Volume 21, Number 21 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Oct. 3 - Oct. 9, 2008

Downtown Express photo by Nick Brooks

Police arresting a protester at the Republican National Convention.

Shot by police at the R.N.C. and now back to jail?

By Lincoln Anderson

Last month, Jason Nicholas — writing as Nick Brooks, the name he sometimes goes by as a freelance photographer — wrote an action-packed account in Downtown Express of his being arrested while covering anarchists protesters’ mayhem at the Republican National Convention. The next day he turned himself in to his parole officer.

Nicholas — whose camera was nailed by a crowd-control round before he was knocked down, roughed up and cuffed — was one of 42 journalists reported arrested in St. Paul.

But the story didn’t end there for Nicholas.

Because he is on parole, he is not supposed to leave New York State without first obtaining a travel permit from his parole officer. Because he didn’t have a permit, he now faces going back to jail for a year.

When he was 19, Nicholas shot a man in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., with whom he was having a feud.

“None of us were good guys,” he said last year, explaining that he had feared the other man was reaching for a gun.

Convicted of manslaughter, Nicholas, 38, served more than 12 years in jail. While behind bars, he got a two-year associate’s degree, then, upon his release in 2003, attended New York University for four years, graduating with a bachelor’s degree. He found a calling in photography, working as a freelancer for the New York Post, as well as The Villager and Downtown Express for the past year and a half.

Wylie Stecklow, his pro-bono attorney, was at the R.N.C. monitoring the activities of the Glass Bead Collective, an artistic and political video group, when he offered to take Nicholas’s case. He said to send Nicholas back to jail now would be a mistake, interrupting his rehabilitation, which has been going well. Legally, though, he admitted, the deck appears stacked against Nicholas.

“Because of what he was convicted on, he’s considered a level-one parolee,” Stecklow said. If found guilty or if he admits guilt, Nicholas would likely serve another 12 months, according to the attorney.

Instead of returning Nicholas to prison, Stecklow said he should be held up as a role model to other ex-convicts trying to get their lives on track.

“This guy is a success story for rehabilitation,” he said. “We have a very high rate of recidivism. There’s a circular path, in and out of jail. He’s now recognized as a very competent photographer. He’s doing well with it. If we put him back in jail, he now loses his job, he loses his apartment. …”

Nicholas’s arrest at the R.N.C. was the end of a trip that first saw him follow the travels of Clark, a graffitist who stencils the word “VOTE,” around the country, as well as cover the Democratic National Convention.

As for why Nicholas didn’t obtain a travel permit, Stecklow said the photographer’s regular parole officer, with whom he had formed a good relationship over the years, left, only to be replaced by a woman who was going on maternity leave. So Nicholas just took off without the permit.

“The system is not set up to make getting a travel pass easy,” Stecklow said.

Nicholas is currently being held at The Tombs — a.k.a. the Manhattan Detention Center in Lower Manhattan. A judge denied Stecklow’s request to allow him out on bail.

At this point, Stecklow feels, Nicholas should just get off with time served.

“He’s been in jail now over a week,” he said, speaking two weeks ago. “Isn’t that enough? How much more of his life do we need to take away from him?”

Todd Maisel, vice president of the New York Press Photographers Association, however, said Nicholas has only himself to blame for his predicament. Though he has written a letter in his support.

“He’s screwed. He’s screwed,” Maisel said. “As much as we warned him, he violated his parole, just by leaving the state — much less being arrested and charged, and having the Secret Service call his employer [the Post]. Everybody warned him: He had a target on his back.”

Maisel said Nicholas had a “target on his back” in New York, too.

The photographer ran afoul of the New York Police Department last year when he was arrested at two crime scenes. First, he got in a verbal dispute with a lieutenant who was ordering him to back away from the site of a pipe-bomb explosion in Chelsea. Maisel said Nicholas got to the scene late and “wanted the shot everyone else had. … And he’s not a standoffish person.” A few days later, officers arrested him for trespassing on a Bronx rooftop as he was trying to photograph police responding to a shooting.

“I’d say a penalty of some sort is probably justified, but 14 months?” Maisel said. “He’s not a danger. He’s not going to harm people. He’s just caught up in it. And I understand, because I am, too: the adrenaline, the attempt to affect society.”

If Nicholas wants to keep photographing, though, Maisel had a few words of advice: “Keep your mouth shut, and stay away from police.”

Nicholas called Downtown Express briefly from The Tombs last week, only having a few allotted minutes to spend on the phone.

“They’ve repeatedly denied my request for a travel permit over the years,” he said. “I didn’t want to miss out on this moment to record history. I wanted to document the country on the eve of this potential turning point. I wanted to show everyone that I have come into my own as a photographer. If I hadn’t been arrested in St. Paul, parole never would have found out that I had left the state. And it happened due to what I feel was police misconduct.”

Nicholas said his senior parole officer told him she would never have given him a travel permit.

“So, I sleep better at night knowing I did what I did,” he said. “I have my record of success as a free man. I’ve proven my worth to society.”

 




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