RNC policing: Would the real journalist please stand up?


A forum held by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in Minneapolis this week centered on the relationship between law enforcement and the media at the Republican National Convention (RNC) and indicated the extent to which journalism is evolving.

The event was organized in response to the predicament that numerous journos found themselves in while they covered the convention: By the Minnesota Independent’s count, nearly 50 journalists were arrested or detained by police at the RNC, including MnIndy’s Paul Demko, while more than 800 people were taken into custody.

St. Paul city officials announced last week that the city wouldn’t prosecute journalists facing “unlawful assembly” charges, but many still want to know why they ended up in plastic handcuffs in the first place, or what they could’ve done to prevent it. A couple reviews of RNC security efforts are being done in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but city officials say that police performance isn’t the focus.

The Uptake has video of the discussion here.

Not a witch hunt

Al Tompkins, a media expert who arrived from the Florida-based Poynter Institute, which trains journalists, moderated the talk, saying it would be a productive dialogue between representatives of the media and law enforcement and not a witch hunt. Still, emotions ran high. On hand to answer questions from Tompkins and attendees were St. Paul Deputy Mayor Ann Mulholland, KARE-11 photojournalist Jonathan Malat, St. Paul Assistant Police Chief Matt Bostrom and Pioneer Press reporter Mara Gottfried.

It started with a recap of the RNC’s events, featuring protest footage from Malat. Later, Malat made the point that he was herded onto the Marion Street bridge while trying to obey police officers’ dispersal order on the last night of the protests.

Assistant Police Chief Bostrom said protesters and journos had plenty of time to leave the scene. “If someone disobeys a lawful order, they shall be arrested,” he said, adding that it’s up to the individual officer’s discretion. He conceded that there may have been a gap in their planning because he and other law enforcement agencies didn’t anticipate the sheer number of people claiming to be media. In his 20-plus years of police work, he says he’s never encountered so many journalists involved in an hourslong criminal activity, as he put it. “What do you want us to do?” he asked the crowd.

Deputy Mayor Mulholland defended the police response to the RNC protests. Mayor Chris Coleman “believes that police did what they needed to do in the name of public safety.” When asked if it was legitimate for journalists to be on the scene, she answered, “I think the mayor ultimately believes that it is appropriate for journalists to be wherever people are gathered lawfully.” (Her statement was left hanging until someone referenced it later, saying that in order to continue covering an illegal activity, they would likely need to get farther away from the action, or run the risk of getting in the way.)

Further, “I think we have determined a special role for media to assure that members of the media have access and the information they need to tell a story. Having watched hours of footage, I’d be hard-pressed to think we didn’t give great access,” she said. But does that mean bloggers and traditional journalists should be lumped together as equals? “I don’t know who the journalist is … I think our approach was probably to treat everyone the same.”

Lawful journalists?

But the Associated Press’ David Pyle testified that not everyone was treated the same, not even within his news crew. Four AP staffers were detained, including one photographer who was forced to the ground and “roughed up” before being let go and another who was held for 10 hours. Coincidentally, it was one of their AP photos that the police used to ask for the public’s help in identifying the alleged anarchist who broke the Macy’s window during a protest. Pyle said he was relieved that police didn’t credit the AP. “We don’t want to be identified as an investigatory arm [of the police].”

Twin Cities attorney Mark Anfinson, who specializes in First Amendment law, said that when given the order to disperse, journalists “very much like covering a war, proceed with some risk. Here the risk is being arrested… It’s hard to see where the police violated rights as opposed to acting without a lot of tact or wisdom,” he said. “A lot of these charges were of this species, about failure to obey a lawful order… What’s a lawful order?”

Dave Aeikens, the national president of SPJ and editor of the St. Cloud Times, said he hopes that journalists and law enforcement officials can come to an understanding so arrests can be avoided in the future. While he said that SPJ prefers not to define who is a journalist, WCCO’s Jason DeRusha commented that he thought the whole reason for coming together was to find out who gets to be in the “in crowd.” Contrary to that, he said, independent media advocates seem to be arguing that journalists shouldn’t be afforded any special protections.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which maintained a hotline for journalists during the RNC, said from her Virginia office that she was prepared for some of the things that went wrong. “Sometimes you have to get arrested,” she said, in order to keep doing your job. But in certain cases, such as the scenario with the AP staffers, “That is inexcusable.”