On Saturday, OpEdNews.com reporter Cheryl Biren was arrested along with six protesters by Philadelphia police while taking photos of arrests of protesters against the Army Experience Center (AEC). She was rough-handled by an arresting officer, held in two different jails for a total of 14 hours, released onto the mean streets of Philly, and locked out of the police station, in the dark, at 5 AM without even the opportunity to first turn on her cell phone to call for a ride home.
Biren was with five other women, including Debra Sweet, head of worldcantwait.com, and Elaine Brower, of Military Families Speak Out, when put outside the jail. (Bowers is also an editor of OpEdNews.com.)
All six were charged with "criminal conspiracy" and "failure to disperse."
Here's what I witnessed:
The police were arresting six demonstrators. The demonstrators were peaceful and cooperating with the police. OpEdNews.com managing editor was on the scene, covering the event as a photographer. She had not carried signs, had not shouted with the protesters. She was there strictly as a journalist -- as the many police videos and photos will prove.
She was at the front of a group of other onlookers who were watching the police arrest the demonstrators who had separated themselves from the crowd. All of a sudden, one plain clothes police officer rushed forward and roughly grabbed Biren, as she was photographing the arrests, pulling her from the crowd and forcing her to the area where the protesters being arrested were standing. She protested that she was a reporter, a member of the press. I, as publisher of OpEdNews, reinforced her claim immediately, to no avail. She was put into temporary plastic handcuffs, which, she reports, were made so tight her wrist was injured.
A number of observers and legal consultants agreed that her use of a professional camera was probably a factor in her arrest. Biren thought fast and before the cuffs were placed on her she removed the chip storing the images from her camera and hid it in her bag so she still had the photos. They can be seen here.
Photo taken by journalist Cheryl Biren moments
before being arrested
Ironically, as a statement of solidarity with journalists such as Amy Goodman, arrested at the GOP convention, Biren co-authored, with a former Opednews.com editor, this article, on Sept. 3, 2008, OEN Condemns Police Action at the DNC and RNC, stating, "A free press where reporters can engage in their journalistic duties without threat of arrest must be respected. Take action."
OpEdNews managing editor, Cheryl Biren, on the scene in lower left, taking photos, of Elaine Bowers being arrested (image blurred). Biren can clearly be seen as part of a crowd of onlookers, not in the space police were clearing where arrests were taking place. No other onlookers were arrested. Photo by Rob Kall.
That started a 14-hour journey in a prisoner bus to two jails. During that time police lied to her and me about how long she would be in custody. Apparently, this is a common practice by the police, telling prisoners that they will be held a much longer time than actually happens.
Ultimately, six of the seven women were separated from the one man and taken to the main holding prison for Philadelphia and they were released at about 5:00 AM the next day -- 14 hours later. The male, seventh protester, who was not transferred to the center city Philly jail was released at 9:00 AM.
The good news is that the Army Experience Center closed for the day, on a Saturday at the Franklin Mills Mall. That made the protest a success. Local readers may want to consider boycotting the mall. The police used trespassing as their justification to arrest, when they announced that protesters must leave. Apparently, the charges were changed later.
The arraignment date for Biren and the five protesters is Sept. 23 at 1301 Filbert St. at 11:30 AM. Map: http://bit.ly/Arraignment
The story has received wide play in progressive venues, but could be covered a lot more.
The press should not be treated this way. Please do what you can to get this story out.
Call the mayor of Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter. Call the Philadelphia District Attorney's office. It is a frightening situation when the press can't cover arrests of peaceful protesters when they are turned into political prisoners. The police should be disciplined for their actions.
Considering Freedom of the Press
Shortly before the arrests began, the police announced that they would be making arrests if people did not leave. A crew from PBS's Frontline left the area immediately. This made it impossible for them to document the police making the arrests. To my knowledge, Biren was the only member of the press who lingered, with a large crowd, who stayed to document the arrests. This is an essential role for the media -- one which the mainstream media on-site chose not to pursue.
The police could have arrested dozens of additional people who were standing next to or very near Biren. All of those people were acting in a very different way from the protesters in the area where arrests were taking place. They were simply observing the arrests. The way Biren was pulled from the crowd and moved to the area where the arrests were being made suggests that the police wanted to "place" her.
The fact that no other observers were arrested, that instead they were "managed" by the some 80 police at the mall, suggests that this was an intentional selective effort to muzzle the press. Shame on the city of Philadelphia. Shame on the District Attorney's office for allowing charges of "criminal conspiracy" to be lodged against a journalist doing her job, defending democracy and our constitutional rights. If all the people in Biren's vicinity had been arrested, there might be a defense for the police -- that all of them had refused to disperse when instructed. But the police had multiple opportunities to arrest others and failed to.
Biren reports that the officer who actually grabbed her acted angrily -- in a scene where there was no need for anger. This was a peaceful demonstration where the organizers were in friendly communication with the police Civil affairs department that was handling the event. Something went wrong here. There should be an investigation. The press is an endangered entity in the US. The big Philly newspapers are in bankruptcy. The police have a responsibility to the constitution NOT to abuse their powers when facing the fourth estate.
Crossposted from OpEdNews.com.