The Occupy Wall Street protest grows daily, spreading to cities across the United States. “We are the 99 percent,” the protesters say, “that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent.”
The response by the New York City Police Department has been brutal. Last Saturday, the police swept up more than 700 protesters in one of the largest mass arrests in U.S. history. The week before, innocent protesters were pepper-sprayed in the face without warning or reason.
That is why, after receiving a landmark settlement this week from the police departments of Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as the U.S. Secret Service, my colleagues and I went to Liberty Square, the heart of the Wall Street occupation, to announce the legal victory.
On Labor Day 2008, the “Democracy Now!” news team and I were covering the first day of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Thousands protested outside. I was on the convention floor, interviewing delegates from what that week was the hottest state, Alaska. Blocks away, my colleagues Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar were covering a police assault on the dispersing crowd of marchers.
The riot police had hemmed the protesters into a parking lot, along with credentialed journalists. The police charged at Nicole, shouting, “On your face!” She shouted back, “Press, press!” holding up her press credentials in one hand and filming with the other, video-recording her own violent arrest. She screamed as they brought her down on her face, a knee or boot in her back, dragging on her leg and bloodying her face. The first thing they then did was pull the battery from her camera, if there was any question about what they did not want documented. As Sharif tried to calm the riot(ing) police, they pushed him against a brick wall, kicked him in the chest twice, threw him down and handcuffed him.
I got a call on my cellphone and raced from the convention center to the scene of the arrests. The riot police had encircled the area. I ran up to the police, my credentials hanging around my neck. I asked for the commanding officer to get my journalist colleagues released. It wasn’t seconds before they tore me through the police line, twisted my arms behind my back and handcuffed me. Finally brought to stand next to Sharif, as fully credentialed journalists, we demanded to be released, whereupon a Secret Service agent came over and ripped the credentials from around our necks.
We filed suit. This past week, the St. Paul and Minneapolis police and the Secret Service have settled with us. In addition to paying out $100,000, the St. Paul police department has agreed to implement a training program aimed at educating officers regarding the First Amendment rights of the press and public with respect to police operations – including police handling of media coverage of mass demonstrations – and to pursue implementation of the training program in Minneapolis and statewide.
As we move into the next conventions and cover protests like Occupy Wall Street, this largest settlement to come out of the 2008 RNC arrests should be a warning to police departments around the country to stop arresting and intimidating journalists or engaging in any unlawful arrests. We shouldn’t have to get a record while trying to put things on the record.
But do police actually pay the price? Before the 2008 Republican and Democratic national conventions, each party bought insurance policies to indemnify the convention cities from any damages resulting from lawsuits.
Bruce Nestor, president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, told me: “St. Paul actually negotiated a special insurance provision with the Republican host committee so that the first $10 million in liability for lawsuits arising from the convention will be covered by the host committee. … It basically means we (the city) can commit wrongdoing, and we won’t have to pay for it.”
Jump forward to today. The bailed-out Wall Street megabank JPMorgan Chase gave a tax-deductible $4.6 million donation to the New York City Police Foundation, which has protesters asking: Who is the NYPD paid to protect, the public or the corporations? The 99 percent or the 1 percent?
Marina Sitrin, part of Occupy Wall Street’s legal working group, told me that the protest was going to be based at Chase Plaza, but the NYPD pre-emptively closed it. The protesters moved to Zuccotti Park, which they renamed Liberty Square.
According to an undated press release on JPMorgan Chase’s website, in response to the $4.6 million donation: “New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly sent CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon a note expressing ‘profound gratitude’ for the company’s donation.” Given the size of the donation, and the police harassment and violence against the protesters, we must question how Kelly shows his gratitude.