Reporters covering Occupy Wall Street protest outside Obama fund-raiser say police barred them
Reporters told Capital last night that New York Police Department officers turned them away when they tried to report on an Occupy Wall Street protest outside of a Midtown fund-raiser for President Barack Obama, despite a memo the police commissioner sent to the rank and file last week reminding officers of standard procedure for allowing journalists to cross police lines.
Last month, 13 media organizations sent a letter to the NYPD's deputy commissioner for public information, Paul Browne, accusing police of being "more hostile to the press than [during] any other event in recent memory" in the wake of the police action that cleared Zuccotti Park of protesters Nov. 15. The letter contained detailed accounts of police arresting and in some cases allegedly roughing up journalists during the demonstrations.
After a Nov. 23 meeting between representatives of several of those news outlets and NYPD brass, Police Comissioner Ray Kelly sent a memo last week to officers "ordering them," as the Associated Press put it, "not to unreasonably interfere with media access during news coverage and warning those who do will be subject to disciplinary action."
Meg Robertson, who works for MSNBC, said unreasonable interference is exactly what she found when she sought to cover the protest near the corner of 53rd Street and 7th Avenue, where demonstrators had been corraled into a "free-speech zone," demarcated by police barricades, near the Obama event.
"I identified myself to a number of NYPD as a member of the press and they would not let me close to the penned in area," she wrote to Capital in an email account of the events last night.
"I was told to stay in Maison restaurant or exit the restaurant to be escorted outside security fencing on Broadway and 53rd. NYPD outside of Maison refused to escort me to the street to speak with anyone from NYPD Community Relations, even after I identified myself as a member of the media."
After a certain point, no one aside from the roughly 50 protesters confined within the pen's boundaries was being let in, according to several people who were present; nor were any of the assembled demonstrators, to some of their dismay, being let out, witnesses said. The street was likewise blocked off to foot traffic.
When Josh Harkinson, a New York-based staff writer for Mother Jones, showed up around 9:30 and identified himself to police as a journalist, he was told to leave the area, he said.
Later, he was able to sneak past police and gain access to the protesters along with another journalist, Andrew Katz, who reports for The Brooklyn Ink, a local website produced by Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.
Harkinson said he again identified himself as a journalist and started interviewing protesters from a spot in front of the barricade. That's when an officer grabbed him and physically escorted him away from the scene, he said.
"It wasn't violent, but he pushed me out," Harkinson said.
Katz was standing nearby.
"One officer actually said I could go into the kettle where the protesters were, but [another] officer grabbed my arm, and then [Harkinson], and said we had to leave the area," Katz told Capital when we reached him shortly after the confrontation.
"Three officers," Katz continued, "including a female officer who gripped her arm around my hip, escorted us a block down to 52nd Street behind a set of barricades. As that was happening, Josh was filming and we both took turns asking the officers why this was happening. They barely spoke but the female officer kept saying she already answered my questions before, which she did not."
Reached for comment via email late last night, Browne, the NYPD's spokesman, wrote only: "Not so."
According to the A.P., Kelly's memo "makes clear that journalists are entitled to cross police and fire lines, unless it is unsafe or a live crime scene, and officers have a duty to provide access and information to the extent they can."
The memo reads, in part: "Supervisors may restrict access to an incident scene only in those exceptional circumstances where it is absolutely necessary for law enforcement or public order purposes."
Browne did not respond to questions about why members of the press were restricted from the area where the protesters had been confined or whether the scenarios described by the reporters we spoke with fell into the "unreasonable" category specified in Kelly's memo.
Harkinson believes that they did.
"I made it clear I just wanted to interview people," he said. "I wasn't causing a disturbance. So yes, it struck me as unreasonable."