Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fortunately, I know my First Amendment rights

Most people would agree that police officers know right from wrong. I mean, after all, their jobs are to enforce the laws, so they must know them, too, right? Well, yesterday I learned that's not necessarily the case. At least not for some members of the N.Y.P.D.

The background

Yesterday I attended a protest at the corner of Second Avenue and East 46th Street. Members of the Armenian-American and Greek-American communities, along with representatives from the Cyprus Action Network of America, Armenian International Committee and Federation of Hellenic Societies, were picketing outside of Ali Baba Terrace, a Turkish restaurant.

Essentially, the protesters were speaking out against Rep. Michael McMahon (D-N.Y.), who represents the 13th Congressional District. McMahon recently voted against a House resolution that would recognize the Armenian Genocide nationwide. (It is already officially recognized by 42 other states, including New York, and 20 other nations.)

On Saturday, McMahon was attending a fundraiser — allegedly to receive honors and campaign contributions — which was organized by some members of the Turkish community. In Turkey, it is a crime to even discuss the Armenian Genocide, and many Turks deny it ever happened.

Because of this, the Armenian-Americans and Greek-Americans felt McMahon was accepting "blood money." They chose to stand outside the restaurant and surrounding area to spread the word to passersby and to ensure the congressman and the fundraiser attendees heard their point of view.

The issue

So I show up just after 11 a.m. Armed with my camera, I'm prepared to take some photos and get the back story for my photojournalism class. At first, there's no issue. I'm speaking with the protesters, reading their flyers and snapping some basic shots.

Then things start to heat up a bit. Outside of the restaurant are a couple of police officers and a security guard standing around. The protesters nearest the restaurant begin to shout their views, and the police and security confront them. I'm standing several feet away, taking photos of their exchanges, when a police officer approaches me and asks whether I'm a member of the press.

As the only other photographer present (there was another reporter, but she was across the street and never came to the corner by the restaurant), I thought this was strange. I said yes, and he asked to see my press pass. Because I wasn't representing any particular publication during this assignment, I show him my business card. He tells me that isn't a press pass and that I can't be standing there, but that I can relocate to across the street (a.k.a. where I won't hear what they're saying).

At first, I'm stunned. I almost concede and walk across the street until I realize he is completely out of line. The protesters are standing on a public sidewalk, where hundreds of people are walking by. The last time I checked, public spaces are just that — public. I know my rights as a journalist and as a citizen, and I know it's perfectly legal for me to be photographing and standing exactly where I am.

I manage to maintain my cool and ask the officers to justify their reasoning. They tell me I can't be there because there is an event going on inside of the restaurant, and that's why they're there in the first place. I see right through this excuse, and so I tell the officers that I won't be relocating because I'm standing on a public sidewalk and not trying to gain access to the private fundraiser inside.

After a little more back and forth, and the police officers trying to intimidate and confuse me, I stand my ground and continue taking photos. Eventually, they back off — though they did continue to shoot me dirty looks.

I only wish I had a copy of an internal N.Y.P.D. memo that reminded New York City officers they aren't allowed to harass or prevent anyone from photographing in public places. Since this incident, I have printed out a copy and put it in my camera bag. Next time, I'll have an easier time defending my First Amendment rights, which I can't believe I had to do in the first place.

To learn more about the story behind the protest, visit

The dirty looks

When I got home and began editing my photos, I saw I inadvertently captured some of these "dirty" and "intimidating" looks. So I cropped the faces and thought it'd be fun to post them here.

But, be warned: They're not the greatest quality because they weren't intentional shots. Simply really awesome afterthoughts. 


1 comment:

  1. I am glad you stood up to those bullies.. with badges...