At 23, Joe LeSac is already an old hand at the perils of practicing journalism on the street. The volunteer videographer, who tapes segments for the Seattle cable TV show "Indymedia Presents," was arrested in August at a protest of a Stryker brigade unloading at the Port of Tacoma. On Labor Day, he ended up cuffed again outside the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.
Both times, he says, his press badge from Seattle's PepperSpray Productions, the show's producer, meant nothing to police. But as he sat in handcuffs on Sept. 1, even he was shocked at who police dragged over and put up against the wall next to him: Amy Goodman, host of the national public TV and radio show "Democracy Now!"
"I didn't really believe it at first," says LeSac, a Tacoma college student. "As she was being pushed down on the ground next to me, she was saying, 'No, this is a mistake. I just came here to get my cameraman. You can't be doing this. I have a show to do tonight.'"
Goodman was released a few hours later with a ticket for obstructing an officer. The charge was based on the TV host walking up to a line of riot police at a parking lot and asking to speak to a commanding officer after learning that her videographer and sound technician, Nicole Salazar and Sharif Abdel Kouddous, had been arrested. Footage later posted on YouTube shows the officer Goodman addressed immediately spinning her around to cuff her, then pushing her to the ground.
Goodman's two crew members, who were among dozens of journalists detained in St. Paul during the convention, were later released without charge. LeSac, fellow PepperSpray videographer Lambert Rochfort and other independent reporters weren't so lucky: Not only did each of them spend two days in jail and have their cameras confiscated, but days before the convention started, they say, police conducted several raids on "citizen journalists," including a rental house being used by I-Witness, a civil rights group that videotapes police activity. I-Witness was responsible for getting hundreds of protesters released after arrests at the 2004 Republican convention in New York City.
Rochfort, a 29-year-old social worker from Seattle, was among those arrested in 2004. This Labor Day in St. Paul, he and girlfriend Ariel Wetzel were following a small splinter group of protesters that had continued marching along the Mississippi River after the end of a police-permitted anti-war demonstration the two estimate at 20,000 participants.
The group "Direct Action Against Capitalism," as its signs read, came to a bridge where police were lined up in riot gear. "Without any warning, the cops started shooting tear gas and pepper spray and concussion grenades," Rochfort says.
The crowd started running, he says, retreating to a park where people were listening to a concert going on across the river. As marchers used a fountain there to wash pepper spray from their eyes, police surrounded the park, telling activists and onlookers alike to sit down and put their hands on their heads. "They came in and started arresting people, separating people out between who they thought was an activist and who they thought wasn't," Rochfort says.
Seeing this, Wetzel says, she removed the goggles and vinegar-soaked bandana she'd been wearing to protect herself from pepper spray and stuffed them into her backpack before she was cuffed. In her pink tank top, she says, she didn't look like an activist, so one of the officers cut her loose and, with her, the videotape that Rochfort had passed to her before his arrest -- a lesson he learned in 2004, he says, when New York police took his camera.
Both men's cameras were confiscated by St. Paul police. Rochfort was eventually charged with unlawful assembly, reduced from a charge of felony rioting and throwing feces. "I don't know anyone at the whole protest who threw feces," he says. "They were just coming up with all this random stuff to charge people with."
LeSac, too, was charged with felony rioting. At the time of his arrest, he had been following a different group of 80-90 marchers. He says police eventually surrounded the marchers and tear-gassed them in a parking lot -- the same lot where Amy Goodman's crew members and an AP photographer got trapped prior to their arrests. LeSac says he was taping the scene from the edge of the lot when a riot cop came up behind him, hit him in the leg with a baton, and threw him to the ground before dragging him to the spot at the wall where he would meet Amy Goodman.
"They didn't have respect for people who had cameras or press credentials," Rochfort says. "They just considered us to be part of the protest."
St. Paul authorities did not return calls seeking comment. On Sept. 5, a group of journalists presented St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman with 60,000 letters demanding all charges against journalists be dropped. But Randy Rowland, founder of PepperSpray Productions, doesn't believe that's likely.
"It's really part of a conscious escalation, an attack against independent journalism," Rowland says. "It's part and parcel of the same effort to keep the American people from actually changing things -- by keeping them from knowing what's going on.