The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Monday, June 18, 2007

Commentary: Police Photography of Protesters Butts up Against the Line

Following up on last week's report on UC Davis police taking photos of the protesters and also this blogger on public property outside of Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef's university owned home, during a function that involved the university marching band as well as involved some of the very food service workers seeking university jobs with higher wages and benefits. I spoke to a number of individuals about the incident and a consensus view grew about the practice.

First I spoke to the area ACLU about the incident, and they said while it is not illegal for them to take photos of protesters, it also depends on what they intend to do with the photos and how they dispose of the photos. Regardless the ACLU intends to send a letter to the UC Davis Police as a means to communicate their discomfort with the overall practice.

I also spoke with the scene commander for the UC Davis Police. The first thing that she told me was that it was legal, that the police have as much right to take a picture of me, as I do of them. I told her that I understood from my discussions that it was perfectly legal for the police to do this and furthermore there is no expectation of privacy in public, but I said that does not necessarily make it the right thing to do. I explained to her that the police represent the lawful power of the government to use force in order to maintain order. It is one thing for the police in their official duties paid for by the state of California and the students at UC Davis, to arrest and photograph individuals participating in lawbreaking, it is another thing for them to merely take photos of people who are otherwise obeying the law. There is a strong differential between me photographing an event in an attempt to tell a story and the police doing so for other reasons.

There is a clear intimidation factor behind that approach. Some of the students at the time said that while there were not overt threats toward them, the implication was that they were being watched very closely.

The scene commander told me that given the history of these particular protesters that she made the call to have the officers under her command photograph them. I found that a very odd explanation. If anything, while some complained about noise and the banging on windows, this particular group of protesters has from what I've seen in several different events been extremely orderly and cooperative. When they have been arrested they have done so in a peaceful and organized manner. I do not see what photographing the protesters will aid in if they were to be arrested for failure to disperse or unlawful assembly. The police will either witness it or not.

I want to be clear that people who know this particular commander understand her to be a good and dedicated officer. However, given past activities by police with regards to protesters and the history of this country, I question the wisdom of photographing protesters.

From what I witnessed, there was not only an attempt to intimidate but a clear tension between those who were protesters and those who were attending the party and in charge of maintaining the peace. First, the protesters attempted to have one individual on each side of the chancellor's house, distribute fliers. The reaction from the party-goers was overwhelmingly negative and at times outright rude and hostile. This was clearly not a group of persuadables most of whom were high administrators and community leaders.

Second, there were the actions of Dennis Shimek, Associate Vice Chancellor of Human Resources. Shimek's actions were called into questions a week prior when he attempted to intimidate and got in the face of a student involved in negotiations. He continued his boorish behavior last week by intentionally walking through the marching protesters. Despite his assertions to the contrary, it was completely unnecessary. First, there was plenty of space to walk around the protesters, he certainly had no reason other than confrontation to walk through them. Second, as the pictures show, he went through looking for a fight. Third, it is not clear why he needed to go through to begin with, he went into an open green space lawn, turned around and came back. He was rude, belligerent, and in my opinion, clearly out to provoke something.

The actions of the police were more mixed. On the one hand, they did not get into a confrontation with the protesters and in fact did much to avoid a confrontation. On the other hand, it seemed more passive aggressive to be out taking photographs of otherwise law abiding citizens.

The scene commander informed me that no laws were broken on this occasion. When I asked what that meant for the photos, she was unsure. If a crime were committed, they were going to be downloaded onto a CD and booked as evidence. Other than a demonstration that the individuals were on the scene, I'm not sure what they would exactly prove. It is not like the individuals if they engaged in civil disobedience are going to deny they were there.

My opinion on this is pretty simple. First, if someone breaks the law, they ought to be arrested and pay the penalty for that crime. Civil disobedience is not performed with the expectation that the worthy cause negates the crime. Thoreau was perfectly willing to pay his price in jail for his failure to pay taxes. Second, the police represent the power of the government here. I have grown concerned that the UC Davis Police are acting on behest of the chancellor as a means to break and discourage the organizers rather than as a means to protect the peace.

As such, I think that photographing of protesters while legal represents an uncomfortable area in the law. It allows the police to attempt to intimidate rather than to enforce the law. It means that the government itself is watching one. And while there is no expectation of privacy, there should be an expectation that the government does not intrude in the lives of private citizens as long as they have not broken the law. This practice butts dangerously close to that principle.

To me this represents an erosion of civil liberties and the right to privacy from government interference in the face of 9/11 and the Patriot Act. Local law enforcement should act from one standpoint--to protect the peace and as long as that peace is protected, they should be passive rather than active participants.

We retain a right to speech, expression, and assembly in this country, rights that put even the notion of failure to disperse in question. Regardless, the question is whether the citizens of Davis wish to live in a community where the police are photographing individuals exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly? Because to be quite frank, it makes me nervous that people seem so willing to allow the encroachment on such rights and are so quick to excuse and explain it away.

I remain overall very troubled at the state of civil liberties in this country given the Bush administration's strong encroachment. I see this as just another extension of the Bush mentality whereby law enforcement is using their powers to monitor and observe lawful activities of dissenters rather than on people actually involved in law breaking.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting