What We Did: A Moving Violation

It’s just after 12pm, and I’m in the lab chugging through a ton of digital stills, thousands of images that will be stitched together in some way to encompass the theme of Moving. Outside, something is moving towards the hotel, marching and chanting down Seventh Street towards Olive.  My comrades press against the fourth floor window and look down, and we make the same assumption at around the same time:

This must be part of the Occupy LA rally gone mobile.

For days we have been going to stories, and now a story has come to us. I grab my camera and run down the stairs. I need a break from my computer anyway.

There are perhaps four dozen protesters, by their signage part of a union representing people in the janitorial trade. Their signs, a mixture of English and Spanish, read “Justice for Janitors” and “ABM Unfair”— the latter referring to a company called American Building Maintenance, a national company that provides janitorial services to buildings around the country. Many of the marchers wear “Justice for Janitors” shirts, while others appear to have come from the nearby Occupy LA rally, currently camped in front of City Hall.

The marchers chant in Spanish, and are being lead by a short woman with long hair and a plaid shirt, a neckerchief hanging around her neck. She is playing a drum, and has the look and bearing of someone who could just as easily be fighting for indigenous rights in Chiapas as marching through Downtown L.A. Not for the first time do I find myself wishing I’d been a more diligent student of Spanish.

The marchers are taking up the sidewalk, so I go into the street to try to get a shot that might better encompass the scene.  I am no more than a car’s width from the curb and taking the first of several shots when a police cruiser honks at me. I nod in acknowledgement and get back on the sidewalk. I realize quickly that by staying on the sidewalk I’m either impeding or joining the rally.  As a journalist, to do either would be unprofessional, so I carefully head back onto the street (again no more than a car’s width out) and run ahead to the head of the march, step back on the sidewalk and begin taking more photos while moving backwards.

A moment later there is another honk. It is the same police car. Two officers step out. I explain to Officer Keenan (Badge number 25975) that I’m a journalist, and that my job necessitates my neither joining nor impeding the march that I’m covering.

Officer Keenan is not swayed, and demands my driver’s license. I am issued a citation that reads “21954(a) VC – After warning, 075 Viol run w/a in #2 lane for approximately 50 feet around parked vehicles.” I am ordered me to appear on or before December 23 to answer the charge.

There is no set fine at this point—it is a misdemeanor violation, and failure to answer it carries with it penalties approaching six months in jail and/or a thousand dollar fine, so unless I intend to go on the lam for jaywalking, I need to deal with it.  I plan to contest it, of course, on the grounds that my duty as a journalist necessitates that I neither impede nor join the subject that I am covering. Let’s hope the judge agrees.

Comments

  1. Interesting story. For sure life is not easy sometimes when you try to make your job at the best of the possibilities. Curious to know how it will end.
    robert

  2. Josh,

    Is there any chance you’ll be writing about the outcome of the court appearance on your blog, or elsewhere? I’m curious, of course, to find out whether or not you manage to beat the charge, but I’ll admit to being much more interested in the judge’s opinion — as well as his reaction — to the jaywalking situation itself.

    My hope is this: The judge will see the charge for ridiculousness it is, and toss it out, posthaste. And yet I’m still interested to hear his take on your side of the story; that is, that your job necessitated the jaywalking.

    And incidentally, isn’t it the case that you have to be crossing a street or an intersection against a red light to technically be jaywalking? It seems to me that you were just standing in the street. I can’t imagine there are any laws against that. But then again, I suppose there may be. Either way, it’d probably be worth looking into in advance of your appearance.

    At any rate, the reason I’m so interested in the outcome of your case has to do with what I consider a sort of slowly changing public perception of journalists. As a journalist myself, it’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time, and yet it occurs to me now that I’ve never actually bothered to put it into words. Let me explain what I mean:

    During Vietnam, for instance, it was simply common knowledge — by both sides, as far as I understand — that reporters and photographers were simply off-limits as far as things like harming, maiming, torturing and killing were concerned. At the time, journalists were considered neutral bystanders who were there only to do their jobs. In fact, I get the sense that was the case for all journalists, whether they covered the arts, international affairs or small-town community news.

    What’s more, their mere physical presence at an event of any sort was clearly considered important, or at least noteworthy. They were also seen as being distinctly separate from the goings on all around them, and of course that’s exactly how they should have been seen. They commanded respect. (Or at least their profession commanded respect.)

    But as far as I can tell, that’s just not how it is for journalists today. A war correspondent in modern-day Iraq or Afghanistan, for instance, is just as likely to be shot at as a solider. In war zones today, a Jeep with the word “TV” spelled out on its side-door with masking tape is generally considered to be just a Jeep, and nothing more. It’s similar for the men and women in war zones who wear flak jackets with the word “PRESS” spelled out on their backs: Instead of actually being seen as men and women of the press, I get the sense that most people — soldiers, allies, enemies, guerrillas, whomever — simply see them as men and women, period.

    That seems like such an incredible shame to me, and as a journalist myself, it also seems inherently wrong. I’m not suggesting I don’t know why it happened, because I certainly do: bloggers, citizen journalists, the internet. (All things of which I’m a fan, by the way.) I’m simply suggesting that the “system,” if we can call it that, seems to be badly broken.

    At any rate, I’m of the mind that your jaywalking experience speaks to the fact that this particular mindset — the mindset that journalists are not to be viewed differently than anyone else, since “anyone else” is perfectly capable of becoming a journalist anytime they please, as long as they have access to an internet connection — has spread widely, like a slow-moving virus. Case in point: the LAPD beat cop who gave you a ticket for doing your job.

    And yet I can’t help but wonder if that same cop might not have been a bit more lenient if he’d known you were a “real” journalist, complete with an impressive resume, and not simply some random kid shooting a YouTube video on his iPhone.

    He probably wouldn’t have, but still, I can’t help but wonder.

    P.S. I’m also sort of dying to hear what the cop in question will say in his own defense when the case comes to court. Can you let us know about that on your blog as well?

    And finally, congratulations on the wonderful work you and your team completed during the Engine29.org project. It’s clearly important work, and I’m finding it hugely inspirational.

    Thanks Josh,

    Dan Eldridge
    http://DanEldridge.wordpress.com

    • Joshua Samuel Brown says:

      Hi Dan,

      Thanks for the good words & interest. OK, here’s where we are so far: Three weeks ago I pleaded not guilty by mail, and am awaiting a response. I was going to blog the proceedings, but travel, other work & so on – you know how it is. Minus some personal information, here’s the letter I wrote:

      Attention: Judges Consideration
      Los Angeles Superior Court
      Metropolitan Branch
      1945 S. Hill Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007

      With regards to:
      Citation Number: B424261
      Name: Joshua Samuel Brown
      DOB: x/x/xxxx
      Driver’s License #: x/x/x/x/x
      Current Address:
      C/O
      USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism
      etc.,

      Your Honor,

      My name is Joshua Samuel Brown. I am a journalist currently working for a variety of digital and print publications. On November 8 , 2011, I was in Los Angeles as part of the USC Annenberg Arts Journalism Program.

      At approximately 12:00 hours, members of my program gathered at the fourth floor window of the room in which we were working to observe a political rally heading west on the south side of 7th street. As one of the photojournalists taking part in the program, I descended to the lobby to cover the rally on behalf of the program’s journalism website, http://www.engine29.org. While executing my duty, I was ticketed by Officer Keenan (Badge Number 25975) for Jaywalking and ordered to answer the charge on or before December 26, 2011. After discussing my options with a clerk at the court the next day, I am opting to answer this charge by mail. I respectfully request that the charge be dismissed on the following grounds:

      · The protest took up the full width of the sidewalk for an entire block. As a journalist, it is vital to my credibility to remain impartial. Remaining on the sidewalk would have entailed joining or otherwise lending tacit support to the protesters and their goals.

      · As a journalist, accuracy is paramount to the credibility of my reportage. Upon stepping off the curb, I used the parking lane of the street to make my way to the head of the rally, doing so purposefully and carefully and without causing a disruption to traffic. This allowed me to both make an accurate count of the people involved and to take photographs of the protesters themselves without having to compromise journalistic neutrality.

      Included with this letter, please find the following documentation:

      · The original ticket
      · A printed copy of the report filed on the afternoon of 11/8/2011, covering both the rally and the ticketing itself.
      · A press release from USC Annenberg establishing my participation in the USC Annenberg Arts Journalism Program.

      I am not a resident of California, and may be traveling abroad beginning in the first month of 2012. It is my deepest wish to resolve this issue, and therefore request that communication regarding this matter, if communication by email is not possible, be sent to:

      Joshua Samuel Brown C/O
      Program Coordinator, Arts Journalism Programs
      USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism

      USC will inform me of the court’s verdict, and I will take any appropriate action.

      Thank you for your attention in this matter,

      Joshua Samuel Brown

      ~~~ So far, I haven’t heard back. Let’s see what the judge thinks.

  3. Wow – fantastic letter, Josh. I’d actually be surprised if this doesn’t play out in your favor. Let us know!

    All the best,
    Dan

Trackbacks

  1. […] My team members also documented their processes. Michele, a producer on the great public radio show Studio 360, produced these beautiful audio slideshows featuring people we interviewed. Joshua, an incredible travel writer, wrote these epic travelogues interspersed with short films (and in a quite ironic twist, even managed to get a jaywalking ticket). […]