By Hillel Aron
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|Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter|
One federal lawsuit was filed Monday, and more may follow, charging that police interfered with the media covering convention-week protests. The ACLU sued on behalf of five plaintiffs who say that the LAPD targeted reporters and photographers covering a post-concert fracas August 14 outside Staples Center.
The complaint, says ACLU attorney Michael Small, focuses only on incidents in which the LAPD “deliberately targeted members of the media, clubbing and shooting them.” The complaint does not include encounters where journalists may have been accidentally hit in a crowd.
“This was a critical test to see whether a discredited police department could discharge its duties without violating individuals’ civil rights,” Small said. “The department failed . . . and then turned on those who were documenting that failure.” The complaint, which seeks damages for physical and emotional distress, also aims to require the LAPD to institute new policies protecting demonstration coverage.
Other media organizations, including the Associated Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Hearst Newspapers, are not part of the lawsuit but plan to write letters protesting the abuse their employees faced.
LAPD spokesman David Kalish said complaints about the police breaking up the crowd after the concert by Rage Against the Machine are without merit. “It would be ludicrous to imagine the LAPD would target members of the media. However, during the incident following the rock concert, it may be possible that media who were in the group were inconvenienced.”
Plaintiffs include consumer advocate David Horowitz, photographer Al Crespo, and three freelancers working with network news crews. Several other assaulted journalists are consulting with their employers and unions before deciding whether to join the ACLU suit, take separate action or drop the matter.
Horowitz wandered into trouble en route from Staples Center to a parking lot, carrying a video camera and audio gear after a day of interviewing delegates. It was his bad luck to arrive at Olympic and Figueroa just as protesters and concertgoers were trying to leave the intersection and police decided to forcefully break up the crowd. As mounted officers moved in, said Horowitz, he ran to what he thought was a safe spot and pulled out a small digital video camera to record the action.
As Horowitz recounts events on his www.fightback.comWeb site, though his press pass was clearly visible, an officer “came at me with a baton, and shouted, ‘Move! Move, or else!’ I turned, and another officer swung at me with his baton, while the second officer knocked me down and kicked the camera out of my hand. I shouted, ‘I’m press, I’m press! Please stop!’ Then a third officer kicked my briefcase into a nearby wall as rubber-bullet shots crackled like firecrackers around me.”
It was almost three hours before Horowitz was readmitted to the area to recover the briefcase. While his day’s notes were still inside, his 35mm camera and the shot roll of film it contained were missing. Horowitz, who describes his long relationship with the LAPD as excellent, found its Monday-night actions a shock: “The police attacked the crowd with such ferocity that it reminded me of disturbances I covered in war-time Saigon, where demonstrators were shot by overzealous police trying to control the crowd and their public image,” he wrote.
Miami TV-commercial producer Al Crespo came to L.A. to get shots for a photojournalism project on protests. Monday night he got at least three shots — rubber bullets to the shoulder, ankle and temple fired at close range, seconds after he snapped pictures of an officer firing at individuals on a roof where a radio team had been broadcasting. “There’s clear time on both sides to recognize who we are, who the police are and who the press is. And you know, we are supposed to have a white flag,” Crespo said. “I was in Kosovo last year, you know, and I didn’t get shot there. I got shot in Los Angeles.” According to the ACLU complaint, the nearest protesters were 20 feet away from Crespo when he was fired upon.
Audio engineer Greg Rothschild and cameraman Kevin Graf, working freelance Monday for an ABC news crew, were walking backward up Olympic while recording police activity. Suddenly, says the complaint, officers started shooting at the crew, striking Rothschild six times and Graf in 10 places, including twice in the head.
At about the same time, cameraman Jeffrey Kleinman was filming events in the Figueroa-Olympic intersection for NBC from atop a short ladder. After a volley of rubber bullets was fired toward the crowd, one officer in riot gear, the suit asserts, kicked the ladder, shouted “Move!” and hit Kleinman in the chest with a baton, knocking him to the ground.
“It was a really shocking and, I think, troubling display of excessive force by police,” said ACLU spokesman Christopher Calhoun.
Other reporters incurred injuries during the protest coverage, but at this time are not part of any lawsuits. Houston Chronicle reporter Lisa Teachey said, “I wouldn’t want to cover the cops in your city.” A veteran of six years on the police beat, Teachey was trying to re-enter the Staples area as the 15 minutes for clearing the “illegal assembly” zone elapsed. She was told by officers inside the security fence that they couldn’t open the gate until all protesters had left, but that her group of about 20 journalists and delegates should just crouch down and wait. However, while huddled in a corner, the group was rushed by mounted officers.