Monday, September 8, 2008

A Personal Account

At the Milwaukee airport on my way back to New York. News blares from a TV spouting theories about how Sarah Palin will affect the Republican ticket. Through the window I see the airport's flat green and concrete landscape stretching (in my mind) toward St. Paul.

I keep re-living the fight or flight instincts I felt while covering the RNC protests. Unshakable lines of dark uniforms, gas masks, furrowed brows. The incessant chant of "Whose streets?! Our Streets!" making it hard to think. The stench of pepper spray. Commands barking down the police ranks. A protester pushes too far and the police line opens like the jaws of some black beast, spewing white flames and swallowing the man whole.

A part of me begs to run, yet I keep shooting. I'm training myself to think clearly and keep planted, capture the moment. It's not the first time I've found myself in a potentially dangerous crowd of impassioned people, or face-to-face with impatient cops. Intense newspaper assignments. The University of Florida championship celebrations. The Muslim festival of Ashura in India, where thousands of men in a small street cut and beat themselves in mourning. They've all programmed me a bit to feel out a mob and know when I should stay or go.

But this week there were times when I was scared. The first photographer I ran into in St. Paul was Phillip Andrews, covered in pepper spray. His face was so distorted in pain and covered in a white residue that I didn't recognize him until I asked his name. That same day, as I later found out, the police had pepper sprayed, roughed up and arrested photojournalist friends of mine.

I was shooting mainly for my portfolio. No affiliation, no safety net other than being a member of the media. Just me, my cameras, and media credentials from a Puerto Rican newspaper assignment in Minneapolis. According to the US constitution, that should be enough.

Thursday night- a rally at the capitol building. As John McCain was about to take the podium at the Xcel Center, down the road several hundred gathered at a small stage to say "good riddance" to the convention.

It was the usual disorganized anti-government message that blending resentments and issues- End the War, Free Speech, Free Palestine, Down with the biased Media. There was a Where's-Waldo-looking peacenik on stilts. A punky-looking couple making out in the grass. Some colorful mow-hawks.

Speeches became chants and the mob decided to march toward Xcel, without a permit. Riot police blocked roads and the mob pinballed around the capitol plaza searching for an opening, chanting angrily their right to protest. Tension built. A violent encounter seemed imminent, but didn't come.

Earlier in the week a cop in full riot gear had told me "We don't want to be on CNN." After Monday's mass arrests and violence the chief of police and his political friends apparently wanted to keep the spotlight on the Republicans, not on the relatively small dissent. Ironically, the more protesters and journalists hurt and arrested, the more ammunition for the media to report on.

For hours the crowd moved around and the police adapted. Eventually people started dispersing, so I figured it was time to call it quits. No more adrenaline rushes, no more pictures, no more fear of arrest or attacks. I was following a Gannett shooter looking for an open street- one the cops weren't blocking. I was turning the corner when a friend called on the phone. "Umm, they're breaking shit."

I'm not in great shape but somehow I sprinted a mile uphill, around the back of the capitol building- smoke and loud bangs in the distance. I sprinted some more. As I got closer I recognized it was tear gas and concussion bombs the police were throwing, so I went straight toward the action to take some photos.

Fear crept up again - Will they arrest everyone? Will I get sprayed? Shot with a rubber bullet?

By the time I realized I was at the center of the conflict it was too late. Bombs and tear gas were exploding all around me, cops screaming at everyone to go south toward the bridge.

"I'm media! Where do I go?!" I yelled to one cop. He pointed his rubber bullet gun at me and yelled "Go to the fucking bridge!" It was utter chaos, like a war zone. Police were throwing gas and bombs in between the bridge and the people who were being told to go to the bridge. Poor aim? Amid the mayhem I managed to click away a few frames, but began to notice what was going on. Police had surrounded the area and were corralling some 300 people, including a large number of media and legal observers, onto the bridge for a mass arrest.

Wednesday night, after the Rage Against the Machine concert in downtown Minneapolis, the police used the same corralling strategy, and I was let out immediately and with dignity. The police had been reasonable then, allowing Rage fans to march the streets for a while without doing anything rash. After releasing some anarchist energy, most Rage fans went home peacefully.

Thursday, something changed. Both sides seemed angrier and more willing to resort to violence. My sense was that toward the end of the protest people just wanted to leave, which is why they went uphill past the capitol where there were no police barricades. The bad apples that allegedly smashed windows may have ruined it for everyone. Maybe the police provoked them. Or both.

Once on the bridge they got on a megaphone and told us we were all being arrested.

I stuck with some network cameramen in hopes the police would see me as media, and I started making phone calls. Media guys next to me were calling bosses. I was trying to find out what lawyers Jim Winn and Nathan Webber (my photo friends who were arrested Monday) contacted when they were nabbed. Contacted Tim Hussin (who created this blog and covered the DNC), and my girlfriend. I reached for the phone in my pocket one last time when call a cop pointed at me, yelling "This one doesn't know how to follow orders!" He rushed and grabbed the phone out my hand. "I don't know what you could be doing with this!"

He ordered a group of cops to put me in cuffs. They grabbed my arms, jostled me but lifted me slowly so as not to break the camera equipment hanging from my arms. Little did they know my cameras are much more dangerous than my phone.

I was embarrassed and outraged. Tim Hussin sent me a text message telling me to see it as an adventure. That put me in the right mindset. From then on I was smiling.

Whether I ended up in jail or not, I knew this whole thing was a joke. In this country, the law does not hold media accountable for actions of people on whom they're reporting. It was absurd that I and other reporters, cameramen, and photographers had been arrested like common criminals. We had no responsibility or participation in the protesters' cause other than documenting it for the world.

The cop left in charge of my group of arrestees said he was one of only two Democrats on the bridge, and we had a little laugh, mine a nervous one. A parade of media were walking free down the bridge and I looked up to my captor with puppy-dog eyes.

"I'd really appreciate your help."

"Well, you must be media if you've got all those expensive cameras," he said.

Within minutes I was released and joined the other media to receive "unlawful assembly" citations.

I felt nauseous. Yet beneath my worries I had a certain sense of well-being. Despite all the problems this country has, our Constitution is solid. There have been terrible violations, like what happened to AP photographer Bilal Hussein who was detained in Iraq for more than a year without a trial. But for the most part it's solid. In many countries I could have been beaten and locked up, with no hope for a fair trial. Here, worst-case was probably a couple of days in jail and dropped charges. Some protesters might face felony charges, but most of the peaceful ones were allowed to walk the streets, letting the world know how they feel.

I've got a citation that I'm hoping will be dropped, and an indelible experience that will serve me in circumstances to come.

I hope you see in our photographs about the nature of our country- the good, the bad, what we have to be proud of, what we need to keep fighting to improve.

- Danny Ghitis

Friday, September 5, 2008

RNC - Love and War

Danny sits in the back of a police van. He was arrested but they decided to release media with a citation. Nice guys.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008