Sunday, November 20, 2011

Police and the Provocative Protester

I wrote about the Brandon Watts incident earlier and need to follow up with a clarification. First the name, some bloggers have written the name as Brendan, but major news publications used "Brandon," so I'll refer to him as Brandon Watts for now.
Based on photographs posted on Flickr, Watts acted in a manner to deliberately provoke hostility from police officers. He may not realize it, but his actions may be hurting the cause.

From what I gather: Brandon kicked barricades and needled officers, the police chased him, he fell,police piled on, he struggled, they piled on more, removed his pants, and when they got off him Brandon could not walk unassisted. Prior to Nov. 17, media reports show that Brandon had engaged in numerous fights and confrontations.

Photographs posted on Flickr by photographer "Alex Bucky Arbuckle"* show a protester (who the photographer says is Brendan Watts) staring at police, kicking a barricade and most bizarrely, leaving toothpaste on their gloves.
These are not illegal acts, but they 1) distract attention from the point of the protest - a broken economy and corrupt political system and 2) turn the police into the focus of the protest instead of the financiers, bankers and politicians and 3) are rude.
I can't condone any of that.

However, we count on police to maintain civility and order, to protect us from violence and chaos. To react with the level of violence they did toward Watts shows a lack of self-control that could easily spiral into even greater violence. I commend officers who act with self control. I urge protesters to treat police with civility and respect - just as you would with anyone. Police lose the moral high ground when they resort to excessive force over minor pranks. Is toothpaste and a knocked off cap really worthy of a skull fracture?
Combined with the acts of Sgt. Anthony "Tony" Bologna, who pepper sprayed innocent protesters like some madman in the streets, and other officers treating protesters as criminals, the police lose credibility and authority to act.
Brendan's blood tarnished their authority.

I contacted Arbuckle to find out what actually happened with Brandon Watts. Here is what Arbuckle wrote back verbatim:
"I can personally confirm that the protestor kicking the barricades in this photo and being arrested by police in this photo and bleeding from the head in this photo is the one whose picture was on many news sites and reportedly identified himself as Watts. I wish I had been shooting with a faster or wider lens (the rainy conditions were very difficult) because I was standing near this particular protestor and watching him very deliberately provoke police officers. First he blew cigarette smoke in the face of one officer, and kicked the barricades several times. Then I saw him produce a tube of toothpaste. Had I known what he intended to do with it, I would have been ready, but before I knew it he quickly squirted some of it on the officer's glove when the officer was looking away. When the officer noticed the toothpaste, he very politely smiled and removed his gloves. Watts continued forcefully kicking the barricades towards the sidewalk, which also pushed the police officers who were leaning against them. Soon a small crowd of photographers and chanting protestors had formed, and several police officers showed up to put the barricades back in place. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Watts quickly lunge forward and knock the cap off an officer's head.

The officer recoiled, and then lunged forward and began climbing over the barricade as Watts ran away toward the east end of the park. The officer and several additional cops gave chase and tackled him near a flower bed. I ran and got there as they were attempting to put handcuffs on him. Bear in mind that it is raining steadily at this point, the ground is slippery, and we are near a flowerbed which has been producing muddy footprints in the area. I took pictures of Watts' face as he attempted to crawl away from officers -- he actually got a few feet in the chaos that began to erupt after the hatless officer fell on his back and a gigantic, rowdy crowd completely surrounded the officers. From there my view of Watts disappeared as I was jostled by protestors, photographers, and cops in what felt like the beginning of a riot. As you can see in this photo , the officers were surrounded by angry protestors and they looked terrified. After what felt like several minutes of pushing back and forth, the officers managed to get out, and I walked off, slightly shaken and with a broken lens hood and missing flash cord. I am still amazed that the police did not resort to pepper spray or some other extreme force while they were surrounded like that. A few minutes later I (and many other photographers) spotted the cops leading Watts out with his head bloodied. I got a picture and that was that.

I wholeheartedly support the protestors, and I'm proud of the way they've shifted the media narrative in this country. But I also believe that the vast majority of the NYPD are ordinary people doing a thankless job which (in the case of controlling rowdy crowds) many of them have very little experience with. In this case I feel that Watts very intentionally provoked the officers, and resisted arrest by running away. Had the conditions in the park -- rainy, slippery, filled with agitated people -- not been so volatile, I think he could have been arrested without incident. As it is, I do not know for sure if his head wound was the result of an intentional blow from a baton or an accident in the melee.

I know my photos are far from forensic quality, but that's my testimony as someone who was there."

I really appreciate that Arbuckle tried to make sure the public received the full story.

Here's what another blogger, Che (What You Call Your) Pasa, wrote after reviewing video of the melee:

"At about 3:25 in the video, Brendan is seen being thrown out of the planter and onto the granite (?) surface of the Plaza. He's obviously badly injured. It's clear to me at any rate that the police recognize Brendan is badly hurt and it looks like they are calling for assistance. Then Brendan starts struggling, and it looks like the police are getting very rough with him. I don't know whether any medical assistance was called. It should have been, immediately, but we've seen over and over many incidents of demonstrators being injured by police being left to fend for themselves or being arrested and taken away in a severely injured state only to be neglected once in custody until their situation worsens.

It's obvious that once the police get Brendan under "control" he can't walk. They continue to rough him up"

Brandon had gotten several doses of media publicity. Maybe he learned that provoking police is guarantied to get you media attention. I would say that doing so is buying publicity at a very high price, protestors who provoke police buy media attention with bruises, broken bones, and burned eyes. Police lose credibility and legitimacy, making their jobs much more difficult and dangerous in the future. They need the public's cooperation to do their jobs. Inviting violence is risky for both police and protesters.

What police appeared to do is use a hammer to swat a fly. Excessive force undermines the legitimacy of authority. Brandon Watts may have been provocative, but he appears to not have the maturity and self-restraint to do otherwise, nor did he harm anyone. We need the police and protesters to help de-escalate situations. This movement has the potential to catalyze real reforms in finance. Why lose that to needless violence?

*Arbuckle's photos are for sale through Getty.

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