#PeacefulStreets Project: More Unconstitutional Copwatching Arrests in Austin
Under your department’s rules officers are free to create a chilling effect upon far more speech (photography/recording is deemed a form of speech for First Amendment protections) than is necessary to achieve a substantial government interest … We believe that if challenged, such a directive would be deemed to be unconstitutional. –National Press Photographers Association General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher in a letter to Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo
Police accountability activist Antonio Buehler arrested a third time for filming police; Occupy Austin’s Sarah Dickerson arrested also
September 20 marked another Peaceful Streets Project copwatch. Though these happen often, this copwatch had a heightened tension due to a recent court decision in the trial of long time copwatcher John Bush. Bush was arrested for filming the police in mid-December of 2011, before Antonio’s New Years Eve arrest which inspired the Peaceful Streets. Despite video evidence showing a lack of interference with police duties, John Bush was convicted for refusing orders that would have put a traffic sign between their cameras and notorious Austin Police Department Officer Jason Mistric. Mistric is known for harassing cyclists and for threatening Occupy Austin members, including myself, with pepper spray in February.
Pixiq has the lurid tale, from Mistric’s Facebook stalking of Bush and his wife (using the porntastic nom de plume Max Rock) through to last week’s conviction for “interfering with public duties:”
A Texas cop watcher was found guilty Wednesday for not moving away while he was video recording a cop on a public street last winter. John Bush was charged with failure to comply with a lawful order when a cop ordered him to stand behind a street sign to continue recording. Austin police officer Jason Mistric claimed he was ‘interfering,’ even though the video shows he was merely standing on a sidewalk, several feet from where officers were making an arrest.
Further complicating matters was the recent Austin Police Department flip-flop on filming distance. As previously reported on Firedoglake, Austin Police Department threatened to require a 50′ to 60′ filming distance from any police situation; this threat was issued after Buehler’s second arrest during a 6th Street copwatch in late August. Last week, APD seemed to back down. KVUE reported, “No restrictions on distance public can stand, film officers:”
Austin police say there are no rules for where you can stand and record what they do. At a news conference in August, they said they’d like anyone filming to stay 50 to 60 feet away, but now there are no restrictions. Of course, it was the Aug. 26 arrest of Antonio Buehler that put this issue in the spotlight. … Police now say it’s up to the officers to decide a safe distance.
To this journalist, this announcement seemed like a victory for first amendment rights. Unfortunately, rather than a message of respect toward our right to film public servents, this was instead a notice to activists — we can arrest you at any time. Early Thursday evening, Twitter’s @chapeaudefee reported that Peaceful Streets’ Joshua “Comrade” Pineda had encountered a tense situation where while copwatching he was threatened to back up or face arrest:
.@Pisce_Incarnate [Comrade] was just harassed by about three officers and DUI officer w/expensive camera. [Police] locked down the sidewalk so Peaceful Streets members could not approach. No reason given why. Told them arbitrary distance to step back. Our teams are debriefing about the situation.
@chapeaudefee is Sarah Dickerson, a member of Occupy Austin who livetweeted during Occupy Boston’s eviction and other events. As a member of OATX Team Chupacabra, she contributed alongside this journalist to Firedoglake’s live coverage of September 17, 2012. Though she’d escaped arrest during tense situations with both Boston and New York police, before the night was out the Austin Police Department arrested her for filming the arrest of Antonio Buehler.
Peaceful Streets Project members use the Lonestar Liberty Bell alert network to communicate by phone. At 1:08am Antonio phoned in an alert — he and his copwatch team were filming a Driving Under the Influence police stop west of the club district; Oborski, the same officer who arrested him for falsified assault charges last New Years’ Eve was running the stop. Five minutes later, another alert came in:
Based on discussion with witnesses and Buehler & Dickerson themselves, it appears that Oborski began giving orders to Buehler as soon as the copwatchers arrived. Buehler complied with orders to move away given by Oborski, and then further orders given by Oborski’s backup, Holmes & Johnson, who soon drove up on the scene. According to a press release by Debbie Russell:
Then Officer Johnson stepped in and repeated the ‘back up’ command, to which Buehler said ‘how far?’ Buehler again moved back another 10′ but Johnson told him to ‘move over there or leave.’ He motioned to the other side of the police vehicle, putting him CLOSER to the detention – an illogical command. Buehler continued to protest this illogical issue, while backing up further, saying that he wasn’t interfering and was complying with orders to move AWAY from the scene.
Johnson said again, ‘move over there (closer to the detention) or leave’ at which point both PSPers were nearly 60′ away, and Buehler responded, ‘fine, I’m leaving,’ as he proceeded to walk away. It was this point that Johnson and Officer Holmes announced they would be arrested. Holmes then walked Buehler within a few feet of the detention to proceed to the APD vehicle, belying the notion that getting too close to the scene puts anyone in jeopardy.
[Update: Buehler has contacted me to say that the press release is incorrect; the copwatch team was at least 100′ away, not 60′ away when arrested.]
Moments later, Sarah Dickerson was handcuffed while attempting to film Buehler’s arrest. Two remaining members of Buehler’s team continued to film as a pair until backed up by myself and other PSP activists who then left as a group. Both Buehler and Dickerson were charged with the same misdemeanor class C, Interfering With Public Duties, charged against John Bush, Bush’s ally Matthew Medina and Buehler himself at his previous arrest.
Peaceful Streets and Occupy Austin supporters then camped out all night and into the following afternoon on the hard benches and ground outside Travis County Jail awaiting the release of our allies; the courtyard outside soon became decorated with blankets, bundles of food and water, chalk drawings and ‘Film the Police’ signs as visitors came and went with supplies. Activists shared water, phone calls, and solidarity with others being released, spreading the word of Peaceful Streets and Occupy to new ears. One wit even chalked the name Byron Carter on a nearby police memorial.
Constitutional Concerns and Accusations of Violence
A letter issued by the National Press Photographers Association’s general counsel (.pdf link, excerpted at the top of this article) raises serious concerns about the constitutionality of these arrests. Filming the police is a constitutional right, essential to our freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. The Department of Justice has intervened before on behalf of filming the police. NPPA Counsel Osterreicher’s letter raises further concerns about the fate of the three confiscated cameras (two taken from Buehler, one from Dickerson):
Finally, in its very liberal recitation of “exigent circumstances” it is not surprising that this policy states “a search warrant should be obtained before viewing the recorded images, video, or sound;” when it must actually read “a search warrant must first be obtained before viewing the recorded images, video, or sound (emphasis added).”
What is it about being filmed that makes Austin Police so scared? Why is being filmed equated with physical interference or even threats of violence? Despite the risk that the arrests put on all local journalists, mainsteam media continues to repeat claims by Austin Police Association Wayne Vincent, Police Chief Acevedo and others that PSP presence incites violence rather than simply documents it. Peaceful Streets Project seems unmoved, however, holding emergency tactical meetings over the weekend and planning their expansion into other cities. They held their first rally in Houston, Texas today.
Dickerson, a graduate student in art who feels her activism is intimately linked with her creative side, reflected on her arrest in a statement to her blog, Cosmos from Chaos:
Filming the police is integral in protecting the legal rights of activists, and it levels the playing field. In an arrest, the police hold all power, and we must submit to the arrest, to the police brutality, to the devastating effects of the prison system on our humanity, and then we pray that we have enough money and a decent enough lawyer to get us through the legal system. The right to film the police is the least of what we could and should be asking for. There will never be justice on scene or in the media again if we are not free to document and film those in power and to hold them accountable.