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Hidden in Plain Sight: Media Workers for Social Change, Chapter 9
Geoffrey King is the subject of this ninth chapter of “Media Workers for Social Change,” the series by Peter M. King is a public interest lawyer serving the community of media workers, and a professional documentarian of social protest. In the photo below, he stands on the Mario Savio Steps in front of Sproul Hall, where the Free Speech Movement was born. The FSM influenced King, and he wanted to be photographed in this spot. A long lens compressed the steps, which appear almost as a solid wall behind him.
Geoffrey King’s only formal education in photography was a photo unit in a vocational class in crime scene investigation he took in community college, taught by a greatly experienced ex-cop. “We had to get a picture of something blurry with a slow shutter speed,” King said. Going out with his camera, he saw a campus policewoman about to pull away in a patrol car, approached her, explained his assignment, and asked if he could take a photo of her in motion. “No,” she said. “Do I have a right to?” King asked. “You don’t have any rights when it comes to taking pictures of me!” she responded. “So I go to my teacher and tell him what happened, and he’s like ‘WHAT? Did you get her badge number? She needs to be suspended! She needs to be reprimanded! That is ridiculous, that is a violation of your first amendment rights!’” The experience was a formative lesson for King: “Not all cops are bad,” he said, “and some will lie to you about your rights.”
King now has careers in both law and photography. His full time job is with First Amendment Project, a nonprofit organization providing free legal representation in free speech cases, and he additionally freelances as a photographer, specializing in photography of protest. I met with King at his studio apartment in Noe Valley near the Mission District the day after the nighttime demonstration protesting the sentencing of Johannes Mehserle, the BART cop who shot and killed young Oscar Grant on New Year’s Eve 2009. King had photographed that demonstration, and we talked about it at length before moving on to other topics.
The sentence given Mehserle was very light, a little over the time he had already served. “I knew the sentence was going to be announced,” King told me. “I brought my camera to work, and a helmet just in case, and my flash, and an extra lens.” The First Amendment Project office, located in downtown Oakland, closed down early out of concern for the safety of its workers. King, however, went to the streets.
At first he made several perimeter sweeps to see where police had stationed themselves. There were hundreds of police; probably enough to outnumber what would be a smallish turnout of demonstrators. He also touched base with other journalists he knew. He greeted several photographers who were regulars at protests. There was a rally near Frank Ogawa Plaza downtown, and King went there and started working. After a while, some protesters started saying, “Why don’t we march?” They did, and King clustered with other photographers following them. “It got chaotic very quickly,” he said. Police started arriving en masse, forming a skirmish line. The marchers went far ahead, while King and others were held back, until the police let them go and jumped in their cars and drove to catch up with the protesters. That left King and his cohorts out of the action. King got a ride in a car with some legal observers going back downtown. There he was met with a series of police lines between himself and what was going on with the protesters, who were too far away to see.
King approached an officer and presented his press pass from the Demotix agency. “Never heard of it,” said the cop. King explained it is a British wire service with partnerships with major news outlets. “No—I don’t think so,” said the cop. King offered his qualifications. “I’ve been doing this eight years, I’ve photographed the President, I’ve done stuff in Bosnia, I’ve just come back from the Gulf Coast … ” The cop cut him off, saying “Alright! Alright!” He let King through, and King then negotiated a second and third line without a problem. He arrived at the place where the mainstream news had taken their spots. There was in the end not so much action there. “I wasn’t there with the protesters when things were really chaotic,” King said, “I just lost ‘em.”
As we were talking, King checked his phone. “I just got a message from a friend while we were sitting here. I was just commenting on how good his photos were—he’s an excellent independent, committed photographer—and he was assaulted. The guy broke his lens. “ King heard about the same thing happening to other photographers during the Oscar Grant protests. Later he came to find out that the motive behind the assaults was robbery and not political ideology. He was nevertheless troubled. Hearing King out I understood that the difficult economic situation for the underclass can lead to crimes of opportunity, which in turn make it difficult for youth to get their message out in the media, since independent photographers and others who might try their best to transmit that message can become intimidated from covering protests and other stories. Meanwhile, I thought, mainstream media blatantly ignore the message of the youth. More attention is paid when people riot, but then the stories of the rioting are usually distorted. And the mainstream media are the ones who routinely get the best police access.
King’s black and white photos from that night, available on his Facebook page, are underexposed; all but one shot in the darkness of the night. “Underexposed” should be in quotes, since it is an interpretation; it is his method, not a mistake. The meaning of the photos can be found in details that emerge from the dark into the light, such as the automatic rifle casually held by a cop, or the face of a dark complexioned, passionate protester. King told me he works with uneven areas of light by waiting for the subject to come into the path of a light source, whether the source is a streetlamp or a car or a flashlight. Or he adds just a touch of directed flash, such as in one picture where his flash lights up a sign that says, “A Badge is not a license to murder” while illuminating the faces of three protesters—two having intimate words, while a third yells into a megaphone. The rest of the scene, including a cloudy sky, is somehow there, but so dark as to barely register. It’s a technique King figured out on his own, and to my eye it really works.
As he impressed upon the obstinate cop, King is working on a long-term project of photography of protest, which he started on the first day of the Iraq war. “It’s a photo essay over an arc of almost eight years now, so it’s sort of an overarching narrative of the tension between freedom of speech and expression and the state.”
King self-published his first photo book, Such a Bittersweet Day: The Marriage Equality Movement in the Wake of Prop 8, the proceeds from which are to go “to organizations fighting for civil rights, equality and health” according to the book’s website. The title derives from the fact Barack Obama was elected on the same day California voters took the right to marry away from same-sex couples. The book gives King a chance to stretch out with a long series of pictures, from intimate portraits to action shots in the streets. Beyond his evident high level of talent and ability, the book is also a testament to his caring for the freedom of others, something often missing in mainstream photography.
“I grew up in Vallejo,” King told me, “sort of a working class town. My parents are just regular folks, and I went to schools in a district that had to be bailed out to the tune of $60 million in 2004. The city went bankrupt in 2008. I went to community college and I ended up at two very good schools for undergrad and law school [Berkeley and Stanford] and just feel really, really lucky about that. I have a huge law school debt, but I’m also very lucky because Stanford has this loan repayment program where because I’m a public interest lawyer, they’re paying off my loans, and that allows me to work for not very much money.” King makes just over $30,000 a year, about one-fifth of what he could make at a corporate firm. His loans, totaling $200,000, will be paid off over ten years if he keeps up the work.
First Amendment Project (or FAP) successfully helped Indybay during my time there as photo coordinator, when the California Highway Patrol unfairly revoked our press passes. We discovered correspondence between the Humboldt County Sheriff and the top cop at the Highway Patrol that showed their reasons to be political and not based in a constitutional policy. Threatening action, we won our cards back. Shortly thereafter the CHP dropped their press-credentialing program altogether, in part perhaps because they couldn’t screen us out.
More recently, in what has been King’s biggest win so far, FAP represented Indybay photographer David Morse, who was arrested and had his camera confiscated by UC Berkeley police at a demonstration in front of the Chancellor’s residence on campus on December 11, 2009. FAP saw the warrant for the camera quashed. I participated in the case at King’s request, signing a declaration that said, in effect, that Morse is a legitimate journalist as a member of the Indybay collective, and should have the same rights accorded to mainstream journalists, which include not being arrested for taking pictures, and not having your camera taken away to be searched for evidence. FAP is now suing the UCPD and other agencies on Morse’s behalf, asking in part that there be better training for officers in how to treat the independent press.
Morse had been covering the actions of Berkeley students who had been trying a number of creative ways to protest hikes in school tuition that were pricing many of them out of their education, which had included occupations of buildings that seem to have pissed off some in the University of California Police Department. According to his narrative published on Indybay, Morse drove to campus to photograph a benefit concert for the protesters that included Boots Riley and the Coup, but he arrived late. He found a group of a hundred or so leaving the concert had started marching and he followed them. They wound up at the Chancellor’s residence, where a small group did some vandalism. Morse was photographing the damage, and the larger group as it moved on, when a police car drove up with its lights on and siren wailing.
Rather than pursue masked people who were fleeing the scene, the police car stopped in front of Morse, and two officers got out and demanded he give them his camera. Morse told them he was a journalist and offered to show them his press pass. “They told me that I was being detained,” Morse wrote, “took my camera, put me in handcuffs and placed me in the back of their patrol car. I noticed a clock on the dashboard of the patrol car—it had been just fifteen minutes since I left my own car.” One can get in a lot of trouble in fifteen minutes.
Morse said to an Officer Wyckoff that since he was a journalist he did not think it was legal for them to detain him and take his camera. Wyckoff snapped back “You’re not a lawyer, so shut the fuck up.” Morse was using an expired press card that was his backup when he wasn’t expecting to be doing reporting. That was all he had to show the police at that moment. He nevertheless was fully credentialed, and had an up-to-date card at home. He identified himself as a journalist six times in all, and all in vain. In his years of reporting, he had never before had a serious problem with the police. This time, he wound up in the general population of Santa Rita County Jail. He heard that new charges were brought against him while he was in jail, delaying his release. His family paid for his bail at great expense.
King wrote the complaint in the action taken against the UCPD. It said: “Morse later learned that the new charges against him included attempted arson of an inhabited structure, vandalism, participation in a riot, attempted burglary, threatening a university official and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon against an officer.” These charges were broadcast in the news, giving Morse a bad name for nothing he had done.
All the charges were dropped when Morse finally made it to court, on December 15, 2009. Yet, as the complaint stated: “Morse’s unpublished news photographs were posted on a web site maintained by UC Berkeley and/or UCPD on or about December 21, 2009. The website contained announcements to the public at large, asking that anyone who could identify the individuals in the photographs to come forward and identify them.” Indybay has always held that it is not the job of its reporters to work for the police in any way. In this case Morse had his work appropriated without his consent, which would certainly have not been forthcoming.
King wrote a summary in the complaint of the violations of Morse’s First Amendment rights by law enforcement: “Defendants’ policies, practices and conduct in unlawfully arresting Morse; seizing his camera and memory discs; searching his phone, searching his memory discs, searching, seizing and retaining his unpublished news photographs; and unlawfully using those photographs to identify individuals; increasing Morse’s bail and continuing to hold Morse were intended to, and did, interfere with Morse’s newsgathering, halt publication of his images for nearly six months, and chill Morse from reporting in the future. Thus these policies, practices and conduct violate Plaintiff’s free speech, press and associational rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.”
It didn’t escape my notice that King has the first three words of the U.S. Constitution, “We the People,” tattooed on his forearm. Although I kept asking, he didn’t open up about it until our third interview. He told me he shopped tattoo artists until on a recommendation he picked one in San Francisco named Shadow who was very talented. He provided Shadow with a TIFF file of the Constitution from the National Archives to get the script just right, and scheduled the appointment for inking contingent on whether he passed the Bar. He passed, and went straightaway to get the tattoo. “It’s there to remind me of why I’m a lawyer,” he said, “what I’m in it for. And what the law is supposed to do, which is ultimately to serve the people of the United States—and anybody who’s here—fairly. It’s something to keep myself honest; a reminder of why I did three years of law school—to be of service to people.”
Photo Assistant: Charles Slay
First Amendment Project website
One Year Later … Photos from the UC Berkeley Chancellor's House Protest