BPD arbitrarily blocks press access throughout controversial demonstration
PHOTOS BY KORI FEENER
The scene on Boston Common this past Saturday hardly resembled the mass demonstrations that roiled the Hub in August. This time, tens of thousands of people didn’t come out from across New England to protest against ultra right-wing groups. Instead, only a few hundred folks came to condemn the hate speech that those who spoke on the bandstand defend vigorously.
At the same time, there were some familiar occurrences. Namely, the Boston Police Department came to the defense of the so-called free speech defenders, stepping on freedom of the press in the process.
By 11 am, there was already a small crowd of counterprotesters by barricades preventing them from entering the rally area by Parkman Bandstand. Some gave interviews to journalists; others spoke with the police at the gate, making attempts to enter; a few waved anti-fascist flags.
Nearby, members of the media were clustered by a checkpoint that an officer—at yet another checkpoint—directed us to. One reporter told DigBoston, “We were told we’d be allowed in. [We’ve] been unable to speak with anyone. I can’t tell how genuine they [the organizers] are. I can’t hang them without their words … can’t form an opinion without their statements.” A mainstream radio reporter chimed in, “We’re in the same boat, just waiting here.”
Prior to the rally, the New England chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists—along with the New England First Amendment Coalition, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union—put Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner William Evans on notice. Referring to the event last summer, the aforementioned groups wrote: “Journalists could not hear what participants said, record or photograph the proceedings near the Bandstand, or interview participants, including about the reasons for their involvement and views.” For Saturday, they requested “that significant changes be made to comply with the First Amendment, while ensuring public safety, with regard to the ‘Rally for the Republic’ planned for November 18.”
You would have thought that such a letter and amicus brief would have at least resulted in a specified media entrance. That didn’t happen. Instead, journalists were bounced from checkpoint to checkpoint, spending significant time requesting access into gates so that they could conduct interviews with speakers and rallygoers. Even when approached politely to ask for direction, most officers were rude, unknowledgeable, and misguided.
A WBUR reporter tried to get into the barricades at around 12:11 and tweeted out, “This is as close as @bostonpolice is allowing @WBUR to the ‘Anti-Marxist’ rally speakers on Boston Common for now.” The station retweeted.
The reporter told DigBoston, “I tried to get across the barricades to the bandstand but was told by BPD officers that they were awaiting instructions before letting anyone through. Police officers then told press that people would be allowed through another entrance first. After a while, a police officer said he had no instructions to let anyone through.” A member of the ACLU then informed him that press could enter at another checkpoint, and he was eventually admitted.
Journalists from television stations said they were able to get in only after the program began at noon. Some reporters—including those from DigBoston, WBZ, BU News Service, and several freelance photographers—waited around for up to two hours before that. A newspaper journalist said, “I just came in with the crowd, right around noon. It was weird because I got here really early, I was stuck out there forever … They kept us out for—I don’t know why.”
There was apparently a discrepancy between how some legacy news organizations were treated, being given easier access, and how smaller, independent publications were handled. One Boston 25 reporter walked right through the barricades after the speakers began talking. “It was super easy,” they told Dig “They actually didn’t even wand us because we are with Boston 25.”
Other reporters, including yours truly, were wanded for security purposes. One friendly officer was hungry and seemed interested in the stale bread in my purse.
Lisa Button is a reporter with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, and wanted to be situated behind the barricades before the event.
“I just feel like right now, similar to what happened in August, we’re being prevented from conducting interviews before the event,” Button said. “I was hoping to come here and interview those attending the rally, but it is the same as before, no one is getting close to where the planned activity is … I feel like something should be done.” She was allowed in more than one hour later.
This is how things went down despite an email written by a BPD legal advisor to the ACLU prior to Saturday:
As to the City’s position on media access on Saturday, it is the City’s position that members of the media will not be restricted from entering any areas accessible to event participants. Additionally, members of the media will not be restricted on what equipment they can bring to the event. Of course should public safety concerns arise, there may be restrictions put in place, but at this time there are no such restrictions anticipated.
Asked about this statement, as well as protester arrests and media access at the event, BPD spokesperson Officer James Kenneally confirmed “that there were 3 arrests made during today’s event on Boston Common (2 for Disorderly Conduct and 1 for Assault & Battery on a Police Officer)” but offered little more. Kenneally wrote in an email to DigBoston:
[T]here’s not much more info available at this time. That said, Commissioner Evans is on record saying the following: ‘From a public safety perspective, today’s event on Boston Common couldn’t have gone much better and I certainly have my officers to thank for that. Their constant poise and professionalism never goes unnoticed and I thank them again for a job well done.’
As for complaints relative to media access allowed during today’s event, your complaint is the first and only one we’ve received. In fact, media members we’ve spoken to had no issues with access provided today.
DigBoston responded with screenshots of complaints lodged on social media. To which the BPD spokesperson responded:
Good to know, Sarah. Thank you. As for complaints relative to media access allowed during today’s event, again, your complaint remains the first and only one we’ve received unless Fred Thys wants to contact our office directly. And, not to be repetitive, but the media members we’ve spoken to had no issues relative to access provided during today’s event.
Even if the tweet referenced above mentioned the Boston Police Department, apparently, it was not considered an official complaint. That begs the question: How much in addition to an amicus memorandum and letter from preeminent civil rights and journalism organizations will it take for the City of Boston and its police department to recognize the necessities of unfettered access and the harm that is being caused by hampering press freedoms? Do they expect every reporter or freelance journalist to feel comfortable enough to lodge a complaint by phone without the concern that this will hamper future interactions with the BPD? Do they understand that some reporters need the permission of an editor to make that phone call? Most bite the bullet and tweet or post on Facebook about it, and considering the level of social media surveillance done by the BPD, perhaps this should shout “red flag, fix it.”
Despite BPD claims, and assurances from public officials that media without proper credentials would have access to the bandstand, several independent photographers and documentarians were blocked. DigBoston spoke with Isaac Wright-Lichter and Chris Tribou, two documentarians who occasionally work in public access television, and Wright-Lichter said, “We wanted to get closer to the speakers so we could include better footage … We asked one set of police officers. They said we could go around. We thought we had misunderstood, and were confused. We asked another group [of officers] what the best entrance to get in was, and they said we just ‘couldn’t go in.’”
Following the speeches on the bandstand, police led demonstrators through a safe exit for their march to the State House. Officers rode bikes on both sides of the moving rally, while other cops flanked in front and behind the contingent. By Park and Beacon streets, police vehicles and lines of officers blockaded both lanes, with counterprotesters kept at a distance, save for a couple of people who engaged in heated face-to-face debates on race.
Despite the respect and protection they got from police, organizers of the “free speech” fandango also disapproved of the way BPD handled media.
“The conditions they applied in August were not acceptable,” one rally organizer told DigBoston. “We wanted to hold a public rally.” As for Saturday’s event, they continued, “We know that the well-known media organizations were let in, so that is a big improvement; what is not an improvement and needs to be corrected is we invited other media to come with us, and we told the police that they were supposed to come in, and that media was prevented from coming in or had their equipment taken away.”
Sarah is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal.