By 10 a.m. Friday everything at Franklin Square had quieted down. Bike messengers on walkie-talkies and pigeons slowly filtered back into the area around 14th and I streets. Police in black chest pads and helmet-visors flipped back drank bottled water and munched breakfast bars on the sidewalks. A dreadlocked protester was lecturing a reporter furiously scribbling down quotes. I didn’t dare take out my notebook, there was no need to open the media pipeline for the demonstrators’ array of causes any wider this weekend.
Strolling down K Street I got a call. My cell phone flashed “Snow.”
“Chris and Leanne are being detained,” said Hatchet Photo Editor Andrew Snow on the other end, calling from Freedom Plaza a few blocks away, referring to Chris Zarconi, also a photo editor, and photographer Leanne Lee. Another Hatchet photographer, Young Choi, was also arrested.
As I approached Freedom Plaza, the top of the Washington Monument was obscured by fog. Police corralled a group of, possibly hundreds, of people outside the treasury department.
I met up with Snow as the first Metro bus lumbered around the corner of 14th and Pennsylvania. Throughout the day, six buses would cart about 650 demonstrators and media to the Metropolitan Police academy in Southwest, arrested for disobeying police.
Among them were the Hatchet photographers and some GW journalism students reporting for class.
Rounding the plaza past police horses with shields over their eyes, I saw that Metropolitan Police in black overcoats surrounded the group. A ring of MPD bike officers in sleek white helmets and blue “POLICE” jackets stood around them. The detained group held up peace signs as demonstrators across the street chanted “What are the charges?”
The charge was disobeying police when officers ordered the crowd to disperse in one minute. Hardly an achievable request, but those in the area were breaking the law nonetheless. Even members of the media were there illegally and were understandably arrested.
But the similarities stop there. Once at the police academy in Southwest, student journalists sat on buses while Washington Post and Associated Press members were released, allowing them to file stories that afternoon. Choi left at 2 a.m., Zarconi and Lee would wait another day to have their wrist-to-ankle handcuffs cut and reclaim their belongings, including pricey camera equipment and film.
This disparity is unfair and borders on inhumane. These students were held for 27 hours, with nothing but a few soggy sandwiches to eat for a crime they committed while attempting to do their jobs. If police released reporters and photographers for “legitimate” news agencies, why weren’t student journalists moved to the front of the processing line?
The events this weekend shook up at least one college newspaper staff as editors desperately tried to reach lawyers over the weekend and calm parents’ concerns from across the country. The arrests also disturbed The Hatchet’s weekend production, every hour spent in handcuffs meant one less hour to develop film and publish pictures for this issue.
Reporters and photographers break the law when they stand in an un-permitted area or, in this case, “disobey police” just as the protesters do. However, they would not do so unless the demonstrators were there. Police should recognize that news draws media, not desire to commit a crime. Arresting the entire group solves MPD’s immediate problem of clearing the area and preventing a security risk, but releasing the media and others who may or may not have wanted to be there prevents a lot of future paperwork.
While MPD has finally managed to keep most demonstrators and city property safe from protests, the department should revamp its media approval system. The city could even consider issuing special press passes for the week of protests, for which journalists would submit a detailed application.
Hatchet staff members have applied and await approval of D.C. press passes. If these students are considered professional enough to reserve the privilege to report in the city, they should be treated no differently than those at papers many times its size and recognition. Students assigned to report on events like the protests for class should know to stay on the fringes and use the experience of being in D.C. as fully as is safely possible. Release those who have a job to do.
-The writer, a senior majoring in journalism, is Hatchet editor in chief.