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Reporter’s notebook: My Garner protest arrest and NYPD’s changing tactics

Back it up: An officer and a protester face off after cops cleared Seventh Avenue at 42nd Street in Manhattan during the Eric Garner protests on Dec. 4.
The Brooklyn Paper
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I spent a night in jail for doing my job.

In the past two weeks protests have erupted in New York and across the country in response to the decisions by two grand juries to not indict two white police officers in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and I have spent several long nights walking for miles in demonstrations, filing live updates on Twitter, and writing reports for this paper.

On Nov. 25, the night after a Ferguson, Missouri grand jury declined to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Brown, a cop hit me with his baton as officers moved to barricade the Manhattan entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge. But I didn’t see anything like the chaos that would break out nine days later.

On Dec. 4, the second night of protests following the Eric Garner grand jury decision, I followed one of several nebulous crowds of activists as it pin-balled around Manhattan and eventually made its way uptown toward Times Square. There was the occasional tense moment between protesters and police, such as when someone broke the window of a Volkswagen trapped inside the march and officers rushed to make a perimeter around the vehicle. In that shuffle, one cop shoved me, and when I told him I was a reporter he retorted, “Congratula­tions.”

But I saw no arrests for most of the night.

It wasn’t until after a “die-in” in Herald Square — during which demonstrators laid down for 11 minutes of silence to mark the 11 times Eric Garner said “I can’t breathe” as he died — that lines of police began appearing clad in helmets and carrying batons, with bundles of plastic handcuffs hanging from their belts.

The procession continued on to Times Square, and there, tensions exploded.

As the first marchers arrived at 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, with about 600 people in tow, something snapped — a fellow reporter later told me someone punched a police sergeant in the face but I have not been able to confirm that — and the delicate dance that police and protesters had been performing all night broke down. Officers had formed a line across Seventh and, as the human river of demonstrators began flowing against the dam, the officers pushed back, forcibly advancing, and grabbing people out of the crowd as they went.

Some protesters attempted to stand their ground and others fell back, creating a churn that I did my best to avoid getting sucked into as I shot photos and dashed off tweets. Demonstrators cursed the cops and at least one empty Gatorade bottle flew into the scrum of police.

In the tumult, one officer fixed his gaze on me as I lined up a shot with my phone, and smacked it out of my hand. I managed to save the phone from being stomped.

“We have enough officers to arrest every one of you,” a voice on a bullhorn said, demanding that protesters clear the street.

With a wall of officers in front of me and demonstrators around me on all sides, there was nowhere for me to go.

A photo shot by a New York Times photographer around that time shows me tapping out a message at the edge of a group of people who are screaming at the line of blue uniforms.

My last tweet as a free man read “Arrests seem random.”

About that time, one officer pointed at me from five feet away and he and a partner grabbed me by the strap of my bag, yanking me out of the crowd.

As they handcuffed me, I tried to remain calm and identify myself as a reporter, as I had been doing to any officer I got close to since the confrontation began.

“Too late,” one of the officers said.

The 24 or so other arrestees and I waited for about 20 minutes before boarding Department of Corrections buses. Then we waited some more. My hands went totally numb in the plastic zip-tie cuffs as the bus sat and police loaded additional prisoners into nearby buses and vans. All of my bus-mates and I complained that the cuffs were too tight, but officers said they did not have the tool to loosen them, and that they couldn’t cut them off until we were booked.

Eventually, we made the trip to One Police Plaza, where cops processed us alongside protesters picked up at locations throughout the city.

I spent the next four hours or so in a holding pen with about 60 prisoners, all arrested at the demonstrations. I was the only reporter.

Spirits, for the most part, remained high, particularly among an organized group that had intentionally been arrested as part of a sit-in on the Manhattan Bridge. Every time a new arrival came through the door, the whole cell burst into applause, and the cheers were even heartier as people began to be freed one by one. But as the night wore on, the adrenaline wore off, and boredom set in. When I got back home to Greenpoint at 6 am I wanted to kiss the ground.

Upon arriving back at the office that morning, I looked up my charges: Section 240.20(5) and (6). Disorderly conduct, obstructing vehicular or pedestrian traffic, and congregating with other persons in a public place and refusing to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse.

I have a court hearing set for Feb. 2. I plan to plead not guilty.

Covering the protests, and getting arrested, has given me a ground-level perspective on how police are handling them.

The demonstrators involved in the Eric Garner marches and their tactics were largely the same as the previous week’s Ferguson protests. All the un-permitted, nighttime protests involved marching against traffic, blocking highways, and taking over the roadways of major bridges.

When the first wave of outraged New Yorkers hit the street following the non-indictment in Brown’s death, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton indicated that the handling of demonstrations would remain hands-off “as long as they remain nonviolent, and as long as they don’t engage in issues that cause fear or create vandalism.”

But from the start of the Garner protests, the policing has been more aggressive. On the first night, Dec. 3, officers immediately moved to push the march I was following out of the street, driving their motorized scooters directly at demonstrators and reporters without slowing. I don’t know if that response is because New York cops feel more protective of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Garner by choking him and holding him down, than they do Darren Wilson. It may be that Bratton’s directives have changed as the protests have continued to snarl traffic and divert police resources, going into a third week now.

One rank-and-file officer I spoke to during my night at One Police Plaza said arresting protesters is a matter of showing who is in charge.

“If you let people get away with a little bit they’ll try to get away with more,” he said. “We need to regain control.

Reach reporter Noah Hurowitz at nhurowitz@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–4505. Follow him on Twitter @noahhurowitz
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018: Charging information added. Clarity about how Pantaleo killed Garner added.
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Reader feedback

Craig from Ditmas Park says:
Give people their constitutionally-protected freedom of the press and all of a sudden they want a constitutionally-protected right to protest! Sheesh, some people sure ask for a lot!

(And: citizens protesting is a matter of showing the police and government who is in charge, actually)
Dec. 9, 2014, 2:32 pm
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
"I told him I was a reporter he retorted, “Congratulations.”

Now he can add stooge to his resume.
Dec. 9, 2014, 2:51 pm
Ace from New Utrecht says:
What were you charged with?
Dec. 9, 2014, 3:10 pm
Nathan Tempey (Brooklyn Paper) says:
Fair question, Ace. I've added the charging information.
Dec. 9, 2014, 3:18 pm
DMC from PArk Slope says:
So in retro the police doing THEIR job are wrong
Irony in that? SMH Half of them do not knwo what they are protesting for anyway too dumb
Dec. 9, 2014, 4:36 pm
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
Learn to read.

Pantaleo did not "choke" Garner to death.

You are making things up.

Report the truth, not what you want to be the truth.

The Brooklyn Paper is without a competent editor to allow a line like that.
Dec. 9, 2014, 6:36 pm
Nathan Tempey (Brooklyn Paper) says:
Rufus,

The coroner's report says that Garner died from compression of his neck and his chest. So if you want to get technical, Pantaleo choked Garner and held him down, killing him.
Dec. 9, 2014, 7:04 pm
Common Cents from Crown Heights says:
You now have a record for exercising your rights... Sounds about right in a police state. On the bright side at least they didn't charge you with terrorism charges...
Dec. 9, 2014, 7:53 pm
ty from pps says:
Rufus is so adorable. It's too bad he's so skilled at being so righteously ignorant!
Dec. 9, 2014, 8:23 pm
Epiphany from Ex-Brooklyn says:
Are you surprised that you were detained by Wall Street's standing army? Don't forget all the Iroquois in prison for way more than four hours for selling cigarettes tax free. The trading post of New York City is breast-fed by Wall Street money and needs brutal cops to keep the bottle filled with high quality formula. When you mess with their money (or defy them), you are going to get a billy club to the head. So what's the big surprise? They don't call it The Empire State for nothing!
Dec. 9, 2014, 8:24 pm
Charles from Bklyn says:
Good report. The police should not arrest journalists w/ proper identification. Although the reporter, by his presence inherent in the job, breached the violation code (non-criminal offense), respect of thr 1st Amendment demands no arrest. Practically speaking, the police department would present far better in this article if they did.

Support for the police and seeking justice should be the same.
Dec. 9, 2014, 9:29 pm
John from Sunset Park says:
Well you did get an insiders view.

Sue the NYPD and this will be the best paying assignment youve ever had.
Dec. 9, 2014, 10:47 pm
cloud from sky says:
Sounds like your treatment was pretty civil, compared to critical mass during the republican convention.

Note: If someone you know disappears into police custody under such circumstances for a period of time, it's futile to report them missing : /
Dec. 9, 2014, 11:11 pm
da editah says:
To be treated like press, you need to have NYPD-issued credentials and need to be wearing them prominently. (Not to mention that working press still cannot hinder the police from doing their jobs.) Mr. Hurowitz does not say in this or the previous article that he met the preceding requirements, only that he declared himself a reporter. The NYT photograph that is linked to does not show Mr. Hurowitz wearing press credentials. I call bulls#it on this.
Dec. 10, 2014, 10:56 am
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
It's ok - he thinks compression of the chest is choking.

Maybe he can get a job at Rolling Stone - I think they are going to have an opening soon.

Possesion of a Press Pass, that belongs to the Police Department, not you, does not prevent you from being arrested.
Dec. 10, 2014, 1:49 pm
Nathan Tempey (Brooklyn Paper) says:
Rufus, I've thought about, and in the interest of accuracy, I've updated the story to reflect exactly how Pantaleo killed Garner.

Editah, Noah has been open about his press credential status, as you point out. Occupy Wall Street showed that having the NYPD card you're referring to is not a silver bullet that enables reporters to do their jobs unmolested all the time, though it can help. But I'm not sure what in particular you are objecting to about Noah's account.
Dec. 10, 2014, 5:44 pm
da editah says:
Nathan, I thought I was clear. In neither of Noah's accounts does he say he was wearing his press credential and the photograph does not show him doing so. People cannot just tell cops, "I'm a reporter," and expect to be treated like one. (You are correct, however, that credentials are not a silver bullet.)
Dec. 17, 2014, 12:01 pm

Comments closed.

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