Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Journalists Under Arrest

According to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and spokesmen for the Bloomberg administration, the reporters arrested at the breakup of Occupied Wall Street and ensuing protests in lower Manhattan were arrested for their own safety. Or because they were trespassing on private property. Or because they had no right to be at the scene of an ongoing police operation. Hogwash. Reporters have been visiting crime scenes and accompanying police officers on dangerous and not so dangerous operations since the nineteenth century. The only conclusion I can come to is that the NYPD preferred to do its work in the dark, without independent observers. And that speaks badly for the NYPD.

The press passes that reporters carry--which are issued by the police department--clearly state that they permit the bearer to cross police lines in pursuit of a story. The idea behind the practice dates to 1836, when the newspaper editor James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald was admitted to a downtown brothel that was the scene of the murder of one Helen Jewett. As Bennett was admitted to the premises while others were kept outside, the story goes, a guard explained, "He is an editor--he is on public duty."

The notion of journalists as the eyes and ears of the public is thus an old one in New York City. It's an ideal worth taking seriously because police officers, like elected officials, act in the name of the public. If we don't have a chance to observe them in action through the eyes of reporters, then we are blinded to what is being done in the name of our city. And a blind democracy is not a healthy democracy.

Zuccotti Park may be spic and span, but something smells when the NYPD insists on arresting journalists who want to watch cops make arrests.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Order Reigns on Wall Street

I arrived at Zuccotti Park today around 1 pm, too late to have seen the eviction in the early morning hours. I did, however, see plenty of examples of how NYPD policing strategies raise tension and curb dissent. I also got a chance to think about how the Occupy movement can grow from this latest turn of events.

Along Broadway at the eastern edge of the park, around 1 pm today, the police had demonstrators and pedestrians squeezed between metal police barriers on the park side and a double line of police officers on the Broadway side. On the sidewalk, that made passing by the park crowded and at times tense.

For me, it was one more example of a problem that dates back to the Giuliani years: the practice of treating public assembly as a problem to be controlled. In the end, that makes for demonstrations hemmed into holding pens patrolled by lines of grim looking cops. On both the police and demonstrators' sides, this was not a situation conceived to cool down hotheads.

I also want to note that the Times reported that reporters were barred from the park when the evictions took place. As was noted in "Police Clear Zuccotti Park..."

Reporters in the park were forced to leave. Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said it was for their safety. But many journalists said that they had been prevented from seeing the police take action in the park, and that they had been roughly handled by officers. Mr. Browne said television camera trucks on Church Street, along the park’s western border, were able to capture images.

That's more proof, if you need any, that the fate of honest and independent journalism is inextricably linked to other freedoms like the right to protest. The First Amendment, as my late friend Jim Carey liked to point out, is more than a guarantee of freedom for journalists: it is an exhortation to gather and speak freely in a democratic way of life.

In the long run, I've always thought that the Occupy movement should value a continued presence in the park over holding turf for 24 hours around the clock. Equally important, it has to make some demands or make itself the street protest division of a movement that raises coherent demands of its own to get us out of this economic crisis.

In the long run, OWS lost to the cops last night and the right to demonstrate took another beating. In the long run, however, this can become a chance to regroup and come back fighting for a more just future.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Paddling the Bronx River

The wealth of outdoor adventures to be found within the borders of New York City always astounds me, from bouldering in Central Park to mountain biking in Highbridge Park to beach combing at Jamaica Bay. But nothing matches the autumn canoe trip that I took last week under sunny skies and luminous fall foliage on the Bronx River.

To dedicate the Thain Family Forest, a rare old-growth forest that has been given new pathways and environmentally educational signage, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx held a festival with walks, poetry, music and more.

For me and my wife, the best part of the festival was a short canoe trip on the Bronx River run by the Bronx River Alliance. The Alliance has done great work to clean up the river and make it a setting for hikes, canoe trips, and communing with nature. Last Sunday, they brought canoes to the river and we had a great time paddling New York City's only true freshwater river. (The Hudson is a salt water estuary and the East River is a tidal strait.)

Afloat on the Bronx River, all we could see were forests, the shoreline and sun-dappled waters. The distant hum of traffic and stray soda cans occasionally reminded us of the city around us, but most of the trip was a great escape from concrete and traffic.

Thanks to the good work of the Bronx River Alliance, there are all sorts of ways to enjoy the river. We'll be back.

The festival continues for the weekend of November 12-13. If you want to paddle, get there early. On the day of our visit, there were lots of eager canoeists waiting to get out on the water.

Photo by Clara Hemphill.