Not a Pretty Picture
On January 8, freelance photographer Dick Bancroft went to retrieve his camera equipment from the Minneapolis Police Department's property and evidence unit. He signed a generic release form, allowed an officer to snap his portrait for the record, then went home; a "routine" procedure, according to MPD spokesperson Penny Parrish.
The events that landed Bancroft's camera in the evidence room 19 days earlier had been anything but routine--even for a 71-year-old journalist who's made a career of chronicling social unrest and snapping adventure photographs for magazines such as Outward Bound and In These Times. In the course of carrying out an assignment for Connection to the Americas, a monthly magazine published by the local advocacy group Resource Center of the Americas, Bancroft says he was forced to his knees by a State Patrol officer, handcuffed, then left to shiver in the snow for more than an hour. He spent 30 hours locked up in the Hennepin County jail (no charges were ever filed), became a cause célèbre for Minnesota's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)--and lost the pictures at the center of the whole ordeal. "I've photographed a lot of these types of things over the years," Bancroft says flatly. "To all of a sudden be a victim instead of an observer is, to say the least, kind of curious."
Bancroft's experience as a "victim" started at approximately 4 a.m. on Sunday, December 20, when 600 state, city, and county law enforcement officers, sporting riot gear and packing pepper spray, rolled into a South Minneapolis neighborhood near the intersection of 54th Street and Hiawatha Avenue. Officials have characterized the raid--staged to remove activists who'd been squatting in the path of the proposed Highway 55 reroute for more than four months--as the largest law-enforcement action in Minnesota's history.
Bancroft, rousted in his Sunfish Lake home at 3 a.m. by a protester who'd spotted authorities gathering at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, says he was the first reporter to arrive at the site. He'd barely unpacked his gear, he says, when "all of a sudden these Ryder trucks, these two-ton monsters, came in with their lights off. They pulled over the curb. It surprised me. These guys jumped out of the back end and just barreled past."
Media credentials dangling on a chain around his neck, Bancroft started clicking the shutter. Specifically, he remembers focusing on a sweat lodge where someone was beating a ceremonial drum. He recalls the beat stopping; protesters would later claim that officers destroyed the drum. Bancroft says he never saw exactly what happened, but kept snapping pictures as fast as he could.
Suddenly, Bancroft says, he was shoved to the ground. He identified himself as press, but there was no response; instead he was handcuffed and left for 30 minutes. "Finally, a female highway patrol officer came over," he says. "She took out a flashlight and found my media pass. She read it and said it was no good. The she walked away." It was another half-hour, Bancroft says, until he was escorted to a police van, where some of the 37 protesters police had arrested were huddled in cuffs. Again, he told the officers he was with the media; it didn't seem to matter. He was hauled off to jail while his equipment stayed behind, scattered in the snow.
What Bancroft didn't know at the time was that he was in violation of a carefully constructed set of rules authorities had laid out for press coverage of the event. Serving as media coordinator for the raid was Bob McFarlin, director of public affairs at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDoT). McFarlin says he informed local newsrooms of the raid just as it was to begin; a few reporters, such as the Star Tribune's Steve Brandt, were called at home. WCCO-TV--which had somehow learned of the planned "Operation Cold Snap" a full 24 hours ahead of time--even got invited to a "planning session and staging area at the airport."
McFarlin says all the reporters were told they would have to remain across the street from the scene of the raid, behind a perimeter made up of 118 squad cars. Protesters have since claimed that these orders kept reporters from observing abusive behavior behind the lines. In reports circulated via newsletters and in community newspapers, authorities have been accused of beating protesters, pillaging sacred items, and casually rubbing chemicals into the eyes of people who had already been arrested.
But none of the reporters on the scene objected to being kept out of the action, McFarlin says: "They had all the information they needed from across the street. We have not received, other than the concern over Mr. Bancroft, a single complaint from all of the media that was there."
Nancy Cassutt, assistant news director at WCCO-TV, believes 'CCO reporter Randi Kaye filed a fair and accurate report that morning. She acknowledges, though, that the Channel 4 newsroom was buzzing for days with discussion of authorities' tight control on the scene. "The whole thing was very calculated. They did it on a slow news weekend, when it was snowing," Cassutt says. "In hindsight, maybe we should've told the viewer that we weren't allowed past a certain point. But then you wonder if the viewer would care. You think to yourself, 'We didn't need to violate the rules to get the news.' But then you think, 'Who are they to set the rules?'"
That's what Lucy Dalglish, chairwoman of the local Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee, wants to know. After learning what happened to Bancroft, she and Minnesota SPJ president Dave Aeikens fired off a letter to Minneapolis City Attorney Jay Heffern, MPD Chief of Police Robert Olson, and state Commissioner of Public Safety Charlie Weaver: "The government is prohibited by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution from licensing journalists," Dalglish wrote. "The seizure of Mr. Bancroft's cameras and film is illegal and, just as important, denies the public the opportunity to observe law enforcement's performance during the raid."
Six days later, Weaver and Olson shot back a three-page response. Bancroft was trespassing and engaging in disruptive behavior, they informed Dalglish; specifically, the photographer's flash hampered the vision of officers at the scene. "The officer safety issue outweighs your assertion that seizing the camera denies the public the opportunity to observe law enforcement's performance during the action," the letter reads. "We can assure you, all law enforcement officers involved in the detail acted in a professional and exemplary manner."
But Dalglish says she is still distressed--not only by the Bancroft incident, but by the polite demeanor of the other reporters on the scene. She worries journalists may have been too complacent in covering the story from hundreds of feet away without telling readers or viewers about the spin control. "That's an enormous concern," Dalglish says. "What we were given was a very sanitized version of what was going on. Of course the media has a responsibility to not get in the way, but you must strike a balance between being respectful and truthfully capturing a news event that's of great import to the public."
At the time Dalglish wrote the letter, on January 4, neither she nor Bancroft knew about one final wrinkle in the tale of the missing camera: When Bancroft finally got his Nikon back, the film he'd been shooting was gone. Bancroft says the camera shows that someone "pressed the shutter, ran all the film through, but didn't know how to rewind it. So they just pried open the camera and took out the film."
The MPD's Parrish says it's department policy to leave all evidence intact. "We don't remove film from cameras," she says, then refers the matter to Cathy Clark, communications director at the Department of Public Safety. Clark refused to comment on the matter, but suggested asking McFarlin at MNDoT. McFarlin recommended calling Parrish.
Bancroft says he hasn't decided what to do next; his attorney, Mark Gehan, has sent a letter of intent to city and state officials informing them his client may sue. "One thing is certain," Bancroft says. "The mainstream media should be condemned. They ran a lot of pictures after this event on the front page. And those pictures at no time reveal anyone being arrested or dragged or handcuffed.
"The protesters say their drum was attacked. That drum is a religious object in the minds of the Indians. But the photographic evidence, the shots I took when the drum stopped beating, are gone. So, in effect, the authorities have destroyed evidence of a crime that was being committed. That's why I was arrested. That's why my film was lifted."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.