Wednesday, September 10, 2008
I never saw the policeman that shot me, neither did I feel it directly -- what I felt were the pieces of my camera that exploded in my face when the 40mm crowd-control round struck it.
I am a freelance photojournalist. Last Monday, I was in St. Paul, Minnesota, covering the Republican National Convention for Atlas Press Photo, an international photographic agency. Through Atlas, I was credentialed to cover the proceedings from inside the convention hall. But Monday was the “Day of Action,” as various protest groups called it, and I, along with most of the media assembled in St. Paul, felt that the true newsworthy events of the day would occur not inside the convention hall, but on the streets outside of it.
So as the sun rose I found myself on the calm, clean streets of what seemed to me to be one of the more welcoming of the cluster of mid-sized cities that dot the center of the country. At ‘round ten o’clock the action began. A car was parked in the middle of an intersection with people chained inside, forming a blockade. Nearby, a group of people sat down on an interstate off-ramp and chained their arms together inside PVC piping, forming another blockade. Blocks from this, police detained twenty or thirty masked, black-clothed protestors.
Then the real action began. A “Black Block” -- as such loose assemblages of protesting anarchists are called -- of roughly 500 people began running through the streets of downtown St. Paul doing what anarchists do. They smashed windows of all kind, they took 4-pound hammers to police cars, they rolled heavy objects into the street to slow down police, they through smoke bombs and block-busters, they freed fellow black-clad travelers from the hands of police. They yelled, they chanted: “Whose streets? Our fucking streets!” Then, when cops closed in, they ran.
The streets were calm for a moment, as both protesters and police caught their collective breaths and re-grouped. I went to a coffee shop to edit and transmit the pictures I had shot. When my task was complete, back to the battlefield I went.
The streets that had been riotous in the morning were calmer in the afternoon. Instead of smashing windows and blocking intersections, the group I encountered simply marched around shouting slogans. No property was damaged, and no streets were blockaded. It was so tame, in fact, that I wanted to leave and find some more animated anarchists. But when I (and another photographer) tried to walk away, a line of riot policemen appeared. We tried to let them pass us and pursue the group, but their leader commanded us to move forward.
A minute later the shooting started. The crowd, numbering roughly 100, tried to turn a corner. When they did, they came face-to-face with armored police on horseback and a tactical team firing riot guns at them. “BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!” the guns sounded, as the horses charged the scattering crowd. From across the street I watched as the police advanced, firing their 40mm riot guns at will. Some people, blinded by tear-gas or hit by the projectiles, stumbled and fell into police custody. Others continued running, up to the next corner and down the block toward a parking lot.
I followed, capturing images of detained protesters and police as I moved. I was not shot at, let alone told to leave or threatened with arrest as I moved and took pictures. My press credentials swayed from my neck as I moved, and the officers seemed to recognize the fact that I was a working, professional journalist, as opposed to some drama-junkie with a camera. They let me do my job, and I thanked them for letting me do it whenever they were close enough to hear.
Then a skirmish line of roughly 100 riot police charged the remainder of the crowd, which they had trapped in a parking lot bounded by the walls of three buildings. Knowing to stay out of their way as they worked, I glued myself to the side of one of the buildings and shot. A group of officers had just taken down a protester, with one of the officers driving his billy-club between the cheeks of the young man, forcing him face-down into the ground. I was switching cameras, going from the one with the long glass to the one with the short glass, when it happened.
The camera exploded in my face and I was trying to figure out exactly what happened when a group of the black-clad cops ran at me from all directions, trapping me against the wall. Using their sticks, they pushed me to the ground where, with their boots, they pinned me. One cop took his stick and poked me repeatedly in the genitals. Another punched me in the face. The entire time I was yelling “PRESS! PRESS! PRESS!” but it didn’t stop them. They flipped me over, and handcuffed me behind my back so tight that my hands were numb in minutes.
I tasted blood in my mouth, and spit it out.
I kept repeating the words “PRESS! PRESS! PRESS!” over and over. Finally, a Secret Service agent appeared and ripped the credentials from my neck. He took my phone, called my employers, and verified that I was, in fact, a professional press photographer. Then he left, leaving me in the hands of the Minneapolis police department. Taken to jail, I again identified myself as credentialed press photographer, but all jail officials did was show me to a cell.
Two days later I was released, on $300 bail, and given a summons charging me with unlawful assembly and interfering with legal process. When I left the jail I met two other press photographers who had been arrested in the parking lot with me. One of them was Matt Rourke, of the Associated Press, the other was Nathan Weber, a freelancer for the Chicago Tribune. Rourke had been near me when I was being arrested, and had been released without charge later than night. Weber had run when he saw when was happening, only to be chased down and beaten by a group of plain-clothed cops.
That night, Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin gave a speech in part attacking the media. I couldn’t help but recall my treatment and think that, as Republicans were rhetorically bashing the press inside the convention hall, their minions were literally beating the press on the streets outside.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
It really was a bit much.
It began with the grandiose locale, a stadium high in the Rocky Mountains. Then there was the gauche Greco-Roman archway that formed the backdrop of the stage and through which speakers passed on their way to and from the lectern. And, of course, there was the lectern itself: perched atop a round, raised dais surrounded by a semi-circle of the powerful and otherwise privileged it seemed more fitting for a Soprano than for a first among equals.
So when the time finally arrived, after speaker after adulatory speaker had sung the man’s praises for hours, days even, when that moment finally arrived and America’s supposed savior stepped from the shadows to accept the shiny mantel that now sits upon his bony shoulders, when this moment came, I really did half-expect him to have Olive branches wrapped around his head.
But, alas, Barack Obama did not appear -- at least to me -- as the half-celestial, half-human Olympian spawn his Hollywood-trained handlers have packaged him to be. Instead, he reminded me of the stereotypical Black preacher who wears custom-tailored suits and drives Cadillacs because, he says, that’s what the people expect from him, that’s how the people want their leader to look.
Maybe I think this way because some racist residuum has taken hold in my brain and refused to yield to the notion of a Black president. But that seems too easy an answer.
No, more likely, I think, my cynical New York City-trained brain causes me to question anyone who promises to solve all our problems swiftly and easily with the stroke of a presidential pen. Some things really are too good to be true.
In other words, my exposure to shysters and sellers of all color and kind has blessed me with the ability to recognize when someone is trying to sell me some dream or something.
So, make no mistake, Barack Obama is indeed trying to sell a dream to the American people. If he was not, he would not have said “I” as many times as he did. If he was not, he would have said “we” as much as he said “I” and stressed both the severed nature of the challenges ahead, and the absolute need for collective action to overcome them. Rarely has any one man achieved as much as Obama pledged to accomplish Thursday night.
It really was a bit much.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
DENVER, COLORADO; AUGUST 25, 2008, INSIDE THE PEPSI CENTER, SITE OF THE 2008 DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE
I’ve shot Michelle Obama a few times now.
And every time I see her through the magnifying eye of my camera lens I’m left with the impression of a shy, physically awkward girl --girl, that’s a deliberate choice -- forced into the spotlight. If asked why, I’d say it wasn’t so much in what she said or how she said it, it was in the way she carried herself. Maybe it’s just because she’s so tall, but, then again, maybe it’s because she feels that her husband has gotten himself into some pretty deep water -- water that he will survive only if fate turns favorably toward him and the Secret Service continues to do the outstanding job it has of keeping him alive.
Indeed, who but the Kennedy's was he implicitly compared to last night on the stage of the Pepsi Center in Denver?
Which is why Michele Obama’s speech there was so extraordinary. It was near-perfect grace under fire. It was powerfully delivered, at times in something akin to what poets call meter and what we call rhythm. It was tough. It was soft. But above all it was moving. As a lawyer, she is trained in oral argument. But what we heard last night was far from a sterile analysis of law and facts. No, what we heard last night came from somewhere else. Some cherished, magnificent place inside of her where all is as it should be and the peace and power emanating from there allows a person to be all she can be, all she wants to be.
And from this place Michelle Obama reached across and touched the same place inside of you, a part that perhaps, like me, you felt no longer existed.
She makes a convincing case for her husband to be President. I mean, if this is the kind of woman -- woman, that’s a deliberate choice -- that Barack Obama lays down next to every night he must be as good as she is. They’re the kind of smart, serious, sincere people that you know, you just know, will succeed if given the chance. They just work like that. More than this, though, you want them to succeed. They’re the kind of couple you hope for. They’re the kind of couple you want to hang out with. They’re the kind of couple you wish to be and, in a perfect world, the kind of couple you would be.
But the world’s far from perfect and, hope, wish, pray, whatever we do, or don’t, that world is about to come crashing down on them, and on us.
We see it descending now. Domestically, two Bush terms have left this country rotting from the inside out. Mortgage foreclosures blanket the Nation. Debt of all kind, from college to credit cards, including the National Debt, holds all of us down. Gasoline is $4 a gallon. Cynicism and malaise infect everyone, young and old alike. Internationally, we are in two win-less wars, earning us the enmity of folks around the world -- and some motherfucking Bedouins from the Seventh Century want to set off a nuclear bomb in New York City, my goddamned hometown. And, if this weren’t bad enough, the time to do something about global warming may have past.
Of course there’s always hope. So it’s a good thing the Obamas have more to offer than just that.
Monday, August 25, 2008
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Wondervu, by far, exceeded the expectations that its name created.
Just before dawn I woke and submerged myself in the hot-tub. I leaned my head back and fixed his eyes upon the firmament above, black, bottomless and adorned with stars as jewels encrust a crown, infinite, and watched as night became day.
I watched as the sky turned purple, then pale, then pink, then gold. Facing west, toward the Rockies, I watched as, suddenly, the first rays of the on-rushing day broke all at once over the hill behind me like a great luminescent wave cresting across the sky. I watched as, like a washtub filling in reverse, the wave turned the tips of the Rockies gold before flowing down the mountains -- incrementally, inevitably, time-ticking -- until everything, all I could see, was bathed in the sun’s fiery light.
In the distance the mountains, once obscured by night, stood grey and majestic. Splotches of white -- still un-melted snow -- pocketed the grey at the highest points of the tall peaks. A cool breeze blew from their direction, seething into the wind that constantly came from the south. Leaves shimmered on the trees. The sound of a table-saw came to life, and a peek through the woods revealed a man cutting wood next to his cabin up the hill.
I sparked some of the weed our host had so graciously given us, took a deep draught, and sank beneath the water.
Life had never been better.
From Missouri we blasted through Kansas.
Never before had I seen a place so flat. A sea of corn and grain of all kinds blanketed the earth for as far as I could see. Every few miles or so towering silver silos would rise from the green sea into the blue sky. Frequently, but not always, houses and small buildings would be clustered around these silos which, when looked at from a distance, resemble something like archipelagos.
And the people who live on these inland islands and work the fields surrounding them look every bit like the stranded survivors they are. They are tall and thin and strong. Their forearms ripple when their bony, calloused fingers grasp something. Many of the older ones are hard of hearing, from years of exposure to noisy farm machinery. The faces of the youth betray the cold hatred that freezes their hearts of their rural confinement.
Yet they stay. The last names of the people who occupy these inland islands have been on local civic records since those records were first transcribed. Before that, their ancestors’ names can be found in dusty, rotting Church ledgers that first made the trip west in wagons. You name it, these people have lived through it: hostile natives, war, depressions, the Dust Bowl years, cultural upheaval, tornados, ad infinitum.
It all blurs past, at an easy eighty miles an hour, through the VOTE truck’s glass. Through the windshield, the gray asphalt of the highway shoots straight out until it disappears over the horizon. To the point it vanishes, the highway undulates across the bumps and dips that amount to hills and valleys across the great plain. Billboards remind drivers of God’s coming wrath and the need to repent; of places to see six-legged steer and the world’s largest prairie dog; and the newly-expanded roadside porn-palace.
“For truckers,” Clark says.
We drive on. The sky goes from blue to gray to orange then black; the golden sun transforms itself into a burning red ball. As the sun sinks low in the sky, it disappears behind a farm, bathing it in a burning, blinding red light, making it appear as if it’s on fire. An hour later we cross the state line into Colorado. The plain continues all the way to Denver. Clark says that, in daylight, the foothills of the Rockies can be seen in the distance, behind the city. But all I see is black.
We drive through the City into its northern suburbs. As we drive the road steadily climbs. At a light we make a left. Turning into a small canyon that cuts through the hills, the road climbs ever-steeper into the hills. The canyon walls close in around us. A small green sign tells us where we are, “Wondervu” it says. Dallas announces we are close to our destination – a cabin owned by a friend of his on the western side of the Front Range, as these hills are called.
Making a right onto a dirt road, we follow it to its end. “We’re here,” Dallas says.