By Brooke Anderson
As #BlackLivesMatter protests heat up around the country – from Charlotte, NC to Tulsa, OK – photographers covering these demonstrations increasingly find ourselves at odds with police as we do our jobs. Yet, many of us don’t know our rights in these situations.
On September 14th, the Pacific Media Workers Guild held a “Know Your Rights for Social Movement Photographers” workshop to build community among photographers doing this work and to educate our members about their rights.
For more than two hours, a crowded room of photographers – from seasoned staff photographers at major Bay Area newspapers to aspiring freelance photographers – shared their experiences of being questioned, harassed, threatened, and even beaten by police while on the job.
East Bay Times photographer and Guild member, Ray Chavez, shared an image of himself surrounded by police officers with guns drawn on him while he was photographing Occupy Oakland protests for the Oakland Tribune.
Natasha Dangond shared her story of being so badly roughed up by the San Francisco Police Department while photographing the Frisco 5 protests for El Tecolote that she was taken to the hospital with head injuries afterwards.
Meanwhile, lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild answered questions from the audience such as: Can the police confiscate your camera or secure digital card? Can police subpoena your images of a protest? What rights, if any, does a press pass confer? Can photographers stay on the scene of the action after a dispersal warning has been issued? What should photographers consider when photographing illegal activity?
The lawyers told us that we have no more first amendment rights as a journalist than any other citizen. So, carrying a camera or wearing a press pass is not an automatic key to being treated deferentially by cops that are trying to disperse a mob or bring about peace.
A presspass “doesn’t give you an invisibility cloak,” advised Chronicle photographer Carlos Avila Gonzalez. But a pass may be useful in helping you to show that you are a legitimate journalist if you need to prove such a thing.
Some jurisdictions allow preferential treatment to journalists covering events in natural disaster areas or on school property, so it is good to know your federal, state and local rights wherever you are working. Consider who or what owns the property where you stand and what is happening and how critical things are in the moment.
Many in the audience noted that having rights under the law is one thing and having those rights respected in practice is another, and that it will take self-organization by photographers to protect ourselves and our rights. Several freelancers in the room remarked that this is especially the case for freelance photographers who often lack the traditional protections of a full-time staff position and the resources of a news agency.
Local 39521 Executive Officer, Carl Hall, spoke about the many ways in which the Guild works to support and defend photographers in the field, and encouraged freelance photographers to join the union to take advantage of the many benefits of union membership – from dental and vision insurance to educational workshops to press passes.
At the end of the workshop, participants expressed interest in working with the Guild to create a wallet-sized “Know Your Rights” card to distribute to fellow photographers.
Workshop panelists included Ray Chavez, Guild member and East Bay Times photographer; Carlos Gonzalez, Guild member and San Francisco Chronicle photographer; Brooke Anderson, Guild member and freelance photographer; Natasha Dangond, photographer roughed up during the Frisco 5 protests; Rachel Lederman and Gaby Lopez of the National Lawyers Guild; Jim Wheaton, First Amendment Project; and Carl Hall, Executive Officer of Pacific Media Workers Guild. The panel was moderated by Jean Melanaise of Silicon Valley Debug and Class Conscious Photographers.
The workshop was sponsored by the Pacific Media Workers Guild, the Society for Professional Journalists Northern California, and Silicon Valley DeBug Class Conscious Photographers. Kat Anderson, Guild administrative officer, contributed to this article.