Volume 21, Number 19 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Sept. 12 -18, 2008

Downtown Express photo by Nick Brooks

A St. Paul police officer used mace as he arrested a protester outside of the Republican National Convention last week.

Shot by police, bashed by Palin

By Nick Brooks

I never saw the policeman that shot me. Neither did I feel the hit directly. What I felt were the pieces of my camera that exploded in my face when the 40-millimeter, crowd-control round struck it.

I am a freelance photojournalist. Last Monday, I was in St. Paul, Minn., covering the Republican National Convention for Atlas Press Photo, an international photo agency. Through Atlas, I was credentialed to cover the proceedings from inside the convention hall. But Monday was the “Day of Action,” as various protest groups called it, and I, along with most of the media assembled in St. Paul, felt that the true newsworthy events of the day would occur not inside the convention hall, but on the streets outside of it.

So, as the sun rose, I found myself on the calm, clean streets of what seemed to me to be one of the more welcoming of the cluster of midsized cities that dot the center of the country. Around 10 o’clock the action began. A car was parked in the middle of an intersection with people chained inside, forming a blockade. Nearby, another group sat down on an interstate off-ramp and chained their arms together inside PVC piping, forming another blockade. Blocks away from this scene, police detained 20 or 30 masked, black-clothed protesters.

Then the real action began. A Black Bloc — as such loose assemblages of protesting anarchists are called — of roughly 500 people began running through the streets of downtown St. Paul doing what anarchists do. They smashed windows of all kinds, they took 4-pound hammers to police cars, they rolled heavy objects into the street to slow down police, they threw smoke bombs and blockbusters (M-80 firecrackers), they freed fellow black-clad travelers from the hands of police. They yelled, they chanted: “Whose streets? Our [explitive] streets!” Then, when cops closed in, they ran.

Pause. ...

The streets were calm for a moment, as both protesters and police caught their collective breath and regrouped. I went to a coffee shop to edit and transmit the photos I had shot. When my task was complete, back to the battlefield I went. 

The streets that had been riotous in the morning were calmer in the afternoon. Instead of smashing windows and blocking intersections, the group I encountered simply marched around shouting slogans. No property was damaged, and no streets were blockaded. It was so tame, in fact, that I wanted to leave and find some more-animated anarchists. But when I and another photographer tried to walk away, a line of riot policemen appeared. We tried to let them pass us and pursue the group, but their leader commanded us to move forward. 

A minute later, the shooting started. The crowd, numbering roughly 100, tried to turn a corner. When they did, they came face to face with police in body armor on horseback and a tactical team firing riot guns at them. “BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!” the guns sounded, as the horses charged the scattering crowd. From across the street, I watched as the police advanced, firing their 40-millimeter riot guns at will. Some people, blinded by tear gas or hit by the projectiles, stumbled and fell into police custody. Others continued running, up to the next corner and down the block toward a parking lot.

I followed, capturing images of detained protesters and police as I moved. I was not shot at, let alone told to leave or threatened with arrest as I moved and took pictures. My press credentials swayed from my neck as I moved, and the officers seemed to recognize the fact that I was a working, professional journalist, as opposed to
some drama junkie with a camera. They let me do my job, and I thanked them for letting me do it whenever they were close enough to hear. 

Then a skirmish line of roughly 100 riot police charged the remainder of the crowd, which they had trapped in a parking lot bounded by the walls of three buildings. Knowing to stay out of their way as they worked, I glued myself to the side of one of the buildings and shot. A group of officers had just taken down a protester, with one of the officers driving his billy club between the butt cheeks
of the young man, forcing him facedown into the ground. I was switching cameras, going from the one with the long lens to the one with the short lens, when it happened.

The camera exploded in my face and I was trying to figure out exactly what happened, when a group of the black-clad cops ran at me from all directions, trapping me against the wall. Using their sticks, they pushed me to the ground where, with their boots, they pinned me. One cop took his stick and poked me repeatedly in the genitals. Another punched me in the face. The entire time I was yelling “Press! Press! Press!” but it didn’t stop them. They flipped me over, and handcuffed me behind my back so tight that my hands were numb in minutes.

I tasted blood in my mouth, and spit it out.

I kept repeating the word “Press! Press! Press!” over and over. Finally, a Secret Service agent appeared and ripped the credentials from my neck. He took my phone, called my employers and verified that I was, in fact, a professional press photographer. Then he left, leaving me in the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. Taken to jail, I again identified myself as credentialed press photographer, but all jail officials did was show me to a cell.

Two days later, I was released on $300 bail, and given a summons charging me with unlawful assembly and interfering with legal process. When I left the jail I
met two other press photographers who had been
arrested in the parking lot with me. One of them was Matt Rourke, of the Associated Press, the other was Nathan Weber, a freelancer for the Chicago Tribune. Rourke had been near me when I was being arrested, and had been released without charge later that night. Weber had run when he saw what was happening, only to be chased down and beaten by a group of plainclothes cops.

That night, Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin gave a speech, in part, attacking the media. I couldn’t help but recall my treatment and think that, as Republicans were rhetorically bashing the press inside the convention hall, their minions were literally beating the press on the streets outside.

Nick Brooks is a freelance photographer who frequently works for Downtown Express.




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