, and I walked over to try to hear.  And it was the disperse command.

“And I was like, no shit, and they are doing this purposely so they can arrest people, so they can trick them.  It was totally shady.  The whole thing was illegal and underhanded,” Murphy said.

“And so there’s no way they are going to get close to me.  So I very briskly walked away from them.  I shot him (Garner) being arrested.  I knew they were going after me.  It was a dragnet basically. 

“I started hauling it, then I started running to get near the other media, the line of  the news channel people with their tripods, and I thought I was good,” Murphy said.  

“Then another cop came over and started pointing people out, and they pointed at me, and I took off.   I said, no way I’m getting arrested today. 

“They chased me.  I walked about three blocks, through a field, over a hill, to a dead end.   And some trucks came after me.  I crossed over some railroad tracks, and I could see that they were searching for me.   It was a small manhunt.   

“I saw a cop on foot looking around.  I heard cops driving around.   I was by the railroad tracks, and the same car kept passing and stopped in the middle of the railroad track in the intersection.   They were in white, unmarked vehicles.

“I laid in the bushes an hour with my equipment and hoping everybody would cool off,” Murphy said.   “But it was pretty freaky, and they were going out of their way to nab me.”

We have not talked to police, and our call for the public information officer has not been returned after a week. 

But, we have a good idea of what police would say.  They floated the idea to media that “there could be explosives” in there.   Nobody actually believed that.

Police usually say it’s all about “public safety.”  But, safety for whom?  The oil?  They weren’t keeping the people safe.  They were capturing those on Mallory Avenue.  Like at many protests, a police over-reaction is way more provocative than anything the First Amendment practitioners are doing.  

Further, all the traffic re-routing and congestion posed its own danger as cars nearly collided (we don’t know if it directly caused any wrecks), and the Interstate shutdown interfered with commerce more than did protesters as tanker trucks were lined up for as long as four hours waiting to get to Valero.  The roadblocks interfered with people trying to get home from work.

People could not get into nearby Martin Luther King Park on Martin Luther King Day.

What if police had not shown up at all?  What if?  The tanker trucks would have swung by concrete-filled barrels and the people attached to them.  They had about 25 feet in the clear, plenty of room for anybody who can back a 50-foot trailer into a loading dock. 

Olivia Ramirez, Protecting the Water
Image by Hive Swarm Independent Media
What about the protesters if nobody showed up?  No attention defeats the purpose of a protest.  Bummer.  If the protesters had been ignored, they would have eventually left on their own.  How long can a person sit there with her arms in a bind and no place to pee? 

While the protesters were creative, the police were predictable.  In fact, from the viewpoint of Arkansas Rising, except for some getting arrested, the police could not have been more cooperative if the protesters had written the script.  

One protester -- not confirmed who, but we think it was indigenous American Olivia Ramirez of Oklahoma -- was trying to watch the watchers and wore her own camera clipped to her shirt.  However, police took it away from her, according to Arkansas Rising. 

Memphis freelance photographer Andrea Morales avoided capture and snapped an iconic
Seema Rasoul power-salutes as police arrest her
for "obstructing a highway/passageway"
--Photo by Andrea Morales
image of defiance when Seema Rasoul stabbed her fist high in the air with a plastic zip tie around her wrist as police arrested her.  

It may be debated that municipalities have no right to abridge First Amendment freedom of assembly and speech by requiring persons to obtain a protest permit.  In Memphis, if 25 or more people gather, the police want to see a permit bought.  As another level of debate, were there actually 25 people there who considered themselves part of any protest assembly? 

In fact, the police affidavit of complaint against Gay says there were “around 20-30 individuals.”  If it’s 20, that does not even reach the gotta-have-a-permit threshold.  Why did the officer even go there?    He was in effect testifying against himself that a permit may not have been required.

The seven in barrels were trespassing after police asked them to leave.  That’s a Class C misdemeanor.  Those were the only criminal offenses we saw. 

We are not trying to pre-adjudicate anything before Gay, Garner and  others have February court dates, and we are not the lawyer.  But, people need to know how the authorities roll.  How tax dollars are being spent.  There are things that the mainstream media -- and there are good reporters in Memphis -- just do not have the resources to cover these days – or the corporate will to cover in the current state of press irresponsibility in favor of info-tainment. 

There are holes in the story.  It’s up to citizens and independent journalists and filmmakers to plug those holes. 

Who Will Watch the Watchers? is a Memphis-made documentary that tracks the struggles of citizens who were arrested for filming police and sought justice at City Hall in an election year.

Video of Watchers Arrests

1 comment:

  1. This video tells the story another way: