Civil Rights and Press Freedom One Year After Occupy

One year ago the Occupy movement took root in a small square in New York City. From there it rippled out across the nation over a matter of weeks and months.

A week after that initial occupation, the New York Police Department arrested  John Farley of local PBS affiliate WNET Thirteen, marking the first of many journalist arrests that occurred nationwide over the course of the Occupy movement.

Press and protesters headed back to Zuccotti Park this weekend, and reports suggest that three more journalists were arrested, bringing the total number of journalists arrested while covering Occupy Wall Street and other U.S. protests in the last year to well over 90. Almost half of these arrests occurred in New York City. Credentialed mainstream reporters, citizen journalists, freelancers and live-streamers all ended up behind bars during this period. A number of those journalists still face charges.

The response to these arrests varied city by city. Press freedom groups sent letters and held meetings with police departments, 40,000 people asked their mayors to protect the First Amendment, and 16,000 people sent messages of support to the arrested journalists.

The attacks on press were troubling on many levels — particularly because media making was such a central part of the Occupy movement. From tweets to blog posts, pictures to streaming video, Occupy made strategic use of the Web from day one and inspired a new generation of activist journalists to chronicle the movement. While covering the NATO protests this summer in Chicago, Laurie Penny tweeted that “In 2012, youth power’s equivalent of the peace V-sign is the camera phone held aloft.”

The threats that those covering Occupy faced remind us that when anyone can commit acts of journalism, we need everyone to be advocates for press freedom. Matt Taibbi points to the University of California Davis police officer who pepper-sprayed a group of students on campus during a peaceful protest as evidence of what's at risk if we don’t defend our rights. He writes:

“What happened at U.C. Davis was the inevitable result of our failure to make sure our government stayed in the business of defending our principles. When we stopped insisting on that relationship with our government, they became something separate from us.”

Occupy Wall Street has helped highlight this divide, especially as it applies to press freedom. The almost weekly journalist arrests put First Amendment rights in the spotlight at a moment when journalism was (and is) in a state of profound change. When we talk about the fundamental changes happening in the media, we often focus on business models or modes of production and distribution. Indeed, on Twitter and Storify, via live-stream and in print publications like the Occupied Wall Street Journal, journalistic experimentation and a robust hacker culture were alive and well around Occupy.

Citizen journalism in its current form has been around for well over a decade, but Occupy help legitimize it as ordinary people reported with independence, tenacity and honesty from the streets. The mainstream media profiled many live-streamers, and their footage appeared on news websites from NBC's to the Washington Post's.

Occupy also illustrated that as media models change, our law enforcement agencies and institutions are struggling to catch up. New questions were raised about press-credentialing laws and the wisdom of allowing police departments to define who is and is not a member of the press. Too often, in the heat of the moment when police were surrounded by cameras, police took an “arrest now and ask questions later” approach. Meanwhile, city officials relied on old definitions of journalists, or tried to rewrite history entirely.

Back in December, Robert Stolarik, a photographer for the New York Times, caught an NYPD officer on video as he tried to stop Stolarik from photographing the arrest of citizen journalists at an Occupy protest. Last month, Stolarik was arrested again while working at a crime scene. According to a report in the Times, officers “took his cameras and dragged him to the ground,” and “he said that he was kicked in the back and that he received scrapes and bruises to his arms, legs and face.” Many other journalists covering Occupy walked away bruised and bloodied from altercations with the police.

Occupy Wall Street, along with tragic incidents in Mexico, Syria and around the world, reminded us that many journalists put their bodies and their freedom on the line when they seek to bear witness to civil unrest. Often journalists become not only symbols but also targets.

“If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper," Glenn Greenwald argued in Salon, "those rights effectively cease to exist.” Thankfully, journalists, live-streamers, bloggers and photographers are back on the streets, covering protests. If the past year teaches us anything about the future of journalism, it's that the First Amendment depends on all of us to survive.

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