It all started 11 years ago in 2007 when five Miami police officers pounced on me for photographing them against their wishes, bashing my head into the pavement while driving their knees into my back, twisting my wrist backwards while threatening to taser me if I did not stop objecting to their unlawful arrest.
Or as they phrased it, if I did not “stop resisting.”
It was a brutal arrest that left me bloodied, bruised and battered in the county jail on nine misdemeanor charges; a payback beatdown for not bowing down to their authority.
Or as I phrased it, for refusing their unlawful orders.
Their arrest report was filled with lies, contradictions and improbabilities; a false narrative to support their fabricated contempt-of-cop charges, including an absurd claim that I “got violent” with my camera while taking photos.
How does one even get violent while taking photos?
It was February 20, 2007 and George W. Bush was president, so the country was still marching to the “9/11 changed everything” mantra, which cops were using to violate our Constitutional rights. Especially when it came to photographers whom they frequently accused of committing acts of terrorism with their cameras, including myself on several previous occasions while photographing bridges and buildings in Miami.
The War on Terror had turned into the War on Photography and nobody was reporting on it.
I changed that when I launched Photography is Not a Crime two months later on a WordPress platform, joining the very active-at-the-time South Florida blogosphere which consisted of dozens of blogs covering a wide range of topics.
Birth of a Blog
I had recently moved back to Miami after living ten years away, which included an eight-year stint in the Southwest where I worked as a newspaper reporter in California, Arizona and New Mexico, covering mostly the police beat, where I would regularly expose corrupt cops.
And I had clashed with cops many times over the years over my right to take photos while covering breaking news, but usually the matter would be settled by the cops putting up yellow crime tape, setting up the perimeter.
I have been well-versed in my rights to take photos in public ever since taking a media law class in college in the 1990s, which is why I had become increasingly annoyed by goons with badges telling me I had no right to take pictures in public.
But these cops knew none of that when they first spotted me more than 50 feet away, taking photos of them threatening another man with arrest for what I later learned was refusing to sign a citation.
I was on assignment for a local news site, working on a story about gentrification in the Upper Eastside neighborhood of Miami, planning on interviewing the prostitutes that for years would walk along Biscayne Blvd. as well as the new business owners that were` running the new bars and restaurants springing up in the area.
Police presence in that area has always been strong, so when I saw the cops on the side of the road yelling at a man, I wasted no time in taking their photo with a telephoto lens.
They demanded to know what I was doing. I told them my name and said I was a journalist.
“You need to keep moving. This is a private matter,” a cop said.
“This is a public road,” I responded.
Within seconds, all five cops were surrounding me, ordering me away from the area. I stood my ground, informing them I had every right to be there.
One cop grabbed my arm and escorted me across the street, releasing me on the other side while continuing to order me away.
I remained standing on the sidewalk, photographing them as they closed in on me, refusing to move from where I was lawfully allowed to stand.
Before I knew it, I had five cops piling on top of me, pounding my head into the pavement, ordering me to stop resisting when I could barely breathe.
The arrest report claimed I had been standing in the middle of the street blocking traffic while taking photos, yelling, “This is a public road and I can do what the hell I want.”
The last photo I took before they pounced on me showed the street behind them, making it impossible for me to have been standing in the middle of the street.
If anything, they were the ones standing in the street, creating a distraction for drivers as you can see in the above photo.
Three days later, I posted the photo online along with a written description of what had taken place and it went viral, winding up on all the top aggregating sites at the time, including Digg, Boing Boing, Fark, Drudge Report and many more.
My editor at the time also wrote about the story, generating many comments.
The story was also picked up by the South Florida media and blogosphere where the issue of photographing cops in public was debated for days. One prominent blogger at the time called me “an arrogant prick” for committing what he believed to be a crime.
He was not the only clueless one about the law. Many were just mad at me because I was “disrespectful” to the cops for standing up for my rights.
Even some journalists would tell me I should not have “rocked the boat.”
But I chose to rock the boat even harder by launching Photography is Not a Crime, sparking a seven-year war between myself and the Miami-Dade County legal system, including the three police agencies that arrested me for taking photos; the transit security guards who almost killed me for taking photos (video above); the state attorney who always prosecuted me for taking photos; and the county judge whom I would beat on appeal after he proved he was biased against me for blogging about my case.
Miami-Dade Judge Jose Fernandez spent four years representing cops as a “sole practitioner” for the Professional Law Enforcement Association before he became a county judge in 2007, so he took an extreme disliking to me, allowing inadmissible evidence, which led to the jury convicting me of resisting arrest.
I appealed the conviction pro se and had it reversed after I proved he had abused his discretion when he allowed the inadmissible evidence and when he handed me a harsher sentence than recommended by the prosecutor because I displayed a lack of remorse.
A lack of remorse for taking photos?
My words became my bullets. My cameras became my guns. And my readers became my army, providing support and donations over the years, enabling me to win my legal battles and remain undefeated.
Four arrests. Two beatings. One settlement. And a whole lot of taxpayer’s money wasted trying to convict me for taking photos in public, only to wind up with no convictions.
And that is just what took place in Miami.
Witness Intimidation Charges
The Boston Police Department filed felony charges against myself and one of our interns in November 2013 because he had called them to inquire about a video that I had written about, which showed one of their detectives threatening to arrest a man for video recording.
Our intern began recording about a second after he informed the media spokeswoman he was recording, so there was no evidence he had informed her, which resulted in them filing felony wiretapping charges against him.
I responded by posting the public phone number of the media spokeswoman, asking our readers to call her and ask her to drop the charge against our intern.
Boston police responded by filing felony witness intimidation charges against me, a charge that was normally reserved for mafiosi and gangbangers.
They scheduled a court date for us in Boston, expecting us to fly up there to attend. Our intern was facing five years in prison. I was facing ten.
We were able to raise $2,000 within 24 hours through our readers to hire a high-profile lawyer in Boston, one who was very familiar with the Boston Police Department, resulting in them withdrawing the felony charges without us having to fly up there.
By the time my legal battles subsided in 2014, I had written a book on citizen journalism and had been featured in a European documentary crediting me for launching a movement of citizen journalists throughout the country standing up for their right to record police in public.
I had also won several awards and had spoken at various conferences throughout the United States on the right to record.
And I had written hundreds of articles exposing police from around the country harassing, threatening, beating or arresting citizens for recording them in public.
And while these stories were initially ignored by the corporate media, I became the “expert” they interviewed when they finally decided to start covering these incidents.
But by then, there were already many independent sites, Facebook pages and YouTube channels dedicated to exposing police abuse and educating citizens on their right to record police in public.
And now, the media does not need to interview me every time they report on of these stories because it would be overkill. And there is no need for anybody to explain what we all can see on video.
So in that regard, I’ve achieved my mission because the general public and the corporate media is much more wary and distrustful of police than they were back in 2007.