New York City police in riot gear raided and cleared the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park around 1 a.m. Tuesday. As it happened—coincidentally or not—this was past press time for local papers. There was no mention of the raid in the New York Times on my doorstep this morning, and when I woke up around 5 a.m., TV news seemed just to be catching up—though my Twitter feed contained little else.
There are any number of reasons police would spring a raid like this in the middle of the night: to gain the element of surprise, to avoid daytime bystander crowds, or to “reduce the risk of confrontation in the park,” in the words of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But the effort to clean up the park clearly also came with an effort to contain the media and reduce the risk of adverse coverage.
Timing was only one element of the apparent effort to keep the crackdown as quiet as possible; there were several reports this morning that reporters trying to cover the raid were kept away, cordoned off, and in some cases reportedly physically pushed and restrained. Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones, who was live-tweeting the events throughout the night, reported that he was told by NYPD that journalists had to stay in a “press pen.” Lindsey Christ of local cable-news channel NY1, said on-air this morning that “the police took [the space] over, they kept everybody out and they wouldn’t let media in. It was very planned”; other journalists reported similar experiences. (Responding to a question from me on Twitter, NY1 anchor Pat Kiernan said, “Our crews had a very difficult time moving around between 1 am and 4 am. Press passes seemed not to impress the cops.”) And the New York Times’ Brian Stelter, also tweeting and sending pictures from the area and nearby Foley Square, spoke with a New York Post reporter who said he was “roughed up by riot police.”
It would be hyperbole to compare the situation in lower Manhattan with, say, the Arab Spring protests or conflicts between police and protesters or press in other countries, in scale or in violence. But the way the news emerged was similar to what we’ve seen in those and other breaking-news events: a flood of raw information online—some of it from mainstream press outlets—that eventually trickled into major print and electronic media. I read on Twitter well before I saw it reported on TV, for instance, that a judge had issued an order requiring that protesters be allowed back into the park.
That news came out eventually; news generally does. And as I write, at the peak of the morning news rush, cable and broadcast news is running some footage of the raid, and the park and protesters post-raid, on a loop. But the efforts to keep press from the initial raid itself seem—effectively and disturbingly—to have limited the mass-media images of the raid’s details that we’ve only heard described verbally. (The handheld footage above comes from a YouTube post by Russia Today.)
As of this morning, city officials say that protesters will be allowed back into the park, but will not be allowed to bring sleeping bags, tens or other camping equipment. Judging by the treatment of the media this morning, they may want to pack their own cameras.
Update: In a press conference this morning, Mayor Bloomberg claimed the restrictions on media were there to protect members of the press. Aw, thanks, Mayor Mike. And if the blackout just happens to protect the image of his administration as well, why, I guess that’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make.