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Charged with Photography as a Crime: Bradley Stuart Allen’s Story
One year ago today, the preliminary hearing for Santa Cruz Indymedia photographers Bradley Stuart Allen and Alex Darocy began. They were charged with felony and misdemeanor counts of conspiracy, trespassing and vandalism, because they reported on the occupation of an empty Wells Fargo building in Santa Cruz. Four people still face charges for the incident, and have a trial date in May. Below is the story of what happened to Allen.
Bradley Stuart Allen went to the Santa Cruz County Courthouse steps with his camera on Wednesday, November 30, 2011, to cover a demonstration for Santa Cruz Indymedia, part of Indybay, at a time the Occupy movement was at its height. He assumed it would be similar to others he had recently been to, where people had rallied, marched, and picketed banks.
In the back of his mind was a thought—not necessarily bothering him at that moment, but there nonetheless—that one day he might become a target of repression for his reporting, and for his work in helping create Santa Cruz Indymedia, an internet platform for community issues that has not shied away from exposing wrongdoing by the police.
The demonstration of 100 or so people marched from the courthouse steps on Water Street to the Chase Bank on Ocean and Water Streets, where they held a rally. The demonstrators then backtracked, passed the Courthouse again and went to the corner of Water and River Streets. On one side of the street, at 74 River Street, there was a Wells Fargo Bank, and on the other, 75 River Street was a vacant building that had once been a Savings and Loan, but now belonged to Wells Fargo.
“I hadn’t really taken any notice of the building myself,” Allen said. “It’s not the only empty storefront in Santa Cruz.” Someone opened its door, and protesters began to enter. Allen had to make a judgment call. “I made the decision to go inside and document what was happening; to take pictures and report for Indybay.”
Allen was not the only journalist that day. There were reporters from the Santa Cruz Sentinel and the Patch who went inside as well, and more media outside. Occupy, in whatever form, was a mainstream story at that point in time.
Yet there was a distinction between the organization of the demonstration and Occupy Santa Cruz, which was not understood by much of the media audience. While Allen was not a member of Occupy Santa Cruz, as an Indymedia reporter he knew about the local political scene. The occupation of 75 River Street, while it included some people who were in Occupy Santa Cruz, was not an Occupy Santa Cruz action. It was done in general solidarity with their perceived aims. “I guess you could say from [the point of view of] an outsider, it was all Occupy Santa Cruz,” Allen said, “but from the perspective of Occupy Santa Cruz, it was not.”
There was only one arrest Wednesday, on the street outside the building, which Allen documented. Allen posted his photographs and story Wednesday night, and then went on to other work, while keeping tabs on the protest. Saturday afternoon, the protesters left of their own accord. There were no further arrests at the site.
The charges came months later, on February 8, 2012. Eleven people were charged, all the same, with crimes relating to the occupation of 75 River Street. “I had plans to meet up with [Indybay reporter Alex Darocy] and go on a hike,” Allen said, “and he told me he had to talk with a lawyer and take care of some legal things. He’d heard that [another activist] was arrested at her house. The word was starting to get out in the community that there were these warrants being served. I heard later that my name was on the list. I got advice to go down to the courthouse and get the warrant for my arrest taken care of, by promising to appear at my arraignment, and so that’s what I did.”
The charges were felony conspiracy, felony vandalism, and two misdemeanor trespassing charges, specifically breaking and entering and refusal to leave. Allen did not know all of the other people accused of these crimes. “There was never, ever, to this day, a point when we’ve all been together,” he said. “It’s never been like that.”
Santa Cruz is a small town, and some of the eleven chosen for prosecution in the 75 River Street case were activists who may have been a thorn in the side of police and prosecutors long before that particular demonstration. “The police were serving more of a political vengeance when they compiled this list than [doing] solid police work based on the laws of the land,” Allen complained.
Allen thinks some people may have been on the list because of the 2005 exposé on Santa Cruz Indymedia showing that the Santa Cruz Police had infiltrated a local group planning a non-corporate, unpermitted New Year’s Eve celebration. Activists in the group staged a meeting in order to photograph the infiltrating officers, who used false names and email addresses, and misrepresented themselves as “surfer bros” (the ruse had not been successful).
Photographs of the undercover cops were published on Santa Cruz Indymedia, the story was picked up by all the local media, and even got national coverage. As a result the police were forced to perform an internal investigation, and draw up guidelines for infiltration and spying that were seen as an improvement, as far as following constitutional procedures. Internal documents released by the police as part of their self-investigation were also published on Indybay. While the SCPD should have perhaps taken the correction in stride, instead it may have caused resentment on their part that has lasted six years.
When the charges were made Allen knew he was in a serious situation. He turned to one of Santa Cruz County’s best trial lawyers, Ben Rice. Alex Darocy chose attorney George Gigarjian. Rice and Gigarjian succeeded in having the Indybay reporters tried together, hoping to have the charges thrown out at the preliminary hearing, on the grounds that Allen and Darocy were pursuing their first amendment rights as journalists, were not part of a conspiracy, did not vandalize, and did not trespass.
Their preliminary hearing was unusually long, taking place over three days, from March 13th through March 15th. A Santa Cruz judge who would normally have heard the proceedings was unavailable, so Judge Steven Sillman came in from the more conservative county of Monterey.
Assistant District Attorney Rebekah Young opened her case by asserting that Allen and Darocy were no more than hooligans with cameras. The defense countered with expert testimony that the two were trained and experienced photographers, and that Indymedia was a reputable news source respected for its innovations and critical approach to social issues. As a prior member of the Indybay collective in charge of press credentials, I testified for the defense that Indybay had a process for assuring reporters met standards of responsible newsgathering. Young began her career working for CNN, but from my observation she found Indybay hard to understand. The reality that Indybay functioned as a news organization seemed surprising to her.
A bigger surprise was in store for the defense. Rapidly Young spun her strategy around. No longer did she portray Allen and Darocy as hooligans; now they were professional propagandists, expert photographers who planned by publishing their stories to lead others to trespass and vandalize. In other words, the case against Allen and Darocy now criminalized their journalism. “That was pretty shocking logic,” Allen recalled. Judge Sillman dropped the felony vandalism charge, but Young had it re-filed and Allen and Darocy were on their way to trial.
Allen received support from the National Press Photographers Association, Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, Society of Professional Journalists of Northern California, and the ACLU of Northern California. The NPPA, RCFP and SPJ wrote letters of support, and the ACLU helped author a motion to dismiss, all of which were to be read by the judge at the upcoming trial.
A point in Allen’s favor was that the Santa Cruz Sentinel photographer also went inside 75 River Street to take pictures, but was not charged. This highlighted the political nature of the case—the Sentinel, owned by MediaNews Group, is mainstream and generally more supportive of the Santa Cruz establishment than Indymedia, and it looked like the law was being used selectively.
Once Allen knew what he was up against, he went to the community and spoke to the press, although he knew that because of the circumstances of the Occupy movement, it was going to be tough to get noticed. “My case was being lumped into the ‘journalists getting arrested’ story nationally, and without trying to say ‘I’m special,’ my case was very different.” Most of the other journalists had been grabbed arbitrarily during mass arrests, and charged with minor infractions, while the case against Allen and Darocy was carefully constructed over months and the charges carried very serious penalties—years in jail and thousands of dollars in restitution.
“When these charges came,” Allen said, “people didn’t necessarily know who I was [and they weren’t aware of] the work that I had done for different community organizations throughout the years in Santa Cruz.” Partly this was due to a culture of anonymity that existed in the early years of Allen’s involvement in the Internet. Many political journalists did not want to cover the community in a way that put themselves in front of their coverage, so Allen used just his first name, or his first and middle names when publishing on Indymedia.
During his court proceedings, mainstream TV in the Santa Cruz area ran his name and picture at the beginning and end of a reel of so-called Occupy actions, making him the face of all of it for the viewing public, and not in a friendly way. It was frustrating, he said, calling it a smear, and indicating that it was an element of his stigmatization by the process of the trial.
On May 14, 2012, Santa Cruz County Judge Paul Burdick, after reading all the arguments of the preliminary hearing and the motion from the ACLU, ruled to dismiss all the charges against Allen and Darocy. Of the other nine defendants, five have had their charges dismissed. The remaining four have a trial scheduled for May 2013.
For a couple of months, Allen felt, “every day is a great day because I’m not dealing with this bullshit any more.” There was no more waking up in the morning dreading another day devoted to his trial.
“But it still sucks,” he said, “it just sucked to be part of that process. It’s a process that we should never have had to deal with. I think that part of the police strategy and the D.A.’s strategy was to put us through this wringer.”
“They don’t lose sleep over that kind of thing. As long as they mess with us and put us through some discomfort in our lives, they’ve done their jobs. So I’m not going to celebrate the dismissal of these charges as some kind of victory. I can appreciate it as a won battle, but it was one I didn’t want to engage in.”
“I think that the police were going after Indybay because they don’t like Indybay because of the coverage [it] has done here in Santa Cruz over the years … They were trying to set a precedent of saying that Indybay is not a legitimate media outlet. That’s been their stance, that’s been their belief. I don’t know that this trial is going to necessarily change their personal feelings, because that’s all it really comes down to is personal feelings.”
Allen is still “passionate about Indybay,” and working with the collective on a redesign of the site that will make it easier for contributors, “giving them more pride about publishing.” He also freelances web design. He is doing art photography, a pursuit both therapeutic and purposeful, which includes the capture of elements of Santa Cruz life such as landscapes, architecture, and animals. His Twitter page says breezily: “I like art, design, photography, nature, social justice, and WordPress make/support.”