Dear SPD: Withdraw Your Subpoena of Photojournalists to Preserve the Truth
By forcing a subpoena on the Seattle Times and other news outlets to share unpublished photos from the May 30 George Floyd protest, the Seattle Police Department is undermining the independence of the press and ensuring that the public does not receive thorough and truthful information about news events that directly impact them.
I covered the Saturday July 25 Youth Liberation Movement protest on Capitol Hill as an independent photojournalist and experienced first hand how that political group used the SPD's power of subpoena, as well as direct threats and physical harassment, to prevent me and other journalists from adequately doing our jobs.
To maintain an independent press so that we can all better understand the forces that are shaping our political landscape, we need to support the Seattle Times and pressure the SPD to immediately withdraw its subpoena and vow never again to use the subpoena to turn members of the the press into prosecution witnesses in their future criminal cases.
Let me explain my point by sharing my experiences at the YLM protest.
(Note: I refer throughout this post to the YLM as being the main organizing element of the protest, but it was clear that several other groups were also involved. However, all my direct attempts with individuals at the event to get more organizational details were answered with a variation of "I don't know anything.")
YLM Threats and Assaults on Me and Others
During the YLM's march through Capitol Hill and the Central District on July 25, one of the the group leaders, pictured above, pointed me out as I was photographing the march and used her bullhorn to instruct several protesters to "cover my identity from him."
This is how the protesters responded:
For the remainder of the march, I was trailed and surrounded by protesters who used umbrellas to impede my view. One protester pleaded with me for a whole block not to take pictures. Others were more explicit: "You do not want us to catch you taking pictures of our faces."
Moments after I took those images, a protester physically assaulted a KOMO news cameraman, who was simply filming the march. The protesters used the umbrella on the left to scuffle with the cameraman, visibly shaking him up.
Unbeknownst to those of us covering the march, the protesters were on their way to the Youth Detention Facility where several of them would set fire to portables, detonate explosive devices on heavy equipment and buildings, and smash the windshields of several cars. They would then proceed to a neighborhood Starbucks where they would set off explosive devices that would blow out the cafe windows and start a small fire.
At each action, protesters aggressively blocked my view of the actions, in one case physically restraining me from having an unimpeded view. They did not directly threaten me harm, but one of the protesters with whom I argued for several minutes warned me that if he caught me taking pictures of "the actions" (i.e., the arson and vandalism), he would personally "spray paint my camera, or worse."
As a result of these warnings and threats, I shut my camera down during those acts of destruction and captured no images.
What Does This Have To Do With The Subpoena?
Every group tries to influence how the media covers them. While the protesters had no legal standing in preventing me from photographing them while they were in public spaces, given their tactics of property destruction to achieve their political goals, and their their stated message, which they repeated numerous times at the rally, of achieving those goals "by any means necessary," it was logical that they would use physical intimidation and threats to control the narrative.
I want to be clear that despite their statements to the contrary, they did not block me to "protect" their identities. There were dozens of cell phones being used by protesters to live-stream and film the event. The protest leaders were all highly visible at the opening rally, and they were all wearing face coverings.
Specifically, they were preventing me, as a member of "the press," from capturing high-quality, close-up shots that could be subpoenaed by the SPD and used as evidence. It is much easier for the SPD to identify a handful of clearly marked, professional photographers to subpoena than wrangling dozens of anonymous protesters.
All of this came into play as I attempted to negotiate with the protesters. Throughout the march, I offered several options that would allow me to take pictures that would not directly reveal their identities. I wanted to capture the newsworthy actions; I was willing to negotiate a compromise in order to do that.
Their response? They said that regardless of my intentions, the SPD would subpoena my hard drives and use my pictures against them. One protester even suggested that their actions in blocking me were protecting me from the police.
Subpoenas of the Press Undermine the Truth
The vast majority of us do not want to give credibility to fringe groups -- left-wing or right-wing -- that use destruction and violence to achieve their ends.
But without access to nuanced reporting, what percentage of the news-consuming public is able to distinguish between the politics of the YLM and those of the many groups that marched throughout June under the Black Lives Matter banner?
I've spoken with many astute followers of the news who assumed the YLM protests to be simply another in the long line of protests in our city since George Floyd's murder. Most reporting on the July 25 event has been superficial, so there is very little detailed information available for the average person to differentiate the protests.
One obvious extension of this ignorance is that the larger Black Lives Movement will start to be viewed as a radical, fringe, violent group -- a characterization that our president has repeatedly tried to convey.
It's true that the YLM protest used "Black Lives Matter" and "social justice" as slogans, and that the protest was led by several black organizers, but that is where the similarities between it and the several other protests that I have covered end.
Unlike the highly diverse ethnic, racial, and generational make-up of the protests and marches such as the We Want to Live rally and march, March of Silence and Charlene Lyle's remembrance -- the vast majority of protesters at the YLM rally and march were young and white.
And although the press and mayoral reports that only a few individuals within the group were violent are literally true, the group's messaging at the rally and during the march, unlike the massaging at every protest and march that I previously covered, were anything but non-violent.
This group -- or an influential sub-group within it -- intentionally set out to destroy property and engage with the police on Capitol Hill. They were not simply just a "few violent individuals," as Mayor Durkan has suggested.
The means employed by the YLM on July 25 had very little in common with the practices of the tens of thousands of other marchers and protesters who hit the Seattle streets throughout June.
Understanding these differences are essential to how we as a community respond to the calls for justice that the Black Lives Movement has amplified. Not understanding them could undermine the progress we need to make as a community.
By effectively taking away a journalist's "quid pro quo" leverage in negotiations with a group such as the YLM, the threat of an SPD subpoena undermines a journalist's ability to do their jobs properly. As a result, the public will not have access to the nuanced, objective reporting that our community and democracy require to function.
Instead, the average consumer of news will have to choose between the protest group's version of events or the police's. Our journalists' ability to perform the difficult work of documentation that approaches something that we call "truth" will be obliterated.
Specifically, the future choice I personally will have to make with respect to a group like the YLM -- whose operating principle seems to be, as one of their riot shields stated, that "Obstructing Brutality is Not a Crime" -- will be either to cover the group and risk my legal and financial well-being by refusing an SPD subpoena, or to refuse to cover the group entirely.
If this become the choice journalists have to make, our community will be fed only the images and information that the competing factions want us to have. Anything resembling an "objective truth" will be gone.
SPD, for the sake of the health of our community and our democracy, withdraw your subpoena.
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