Reporting in Handcuffs
Natasha Lennard, the New York Times freelancer who was arrested along with 700 other Occupy Wall Street marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge last Saturday, has put up her personal account of what happened "Covering the March, On Foot and In Handcuffs."
It's an interesting combination of observation, sidestepping and caution--and a case study of the strategic use of the passive tense. Lennard writes:
As a reporter covering the march, conducted by the Occupy Wall Street protesters, I was in position to get a close view of some events on the bridge as the arrests began. But as one of those arrested, I was also well-positioned to describe what happened next, at least for a number of those detained.
The march began at 3 p.m. Saturday, with approximately 2,000 people crammed in to Zuccotti Park, which has served as the Occupy Wall Street base camp since Sept. 17. As the protesters approached the bridge, I was near the front of the crowd on the roadway, sending a stream of updates to Twitter and to my editors at The New York Times and colleagues.
The Internet was filled with pointed suggestions that officers from the New York Police Department led protesters onto the road as a trap to perform mass arrests; indeed, some video footage seems to show officers leading protesters onto the “illegal” section of the bridge. From what I saw, however, a couple of dozen marchers made the decision to move off the sidewalk into the road at the bridge’s entrance to chants of “off the sidewalks, into the streets.”
This breakaway group quickly gained support of surrounding marchers, numbers of whom jumped over barricades on the sidewalk’s edge to stream into the road, until hundreds of people eventually covered the passageway usually intended for a steady flow of traffic.
“ ‘Whose bridge? Our bridge!’ the marchers chanted as they walked onto the Brooklyn Bridge. Two vehicle lanes occupied,” I posted on Twitter at the the time. The mood was celebratory and confrontations with the police were not widely expected.
So far, Lennard's account tracks, more or less, what I saw and heard on the scene. I was much farther back in the march, but I saw the large group of people using the lower roadway to cross the bridge. I remember wondering, "Hmm--are they letting us use the roadway instead?" That would make sense--the Brooklyn Bridge's pedestrian walkway is rather narrow, and remember, it was a busy Saturday with lots of tourists and bicyclists. But as we approached the bridge, the march marshals used the "People's Microphone" to pass the word that we should enter on the walkway. (I was secretly happy for this, because the road runs on the lower deck--the walkway is much more open and beautiful for pictures.)
When I got closer and saw the large group of protesters using the lower walkway, my thought was, "Oh, typical NYPD confusion and mismanagement here. They started to let marchers on the roadway, then changed their mind or got a different command order after they let people through."
But even though Lennard was in the front, and heard no police warnings, she still cautiously refuses to come out and say what she saw and experienced: that police allowed the marchers to walk, without impedement or warning, a third of the way over the bridge, and then abruptly surrounded and arrested them. Note the sudden shifts into passive tense:
A thick police line stood in front of the march, but as protesters walked further onto the bridge, it seemed that our path to Brooklyn would not be impeded. Just a few feet before protesters hit the bridge’s first famous Gothic-style archway, however, the police line held firm. At this point, although only a few rows of people away from the march’s front, I could not hear any police orders. The crowd packed in tightly. Some people tried to sit down but there was little space; some tried to move back to the bridge’s entrance, but from what I understood, it was now flanked by police officers, too. The march had been kettled with orange mesh netting. A few feet away from me, I saw two young children, no older than 8, clinging to their mother.
The initial arrests seemed random and aggressive. A handful of young men on the march’s front line, were grabbed by white-shirted officers.
One young man was dragged along the ground. At this point, I thought mass arrests were unlikely. Within about 15 minutes, however, more blue-shirted members of the Police Department had arrived, carrying stacks of plastic handcuffs.
At this point, I put on Twitter the words of a female demonstrator standing near me. “They can’t arrest us all, right?”
Lennard spent three hours in handcuffs on a NYPD bus, waiting to be processed. Why, you might wonder, did a NY Times reporter have to go through this? Answer: Lennard is a freelance stringer, one of legions the NYT employs to do the reporter's footwook. It's not all that dissimilar to the way that Amazon contracts out warehouse workers so they don't have to pay them benefits and top tier wages. Stringers are paid by the assignment or by the hour, and far less than staff reporters. They do not get press passes, business cards or ID. They get sent into situations deemed not "important" enough to warrant the actual presence of a staff reporter. They get arrested.
I really hope Lennard bills the NYT for every single minute she spent in custody.