Friday, December 3, 2010

Confrontations with Secret Service

Today on PDNPulse -and elsewhere online- there's a blog post about Mannie Garcia (who shot the photo of President Obama later made in the "Hope" campaign poster by Shepard Fairey) being confronted by Secret Service for taking photos in a public place. That public place just happened to be in front of the White House.

Here's the article:

.... In this case, Garcia was taking photos in front of the White House yesterday when a uniformed Secret Service officer confronted him and demanded he delete one of the images.

“He just charged me,” Garcia told PDN Pulse. “He came right at me and grabbed my camera. He had his hand on his weapon and said give me that photo and I said no.”

The image in question was one Garcia had captured of two women rolling baby strollers in front of the White House. In the shot .... the uniformed Secret Service officer can be seen at the right, glaring at the camera.

Garcia was amongst a group of news photographers who were at the White House to photograph rallies in conjunction with World AIDS Day and several other events yesterday. He said he was wearing his press badge which the officer could clearly see.

“He said: ‘I want you to delete the photo. You don’t have my permission.’ And I said, we’re not photographing you. And then I asked him if I was under arrest and he said no. What bothered me the most was that he grabbed the camera and I had to pull it away. I’m not a kid. I’m in my 50s. I have grey hair and he clearly saw my credentials.”

Garcia was able to walk away from the officer with his Nikon D3s and the image intact. Later, Jay Mallin, a photographer friend of Garcia’s, explained what happened to a sergeant in charge of the Secret Service officers. The sergeant told Garcia that the officer was out of line.

“When I showed him the photo, which I did in good faith, the sergeant rolled his eyes and looked at the young officer,” Garcia said. “It was a situation where you had new uniformed Secret Service officer who was new to the beat. Obviously he has had training but not the experience about what should be done.”

Though it may have been an isolated incident, Garcia said the atmosphere has been tense of late.

“Yesterday, in particular, felt like a day of heightened security. It had this mood in the air. But people have a right to be there and you don’t intimidate people by charging them and putting your hand on your weapon.”

This is similar to something that I personally experienced about two years ago during the 2008 presidential campaign. Then Senator Barack Obama chose to have a free rally in downtown Miami -where I lived at the time- while campaigning in Florida. Here is what I wrote about it two years ago:
The only bad thing about having a free rally.. in a public park.. downtown.. with a popular, inspiring presidential candidate.. is that THOUSANDS of people came to hear Barack Obama speak. Which meant that my friend Ian and I were among hundreds upon hundreds of people trying to gain entry to the park for the rally.

So we were stuck in the slow moving crowd for more than an hour. Vendors all around us were hawking Obama merchandise and everything felt more like a rock concert than a political rally. Every now and then, some people would chant Obama slogans. Whenever I heard people cheering, 'Yes, We Can!' I'd turn and shout 'Get Inside!' which gained some hearty applause from the people crowded around me.

So about the time that the rally was starting was when the Fire Marshall decided that an open park couldn't have any more people inside of it. So he ordered the security to block off entry to the metal detectors. Which was exactly the moment that Ian and I finally made it through the thick crowd and to the entrance to the park. Which, apparently, wasn't actually a park because it suddenly had less of a maximum occupancy than a port-o-let.

So, crushed between an uncaring Secret Service security detail and an angry crowd behind us that wanted inside to see the rally also, Ian and I weren't going anywhere anytime soon. So we stuck it out at the front of the horde and waited for enough people to leave so that we could get out of there too. The idea of spending all that time in line and not even getting inside was maddening.

With everything blocked off, the secret service guards assumed that no one else would be coming in and so they began to collect all of the contraband they confiscated. I couldn't believe it -crazy amounts of knives, brass knuckles and other things that I wouldn't think most people would carry with them in public. With a haul like that on display in front of me, I pulled out my camera and started to take pictures of the mountain of contraband.

Which is when one of the secret service guards noticed me.

Apparently, I was doing something wrong because he told me to quit taking pictures. I'm no idiot when it comes to things like this. I've done plenty of reading photographer's rights, especially after lovely pieces of legislation like the Patriot Act. So the guy walked over to continue to tell me to quit taking pictures of them collecting together all of the contraband. Which turned into a 5-minute conversation about my rights as an american photographer, during which i was very calm and factual about my rights -which is probably what kept me from being arrested immediately there on the spot- because I know what [those rights] are.

As did this guy, but that didn't really matter. He kept hammering away that i ought not take pictures of them and i could tell that if i pushed too hard about my rights, he'd go over the edge and arrest me. Possibly on some BS excuse like, 'threatening security personnel' or their security operations for the rally. And I didn't feel like missing the rally to stand up to a Richard with a capital 'D' over taking pictures over something that I'd already shot. So when he ended the exchange by repeating, 'I strongly suggest that you stop taking those pictures' I took it for the warning it was.. he was basically saying 'keep it up and you're getting arrested.'

So I waited for him to leave, then angled my camera towards the contraband and took more pictures on the sly.

A few minutes later, as many people within the rally (who couldn't see Obama -since there were so many inside the park) were leaving, the word broke out that we could get back in. Everybody loved that! The crowd surged the gates, and Ian and I fled through. Not even stopping to get scanned by the metal detectors. .... But I stopped long enough to get pictures of them trying to contain the crowd again. Hahahaha, not a problem anymore, huh, mr. secret service? Chump.

But that's the story on how I was almost arrested by the secret service over taking photos, which, last I checked, was [protected by the First Amendment]. But as much fun as it was to rationally remind a secret service jackass that I was entitled to take those pictures, it was more important for me to get inside the rally I'd waited so long that afternoon to attend.
So, though most people would assume events like these don't occur, they do. It's simply that those instances are few and far between. I wouldn't say that they're par for the course, but a big difference between my own experience and that of Mannie Garcia is that he had press credentials and I did not.

So this makes me wonder: Do photographers without press badges face more harassment from law officers than those who do have proper ID? Definitely something up for discussion. What do you think?

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