The NYPD has arrested protesters and journalists thousands of times since Occupy Wall Street first began in September, but the case of Alexander Arbuckle was the first of them to actually go to trial.
Arbuckle was arrested while photographing a march early on January 1. As a contingent of a few dozen protesters turned off Sixth Avenue onto 13th street, heading east, the police following the march on foot and on scooters moved in, making several arrests.
Among those arrests was Arbuckle, charged with disorderly conduct for standing in the middle of the street blocking traffic, even after police had repeatedly told protesters to get out of the street. That’s the story told in the criminal complaint against Arbuckle, and it’s the story that the officer who arrested him told again under oath in court on Monday. The protesters, including Arbuckle, were in the street blocking traffic, Officer Elisheba Vera testified. The police, on the sidewalk, had to move in to make arrests to allow blocked traffic to move.
But there was a problem with the police account: it bore no resemblance to photographs and videos taken that night. Arbuckle’s own photographs from the evening place him squarely on the sidewalk. All the video from the NYPD’s Technical Research Assistance Unit, which follows the protesters with video-cameras (in almost certain violation of a federal consent decree), showed Arbuckle on the sidewalk.
And in an indication of the way new media are transforming the dynamics of street protest, a clip from the live-stream of journalist Tim Pool showed that not only was Arbuckle on the sidewalk, so were all the other protesters. The only thing blocking traffic on 13th Street that night was the police themselves.
Arbuckle’s arrest is particularly ironic because he wasn’t on 13th Street January 1 to protest — he was there to document the cop’s side of the story. (Here’s his Flickr page.) A junior at New York University majoring in political science and journalism, Arbuckle doesn’t identify with the Occupy movement, but was working on an assignment for class to document the officers assigned to police it.
“I felt the police had been treated unfairly on the media,” he said. “All the focus was on the conflict and the worst instances of brutality and aggression, where most of the police I met down there were really professional and restrained.”
“It was a total fabrication,” Arbuckle said. “When I was first arraigned in February, they offered me an ACD [Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal]. It would have been nice to have everything over and done with, but it would have been an acknowledgment of guilt, and I knew I wasn’t guilty.”
Paul Keefe, who represented Arbuckle along with Gideon Oliver, said that the victory in the first Occupy-related protest case is an important indicator that the NYPD is over-policing the movement.
“What’s happening is very similar to what happened in 2004 with the Republican National Convention,” Keefe said. “It’s just a symptom of how the NYPD treats dissent. But what has changed is that there is more prevalence of video. it really makes our job a lot easier to have that video.”