WASHINGTON, D.C. ‘ Seven student journalists were caught up in a wave of mass arrests while covering International Monetary Fund and World Bank demonstrations in late September, stirring criticism of police action.
They were among 654 people arrested, handcuffed and bussed to the Metropolitan Police Academy to be processed. Some of the college reporters were detained for as long as 30 hours without access to legal counsel.
‘It didn’t matter that we were press, [the D.C. police] handled everyone with the same general incompetence,’ said Chris Zaconi, a George Washington University student photographer who was arrested and detained for 13 hours.
Police officials say adequate verbal warnings to disperse were given before arrests were made.
But Zaconi, three other George Washington photographers, two University of Maryland reporters and a George Mason University journalist contend they heard no warning before police officers in riot gear rounded them up with several hundred protesters and passers-by at Freedom Plaza and Pershing Park. They say police encircled the areas, and anyone caught within the cordoned area was arrested.
The Washington Post reported that other journalists and protesters say they did not hear police warnings.
Six of the student journalists said they provided police officers with their college press credentials as the police began their mass arrests, but their requests to leave the area were refused.
‘[Police officers] ridiculed us and told us that we had had our chance ‘ which we were not aware of,’ said Jason Flanagan and Debra Kahn in a first-person account published in the Sept. 30 edition of University of Maryland’s newspaper, The Diamondback. ‘One nearby Washington Post reporter apparently had the correct credentials and was immediately released.’
According to several reports, journalists from major news outlets were released from police custody after showing press credentials or when editors contacted police headquarters. UPI intern Stefany Moore said officers released her and two Washington Post.com reporters from detainment on a bus because they said, ‘We weren’t suppose to be there.’
Metropolitan Police Department public information officer Joe Gentile initially said all journalists, including students, who were detained and put on buses had to go through the entire booking process. But he later acknowledged several professional journalists were allowed off the buses by order of Chief Charles Ramsey.
Editors at The Diamondback contacted police several times to request that Kahn and Flanagan be freed from detainment, but officers said the reporters would be booked before being released.
Journalists, protesters and bystanders were charged with failure to obey a police officer, and many paid a $50 or $100 post and forfeit fee in order to expedite their release.
Jason Hornick, a staff photographer with George Mason University’s student newspaper, Broadside, pled not guilty. After spending 16 hours on a bus, he was held an additional four hours at the detainment area with his hand handcuffed to his leg.
The District of Columbia prosecutors dropped the charges against Hornick in October.
‘I believed the police were in the wrong by arresting me, and I felt it would come out in court,’ Hornick said. ‘Police should be aware journalists are just doing their job, and journalists need to be aware police need identification.’ Hornick, unlike most student and professional journalists present at the protests, did not have any press credentials.
Gentile said all press credentials, including those issued by college newspapers, were recognized by police at the time of the IMF demonstrations. Metropolitan Police Department officials have since said DC police-issued credentials will be recognized for DC residents, and residents outside of the district should obtain credentials from their local law enforcement agencies.
The four George Washington University journalists, along with three law students who also were arrested, filed a lawsuit in October against Metropolitan Police Department, the U.S. Attorney General and the National Park Service. They contend they were not engaged in any illegal conduct by being present during the protests.
Jonathan Turley, George Washington University law professor and attorney for the students, stated in the complaint filed in federal district court that the methods police used to arrest and detain the students violated the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and 14th amendments, as well as various federal statutes.
The lawsuit is asking the court to address the constitutionality of police’s ‘trap and arrest’ method, a term which Turley coined for the tactics police used during the protests.
Turley is seeking a jury trial to expunge the students’ police records and is asking for punitive damages.