March On Army Experience Center
Posted by John Grant
Those of us who participated in the September 12th march on the Army Experience Center at the Franklin Mills Mall recall the arrest of Cheryl Biren, along with six others. I remember Biren there taking photos, it turns out, for OpEdNews.Com, a news and opinion blog site. Biren was doing her job covering the event when she was arrested by Philadelphia police.
The AEC is a tax-funded, $13 million experimental store selling the US Army as a brand to kids as young as thirteen. It employs violent computer games (“war porn”) and shooting simulators with human targets to entice mall-crawling kids into joining the military — at a time the economy is staggering from a lack of jobs. The Center is controversial and raises serious questions about how we educate our youth in today’s world and how well we equip them to analyze information in a critical fashion.
Many of us “free-lance” or “independent” or, let’s go all the way, “radical” journalists regularly encounter the kind of difficulty Biren ran into covering the AEC march, since police departments are more and more taking it upon themselves to decide who is a legitimate journalist and who isn’t.
When cops decide who and what constitutes a real journalist they end up permitting only those working for the mainstream, corporate media, people with corporate ID cards, pre-arranged police permits, backup staff at the office, expensive equipment, van drivers and someone to get them coffee. Anyone on a tight budget and sympathetic to the ideas expressed by demonstrators at marches like the one at the AEC are seen as loose cannons and, naturally, suspect in the eyes of the police. And since no one in the mainstream, corporate media has much interest in covering such demonstrations — well, you can see the problem.
In my case, I was there and I took some photos. I, then, chose not to challenge the cops and I left as they began pushing people out the doors. My timidity, of course, is precisely what the police approach is meant to encourage. Any reporter who stayed behind to assert their first amendment right to witness and report the arrests was subject to arrest. This is what Biren did.
We see this sort of thing a lot these days; it’s a variant on the Facts On The Ground strategy. Act first — deal with the repercussions later. The police make an arrest to eliminate a journalist, no matter how illegal the action might be, then they drop the charges and employ public relations later. During the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, the city paid out millions in lawsuit settlements for illegal arrests. On January 13, the Philadelphia DA followed this pattern and dropped all charges against Biren – four months after her arrest and an uncertain amount of grief and legal expenses later.
Men In Blue
The 1st Amendment outlaws “abridging” the “freedom of the press.” It does not say “freedom of the well-paid, corporate press with police permits.” When the 1st Amendment was written there were no press badges; all the bureaucratic hurdles and mazes came later.
A.J. Leibling added this famous nugget to the mix: “If you really want freedom of the press you have to own one.” Leibling could not have foreseen the age we live in, but, now, with the advent of the internet and the capacity for virtually anyone to fashion a news blog and get out there and cover news, Leibling’s observation may be more than just a witty remark.
Maybe it’s time for those of us on the left to take a hint from James Bopp Jr., the right-wing conservative lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana, behind the recent Supreme Court case that opened the flood gates to corporate money in campaign ads. He calculated the whole thing and designed the case to obtain the decision recently dropped on American democracy like a bomb. He is now about to launch a similar case aimed to eliminate any and all restrictions on corporate funding of political campaigns.
Maybe it’s time we tip our hats to the Bopps of this culture and do some original legal thinking of our own — pull off our own “Bopp coup” in the courts — to establish that the police cannot use prejudice or whim as a basis to decide who shall report on and document their actions and who shall not. As long as a reporter is cooperative, not violent or not actively participating in whatever the cops are focusing on, it should be made clear in law that sympathy for a cause or action being covered by a reporter is not a valid reason to lump that reporter in with those being arrested.
It’s an important Constitutional question. Can a government police force quash, silence or prevent a reporter from doing his or her job by making a phony arrest? It happens so much these days it has become part of the fabric of our times, and it contributes to the distancing of citizens more and more from the decisions and actions of their government.
As the recent corporate funding case suggests, the current Supreme Court tends to come down on the side of money and power. But the Constitution clearly does not require a reporter be equipped with money or power, or more to the point, to be connected to a corporation. Current police practice in cases like Biren’s amounts to the harassment and silencing of reporters for failing to have the proper political “juice” behind them.
If the democratic vistas of the internet we hear so much about are real, then all a reporter needs to legitimately assert 1st Amendment rights is a pen & pad, a camera and a blogsite.
To borrow the famous film line from The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.”
Photos Copyright John Grant