Photo by MindfulWalker
Drew Wheelan, conservation coordinator for the American Birding Association chose to film a video in Houma, Louisiana, with a BP building in the background. He stood right in a field that was private property but was not owned by BP. A police officer approached him and asked him for ID and “strongly suggested” he get lost because BP didn’t want people filming.
The two went back and forth. Wheelan asked if he was “violating any laws or anything like that.” The officer said “not particularly” but that BP didn’t want people filming. Wheelan said he was not on BP’s property and they had nothing to say about what he was doing right now. The officer restated that BP didn’t want people filming and then added all he could really do is strongly suggest he “not film anything right now. If that makes any sense.”
Wheelan continued the work he was doing. He finished up, got in his car and drove away only to be pulled over by the same cop. This time the cop had someone with him named Kenneth Thomas, who had a badge that read “Chief BP Security.” Thomas interrogated Wheelan for 20 minutes asking “who he worked with, who he answered to, what he was doing, why he was down here in Louisiana, “phoned Wheelan’s information in, tried to figure out if he had any outstanding warrants, and then confiscated Wheelan’s Audubon volunteer badge from an Audubon/BP bird-helper volunteer training he had recently attended.
After bullying Wheelan for a period of time, he was let go, but as he drove away, “two unmarked security cars” followed him. He pulled over to figure out if they were following him. Each time he pulled over, the two unmarked vehicles pulled over behind him.
This is what Mac McClelland reported weeks ago from Louisiana. It’s one example of the authoritarian state that the corporation, BP, and the government, through the Coast Guard, National Guard, police officers, etc, have erected in the aftermath of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In the context of the society we live in, it is less of an anomaly than one might think.
Under “Spy Files,” in a post published in the last week of June titled, “More About Suspicious Activity Reporting,” the ACLU connects the targeting of photographers to the expansion of “suspicious activity reporting” (SAR) programs (programs set up to encourage the public to report ‘suspicious’ activities of their neighbors to law enforcement or intelligence agencies”):
Photographers appear to be the most frequent targets of SAR and SAR-like information collection efforts. Whether lawfully photographing scenic railroad stations, government-commissioned art displays outside federal buildings or national landmarks, citizens, artists and journalists have been systematically harassed or detained by federal, state, and local law enforcement. In some instances, the ensuing confrontation with police escalates to the point where the photographer is arrested and their photos erased or cameras confiscated with no reasonable indication that criminal activity is involved. A Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy even threatened to put a subway photographer on the Terrorist Watchlist.
Comedian Stephen Colbert had a light-hearted take on the story of a man arrested by Amtrak police for photographing an Amtrak train for an Amtrak photography contest, but illegal arrests of innocent Americans exercising their right to photograph in public (like this and this and this) are happening too often to be just a laughing matter. Congress held hearings into the harassment of photographers at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station and at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Several government agencies, including the New York Police Department (NYPD), the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority (MUNI), the Department of Transportation, and Amtrak have had to send out memos to their police officers and security personnel reiterating that photography is not a crime. Given the contradictory messages sent by SAR programs, however, it is not surprising there is confusion among the officers on the street…
What is the extent that SAR and other security programs have influenced the treatment of journalists, photographers, videographers, freelancers, etc? As the increase in security personnel on the Gulf Coast continues and becomes more and more a part of the narrative on the cleanup response (or lack thereof) in the Gulf, what might the influence of SAR program be on the treatment of press and independent videographers/photographers? How advantageous is the existence of SAR programs to BP and is BP using these programs to advance their agenda, to prevent the production of images, video and news reports that might negatively impact their market share, which recently rose 9 points?
One can see BP is exercising full authority with the cooperation of the U.S. government to severely limit access to areas where stories could be produced and told that would not follow BP’s official storyline (which seems to be that they will clean this up and find it honorable to have been tasked with the patriotic duty of “saving” the Gulf Coast). Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, wrote in a recent column:
“Stories of denial of media access accumulate like tar balls on the beach (which have now made their way into Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain and to beaches in Texas). “PBS NewsHour” reporters were repeatedly denied access to a Department of Health and Human Services “National Disaster Medical System” trailer, ringed with barbed wire. A “CBS Evening News” crew on a boat was accosted by another boat with five BP contractors and two U.S. Coast Guard members, and denied access to an oil-drenched beach.”
Adm. Thad Allen issued a directive days before the Fourth of July requiring individuals and organizations to obtain direct permission to get closer than 65 feet to any response vessels or booms out on the water or on beaches. Violators could face a fine of $40,000 and Class D felony charges. The directive ran counter to a public claim made earlier in June that the media was receiving uninhibited access.
McClelland and others have been conducting high-quality investigative reporting, confronting police blockades and areas where media access has been all but limited or shut off.
That said, what happened to Wheelan should be distinguished from media organizations. Wheelan does not have the protections someone with credentials might normally have. Individuals who do what they do have little to shield them from police intimidation that might occur as a result of requests made by property owners or nearby property owners. And, law enforcement may not understand what they are being told is repressive and out-of-line. They may not care and, in the case of Wheelan, one might find out the police officer was actually off-duty and working for BP. (To here more, listen to Mac McClelland talking with Glenn Greenwald on Salon Radio.)
However, in the case of the Pro Publica journalist being detained, your job in the media may not protect you from security interfering with your work at all.