Around 800 people were arrested during the four day Republican National Convention earlier this month. Dozens were reporters, and one was Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, who argues the arrests have a chilling effect on journalists.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Most of us who watched the Republican National Convention at home earlier this month believe we saw it. We saw the calls for public service and patriotism, the passionate endorsements of McCain’s former opponents, the triumphant unveiling of the vice-presidential nominee.
We probably didn't see what was going on outside the convention in the streets of St. Paul, but that too was an important story - thousands of protestors, a few intent on violence, but most gathered peacefully, swept up and corralled, some 800 arrested, including reporters, mostly of the alternative media, charged simply for being on the scene.
Other groups, notably the I-Witness Video Collective, famous for the evidence it gathered of police misconduct during the RNC in New York four years ago, were preemptively detained for a few hours at their residence.
Amy Goodman, host of the radio and TV program Democracy Now! and two of her producers were among those reporters arrested on the street. After much public protest, the charges against them were dropped. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said, quote, “This decision reflects the values we have in St. Paul to protect and promote our First Amendment rights to freedom of the press.”
But Goodman says she saw little sign of those values when word reached her inside the convention hall that two of her crew had been arrested, one of them bloodied by police.
AMY GOODMAN: So I race from the convention floor - you know, my credentials are dangling from my neck – with our cameramen, and we're racing to Seventh and Jackson in St. Paul. And as I get there, the riot police are all lined up. It’s a fully contained area, at this point.
So I just come up to them and I immediately say, hey, I'm a credentialed journalist, and can I speak to your commanding officer? Two of our producers, who are also credentialed, are inside, and I want them released.
And, I mean, within seconds they'd ripped me through the line. They were twisting my arms behind my back. They slapped those rigid plastic handcuffs on that dig into your wrists. They put me up against the wall and they pushed me on the ground.
And I was continuing to say, you can see I'm a credentialed reporter. I need to see my producers, ‘cause I had heard they were hurt. I mean, I've got the highest security credentials. I can be next to presidents, vice-presidents, on the convention floor, senators, Congress members, whereupon the Secret Service came over and ripped the credentials from around my neck. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The city attorney said that just because charges aren't pursued doesn't mean that the arrest was improper. And he went on to say it’s an officer’s responsibility to protect public safety and control the scene; prosecutors decide whether charges are warranted. Do you have a problem with that general proposition? AMY GOODMAN: All I can say is it was very clear who we were. This had nothing to do with security. And, I mean, the arrest of Nicole Salazar, one of our producers, you know, the police came at her - the riot police - very quickly. She’s in a parking lot so she’s trapped by the parked cars. She’s holding up her credential with one hand and she’s holding her camera with the other. They're shouting, face on the ground, face on the ground! [SOUND OF SHOUTING/SEVERAL AT ONCE] And she’s saying press, press. MAN: Get down on your face! On your face! [SOUND OF SHOUTING CROWD/SCREAMING] AMY GOODMAN: They've got their knee or boot in her back. Another is pulling on her leg, but her face is on the ground. They bloody her face. And what’s one of the first things they do? They pull the battery out of her camera. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why do you think it got that ugly? AMY GOODMAN: I think that’s a good question to put to the police. It’s the question I put to the police on the morning after our arrest. What are you telling your police officers to do? How are you expecting that we will operate?
I mean, we are talking about a situation where with the arrests, the beating, the pepper spraying of journalists, you had a lot of journalists who were not going to go out there. I mean, let's face it.
Let's say your editor wants you to cover what’s going on in the convention, and you want to go outside ‘cause you see there are thousands of people that are out there, and maybe you could do that and then run in and do the job that they asked you to do, and maybe you could even get some of that into your story.
You’re not going to risk it if you could be arrested [LAUGHS] if you go outside and then you’re not there to do what your editor wanted you to do. It has a chilling effect. It prevents journalists from doing their job but it also really hurts the public. Reporters have to be able to put things on the record without getting a record. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you think of the mainstream media’s coverage of this protest and of street protests, in general? AMY GOODMAN: Well, after the arrest, I went into the convention center ‘cause I was being interviewed by different media, and I was standing next to an NBC reporter who was doing some of his standups, and he was listening to my description.
He came over, he said, I don't understand how come I wasn't arrested if you've been arrested. So I said, oh, were you covering the protests? And he said, well, no. And I said, well [LAUGHS], it’s sort of like Woody Allen’s line, 90 percent of life is just showing up. I wasn't being arrested in the skyboxes either [LAUGHS], or the convention floor. BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the other hand, is every march, is every protest a story that needs a full media complement? These are, in effect, designed to attract media attention. Do the media have to take the bait? AMY GOODMAN: I think it’s our job to cover all of it. I mean, let's talk about who was out in the streets. It was antiwar voices, those who are opposed to torture. And I would say that those who are opposed to war and torture are not a fringe minority or not a silent majority, but the silenced majority, silenced by the corporate media. BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of people think that there’s an active conspiracy afoot to close those voices out, that there are literally meetings with journalists and publishers in which they are instructed not to include those voices. I have never heard of any such meetings. AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting. When we were out covering the protests in the streets of Seattle in 1999, the Battle of Seattle, one of the local networks put out a memo to the people who worked there that they were not to cover people who engaged in civil disobedience.
If that philosophy were used 40, 45 years ago, we wouldn't even know Dr. Martin Luther King’s name. It’s not so much telling you, you can't do this. It’s a kind of self-censorship that goes on. It’s much more a mindset. It’s the worlds people come out of and it’s the worlds they're trying to protect and the worlds they think are not important. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Given what went on in St. Paul, given what’s gone on at previous conventions, are there some preemptive acts that you can take in order to cover the next ones? AMY GOODMAN: Well, wear a gasmask? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amy, thank you very much. AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman is the coauthor, with David Goodman, of Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times.