Volume 74, Number 19 | September 08 - 14 , 2004

Villager photos by Bob Arihood

According to photographer Bob Arihood, these photos show a pack of police swarming and arresting photographer Robert Stolarik on 16th St. last Tuesday. Stolarik says the police said “Get him!” after he photographed a supervising officer arresting a protester.

Photographers describe picture of rough treatment

By Josh Rogers

News photographer Robert Stolarik was taking pictures of an arrest Tuesday near Union Sq. Park when he says police tackled him to the ground and cuffed his hands so tightly he thought it cut off his circulation. Thursday he was wearing two casts because doctors feared he could have fractured two bones in his wrists. He’s more concerned about being allowed to do his job than his injuries.

“It’s the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been as a journalist and I’ve had a gun to my head in Colombia,” Stolarik, 35, said. “All of your rights can be taken away instantly.”

Stolarik and six other news photographers, in separate interviews with The Villager, accused police of overly aggressive treatment the evening of Aug. 31, when a group known as A31 Action Coalition staged a series of unpermitted, anti-Republican protests throughout Manhattan and close to 600 arrests were made.

The seven all said they were wearing their N.Y.P.D.-issued working press credentials and were not hindering the police in any way during protests against the Republican National Convention. Although the protests and arrests of demonstrators have been covered widely, the reports of rough treatment against photographers trying to cover the protests have received little attention.

A Daily News photographer who requested anonymity, said after police subdued a splinter group of protestors near 27th St. he and his colleagues were waiting on the sidewalk when they were attacked by police.

“We were on Madison Ave. chilling out catching our breath — there had to be about a dozen [photographers] — and out of nowhere a blue wall comes and starts pushing and shoving I got smacked in the face — cameras are swinging in the air. It was totally excessive force for no reason.”

He said he began bleeding when a camera owned by another photographer hit him in the head.

Keith Bedford, a freelance photographer working for The New York Times that night, was standing near the Daily News photographer and gave a similar account. He said just before that incident, police also pushed and shoved him to the ground on Park Ave. S.

“They forced us off the sidewalk, hit us with nightsticks — shoving them into our chests,” said Bedford.

Speaking last Thursday, Police Inspector Michael Coan, who works in the office of the Police Department’s deputy commissioner for public information — commonly referred to as D.C.P.I. — said he was working to void the arrests of a handful of photographers like Stolarik who were taken into custody in part of the police sweeps.

“Have there been times when there have been arrests that were not justified?” Coan asked. “I’m not naive.”

Photographers usually have to get closer to the scene than reporters, so they are more likely to be physically nearer to police.

Coan said although photographers may think they are not in the way, in some cases, police actions “might have been part of a bigger picture.”

He said there were a lot of disorderly protests particularly on Tuesday night and there were several teams of D.C.P.I. officers looking to set up areas where journalists could stand, although they couldn’t be at every scene.

Stolarik is a freelancer who works for The Villager. That night, he had just left an assignment for the New York Times and was working for Polaris Images at Union Sq. He said he showed police officers his photo ID credentials prior to the protest’s beginning. When he saw officers make the first arrest he began taking pictures and said a police supervisor “ordered them to take me down. They had me down — they were choking me…. They said they didn’t want pictures of this — that was the only thing I was told.”

For the rest of the evening, he said he encountered officers who went out of their way to help him and others who were unusually belligerent. He recalls one supervisor saying, “You have the right to remain silent so shut the f*** up.”

He said the plastic handcuffs were so tight he felt he was not getting any blood to his hands. Once in a police van, he said a police officer looked at his hands and decided to loosen the cuffs. He had about $14,000 worth of cameras, lenses and a laptop in his bag along with a bottle of Gatorade. He said once he was taken to the holding pen set up for protestors at Pier 57, an officer noticed the bag was wet from the Gatorade. Even though the bag had a police tag saying it was illegal to open, Stolarik said an officer was nice enough to wipe the camera off on Stolarik’s T-shirt and save it from permanent damage.

His equipment is insured, but he said his policy has exceptions if it is damaged or confiscated in any government action. He got his camera back when he was released at 1 a.m. Wednesday, after the Times was able to get him out. He described the treatment of detainees at Pier 57 as awful, but did not want to go into further detail.

Speaking on Monday, Stolarik said he can’t feel his hands around his thumbs and forefingers and that a doctor told him he may have permanent nerve damage.

Jennifer Szymaszek, a photographer with a large news wire service she asked not be identified, said: “I was pushed really pretty hard right in my chest by a cop.” She said some of the protestors were unruly, but most were standing and trying to comply with police orders when they were pushed and arrested.

“Some were young kind of punky, anarchist kids who kind of wanted to start something. They were throwing cones in the middle of the street,” she recalled of an incident on 27th St. near Madison Ave. “We were staying back enough — we were not getting in anyone’s way. There’s no need to randomly start pushing people.”

Once the photographers she was with regrouped, she said everyone felt hesitant to return and take more pictures.

“I feel like censorship of what photographers can cover has been increasingly present this summer and it has gotten even worse for the convention,” she said.

Three freelancers who work for The Villager regularly also reported being pushed or tackled — Ramin Talaie, Lorenzo Ciniglio and Elisabeth Robert.

Talaie said he was at Herald Sq. Tuesday evening at about 7 p.m. when a police officer grabbed his backpack filled with heavy equipment from behind. Talaie could not see the officer but witnesses told him it was a female officer who then grabbed his shirt collar and pulled him into a Daily News photographer knocking both journalists to the ground. “ ‘We told you to move,’ Talaie recalled an officer saying. “[But] nobody told me to move.” He said two or three protesters knocked over a wooden police barricade and were tackled by police, but other protesters were not doing anything disruptive.

He said police made the situation worse. “Their actions really escalated things in my opinion,” Talaie said. “They could have let [protesters] keep screaming instead of pushing them back.”

Robert was at Park Ave. S. near 25th St. taking pictures of a group of people being arrested when she said an officer wearing an N.Y.P.D. T-shirt came up and pushed her to the ground.

“You could have just asked me to move,” Robert recalled saying after being pushed. “And he was like, ‘I just did.’ ” She said she complained to a police supervisor at the scene who said, “ ‘Yeah, I’ll fire him.’ He was really condescending and dismissive.”

A few minutes later an officer asked bystanders to leave and when Robert showed him her press credentials and asked if the order applied to the press, “he said ‘especially the press.’ ” Robert said more than being pushed, she was upset that the police were not allowing photographers access to photograph events; before the convention, the Police Department had invited photographers to a meeting at which they were told there would be complete access.

Ciniglio said overall, police have shown restraint but they were too aggressive outside the Public Library Tuesday. He said a police lieutenant “was pushing people when it really was not necessary.” He said the officer “cross-chested me with his stick” and I was not in the way of the police. He saw a group of about 60 protestors break off and run down Fifth Ave. toward 26th St. He said the group looked to be out of control and police actions arresting them seemed appropriate.

Photographer Bob Arihood, who also shoots for The Villager, claims to have captured the incident where the police took Stolarik to the ground. Arihood, who frequently photographs police, was one of only a few photographers not pushed during the incident.

“I know not to shoot a police officer in the face when he’s making an arrest,” he said. “You can talk about the law as much as you want; but the law out there is basically whatever they say it is.”

Of the way police made arrests on 16th St., Arihood said, “It was violent. I was really scared.”

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly defended police actions arresting protestors Tuesday night. “Once more, I want to commend the members of the New York City Police Department who have showed great restraint, often in the face of relentless provocation,” he said.

With reporting by Lincoln Anderson

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