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A choice of weapons

Posted at 6:30 PM on August 21, 2008 by Tim Nelson (27 Comments)

DSCN1073.JPGDoes this look like a threat to public safety to you?

It's starting to feel a little like that on St. Paul streets these days, photographers are finding as the Republican National Convention is approaching.

At least three times in recent weeks, photographers say they've been stopped on public streets or sidewalks, told to stop taking pictures or produce identification or leave the area.

It happened to me yesterday, as I was walking down West 7th Street, past the St. Paul headquarters of the Travelers insurance company, carrying a Nikon SLR. A Wackenhut Corp. security guard approached me on the sidewalk, held up his hand to break my stride, then told me that I needed to show identification. He was wearing the same uniform as the guys you can see walking around inside the Travelers atrium.

I declined to give him anything, told him it was a public street, and proceeded to an appointment I had nearby.

It's eerily similar to the experience of a Washington, D.C., area photographer who was in the city on business earlier this month. He asked not to be identified so that he wouldn't draw attention to his Minnesota clients.

He's known on the Flickr photo website as Guy Flâneur, the alias under which he publishes his photos. He kicked of an extensive discussion of public photography on the site here.

He was taking these pictures on the street outside Travelers, he said, when a security guard came out and told him to stop pointing a camera at the building. The photographer declined, but a few minutes later two St. Paul police officers arrived, approached him and one of them asked for identification.

"He didn't say anything. He just asked questions," Flâneur said."He said, 'You don't look like a terrorist, but we need to check things out."

Travelers spokesman Gail Liebl said today that she wasn't aware of either incident, although she did note that there's a "heightened sense of security in the next few weeks," since the Republican National Convention was right next door.

But did add that it is not company security policy to stop members of the public in the street and make them identify themselves.

A third incident happened at Lambert's Landing, on the Mississippi River, on Aug. 8.

Retired airline mechanic Jerry Houk, of Maplewood, said he was going down to take some pictures of the Motor Vessel Mississippi, the Corps of Engineers' massive tow boat. It's the biggest tow on the river, and so he brought an 11-meter pole, known to photographers as a "catfish pole" to take aerial pictures of the boat.

You can see some of them here.

Houk says he started taking pictures when a St. Paul police officer disembarked from the M.V. Mississippi and told him he could not photograph "a federal boat." Houk says that when he begged to differ, the police officer took his camera and pole, separated them and proceeded to try and break the fiberglass pole with his shoe. Houk says he retrieved his camera and the officer left.

"I was shaking, literally," Houk says.

He says he stood on the shore beside the boat and tried to get the attention of several tourists on the boat who might have seen the incident.

Instead, he says, two St. Paul officers disembarked together and approached him. Houk said he took pictures of them, but that they took his camera, citing the authority of the Department of Homeland Security and the preparations for the Republican National Convention. Houk says the officers erased his pictures, put him in a squad car, cited him for disorderly conduct and told him he was banned from the area.

The St. Paul police, of course, beg to differ. The report on the incident says he was "yelling and screaming at tourists" on the boat, and doesn't mention any contact he had with police prior to that. The public version of the report doesn't mention photography at all.

"We don't take people's cameras," police spokesman Peter Panos told me, when asked about Houk's version of events. Panos said there are no restrictions on photography in St. Paul and that people are free to take pictures of whatever they like.

Or not.

"I've been taking photos for 45 years and this is the first time this has ever happened to me," Flâneur says of his experience near Hamm Plaza "I have taken pictures of demonstrations in front of the White House and this hasn't happened to me. I have taken pictures in Communist East Germany and this hasn't happened to me. Only in St. Paul."

Maybe one-time St. Paulite and famed photographer Gordon Parks was righter than he knew when he said he chose a camera, albeit for very different reasons, as his "weapon of choice."

Have you been stopped or asked for ID while taking pictures in downtown St. Paul as the Republican National Convention approaches? Post your story in the comments below and, if you're willing, send your contact information to me here.


Comments (27)


I was gratified to learn that what had happened to me a few days before also happened to MPR reporter, Tim Nichols. It's one thing to tell a story of an event and hope that your story conveys as credible. It's another to have it corroborated through a (literal) eye-witness account from a member of the press.

Any way you look at this, St. Paul comes off as a hotbed of oppression or just a center of ignorance about what the freedoms granted to all of us under the Constitution mean.

Posted by Guy Flaneur | August 21, 2008 10:11 PM



That's creepy - it's also creepy that my comments that posted about your earlier blog on the solar energy demo was removed from this site - was it because of a slightly critical remark about the RNC and one of their larger corporate supporters???

Posted by practica | August 22, 2008 5:39 AM


I wonder if whatever special training the cops are getting is just making them hyper-sensitive to what would otherwise be normal goings-on. It certainly won't be very practical to stop every person with a camera once the 15000 person media swarm arrives.

Posted by bsimon | August 22, 2008 10:43 AM


Maybe it is time for a public protest in the same way as peace marches?

If all 'good' people with an SLR camera came out onto the streets of Saint Paul one afternoon and stood in a peaceful assembly taking innocent photos of their surroundings with ample press coverage then I wonder if that would bring the situation to wider public debate and force the 'authorites' (both official police and unofficial security companies) to act more rationally and reasonably.

This would probably be best done before the RNC when the 'security' risk is low and the officials and not trigger tense!

Posted by LB | August 22, 2008 2:36 PM


oh my gosh. I was photographing the new Italian women's store , il Vostro Boutique, today at 375 Wabasha Street. After standing in the street and on the sidewalk taking pictures I saw a Highway Patrol pull up behind me. I immediately thought, hmmn that's odd. But as I had to leave anyway, and I was parked at an expired meter, I decided to depart right then and there. But I do remember thinking it odd that there was a Highway Patrol on Wabasha Street.

It never would have occurred to me that he was observing ME taking photos of the front of a store.

I certainly will keep my eyes open for "security" because, being a downtown photographer myself, I intentionally want to take pictures during the RNC. Otherwise, heck I might as well go up north or someplace.

Posted by Wendy Blomseth | August 22, 2008 11:25 PM


We currently have wifi enabled cameras, and we have cameraphones that can upload or email photos on command, but what we really need is a camera that automatically and instantly uploads all photos via the cell phone network so that no petty, wanna-be dictator can force anyone to delete photos that have already been taken.

Posted by George | August 24, 2008 1:03 PM


I was in downtown St. Paul one evening about 5 weeks ago photographing (with my SLR digital camera) some of the art work around the Landmark center when I wandered down West 6th Street by the Travelers and was looking to take some photographs of the skyline. I then was approached by a Travelers security guard who told me that no photographs were allowed. He was actually quite polite and rather apologetic - but his boss was yelling at him over the radio "Get his name! Get his name!". When I asked if there was any sort of "no photography" zone or what exactly I wasn't supposed to photograph I was given a vague arm wave about "this area". I ended up not taking any photographs of buildings but as I walked back toward downtown I was stopped by 3 St. Paul police cars and 6 officers who demanded identification and quizzed me about what I was doing. One made a snide remark about whether I had gotten "lots of pictures". Apparently my explanation was adequate and I was let go. I also asked the officers if there was any sort of "no photography zone" that I was unaware of so I could avoid it. I was told that they were just taking precautions and investigating "suspicious" activities. It was pretty apparent that it was Travelers security who alerted the police about being me being "suspicious".

Posted by Mark | August 24, 2008 3:42 PM


I feel sorry for these guys if they think they are preventing anything. St. Paul has been mapped in Street View mode at Google Maps, you can literally cruise down the streets and see all the buildings you like.

Perhaps photographers should go out with a wingman to cover them with concealed video if harassed by security. It's sad to think that posting to Youtube is the only way to make these things go away.

Posted by Mike | August 25, 2008 1:49 PM


If there is any advice someone could give me, i am a high school student that is preparing to document the RNC protests/events that take place in the next couple of days. A friend and photographer who is also on the high school newspaper with me is preparing to accompany me on the 1st of September as well as my dad. They both intend to watch out as my friend and I rotate taking photos. Is there anything we should know about/ laws that have been put in place so that we can avoid trouble? Are there any websites that would help prepare us and let us know our rights? If any photographers that have been harassed recently in St. Paul have any advice, it is totally welcome

Thanks

Posted by Zoe | August 25, 2008 10:23 PM


I too overreact at the absurd security policies imposed in the thoroughly Democrat-controlled city of St. Paul.

Posted by augustine | August 25, 2008 10:44 PM


I am a photographer living in Lowertown in St. Paul. My work is mainly photos taken in my neighborhood which happens to include downtown St. Paul. I have dozens of photos of the "forbidden" sites on my flickr account. Including some of the police picketing the Xcel Center a few weeks ago. Actually, I did not post any photos of people. I am pretty careful about recognizable strangers in my shots. So far I have not been stopped, except when I tried to photograph the decommissioned power plant after the smokestack implosion. But I have realized, without thinking about it, I have been very careful about who is around when I shoot (the camera, the camera!).
Now it is beginning to disturb me that what I see as human interest or simply an abstract arrangement of concrete and brick is forbidden territory. It is a subtle progression: No photos. No drawings. No looking?

Posted by Barbara Dodge | August 26, 2008 10:58 AM


To the photographers looking to document the RNC, I'd check this out:
http://www.krages.com/phoright.htm

But the reality is that in a situation like this, especially if the police end up losing control, the law goes out the window and all bets are off. The could arrest people without legal cause just to get them off of the street and then release them without charge. That sounds crazy, but in a lot of cities the police are regularly arresting people just to get them off the streets and then releasing them without charge: just show up to arraignment court to see how many cases are "no papered."

I would check out as many "Know Your Rights" trainings and pamphlets that you can find, but realize that your legal rights are often not protected by the police.

Posted by dt | August 26, 2008 12:34 PM


Tim: Come on. You are blending your interaction with a private security guard and an-other's disputed encounter with two St. Paul officers; "separated them and proceeded to try and break the fiberglass pole with his shoe"(please). And your bloggers are worse; "I saw a Highway Patrol pull up behind me". The patrol has an office on the WestSide, they drive through downtown for their business and they use the Ramsey courts downtown at Wabasha - must be a conspiracy!

Posted by drop and roll | August 26, 2008 4:24 PM


Law enforcement are often not as well trained as they ought to be on the law, and so they sometimes break the law or think people are breaking the law when they're not. Especially in heated/intense situations.

For the high school student documenting the protests, it wouldn't hurt if you got some official looking letter saying it was for an art class or journalism class, in case you get detained (this probably wouldn't work but there's a slim chance it would, might make you more believable). Other stuff - always ask for full name and badge number. Keep a pen and piece of paper on you. Say "what's your name and badge number" then say very clearly "I'm going to get out a piece of paper and pen. I'm going to reach into my pocket for the pen and paper." Don't make any sudden movements and don't get heated, even if the police are. Stay calm and try to act calm. This also depends on what's going on around you, if it's a crowded busy street full of protesters and the police officer is just shouting at you then you may not be able to have a conversation.

Posted by Nate | August 26, 2008 9:37 PM


I was photographing the State Capitol a year or two ago at night in the street with my Nikon on a tripod when a security guard from a parking lot came out and asked me what I was doing. At first I thought he was kidding and I smiled back at him. I realized he wasn't kidding when he started asking me why I was taking photos of the capitol at night. My smile faded and I got little aggravated given the fact I was clearly in a place that had nothing to do with either him or his employer. But, having said that, I played along [while continuing to shoot] and watched as he scribbled some "information" onto a cheap little pocket notepad with his crayon. Part of me wanted to call his supervisor the following business day and bark out a complaint. But, the other part of me thought let the guy feel like he saved St. Paul from another 9/11.

Inevitably, you're going to encounter a security guard or cop who thinks they need to "investigate" this stuff. I try to make it look like I'm deferring to them and go about my business. I've gotten some excellent photos of otherwise "off-limits" things by taking this approach.

Posted by Jerry | August 27, 2008 10:53 AM


Good thing you weren't shooting a Canon, Tim :)

Posted by bill | August 27, 2008 11:26 AM


My collaborator and I had an unfortunate run-in with security guards at Xcel Energy a few years ago. We were collecting panoramic views of downtown Minneapolis streets with a video camera for an art project (really).

To be honest, we weren't even interested in their ugly building, rather we were standing on the sidewalk outside.

Xcel Energy claims to have a corporate "policy" against having photos taken of their building, though I have never seen a posting anywhere.

We amended the sitution by collecting our images on the other side of the street.

Posted by Guy in Plaid | August 27, 2008 5:19 PM


If these companies don't want pictures taken of their buildings, they need to put them away at night. If I walk down the street and your building is imposed permanently into my brain, how can you possibly claim the visual image is your private property.

Disgusting. Disgusting mall ninjas, too.

Posted by The last hippy | August 28, 2008 8:11 PM


You are clearly a threat by taking pictures of buildings that have been found to be targeted for vandalism by the little punks who contribute nothing but buckets of urine and ararchy to our society. I hope the riots get out of hand and trigger happy cops just starting shooting the worthless bastards.

Posted by Don Draeger | September 1, 2008 4:22 PM


FYI, There are rules/restrictions about taking pictures on Federal property. For example if you have a camera phone you have to turn it in before you can enter a Fed Court building. Not allowed to take pictures of a Port of Entry (US Customs) or of the officers without prior written approval from the Port director. Military bases same thing. Are there "laws" so to speak that say you can't take them or are restricted from taking them? No but you must follow a lawful order given to you by any police officer whether Federal or State. Freedom of speech even has limitations..Can't yell fire in a crowed building. These are resonible. China is a police state...NOT America/US.

Posted by gringo73 | September 2, 2008 3:44 AM


A very kind friend from Minneapolis asked how my recent experience in St. Paul reflected on the RNC convention. You might be interested in my response:

I don't think my experience had much to do with the RNC. Rather, it was St. Paul at its smallest and most narrow-minded. The inability of a city to handle the intricacies of a big event such as a party convention is a measure of how large -- or small -- that city is. By this measure, St. Paul is a provincial village of the most ignorant kind. Had my experience been unique, I'd think it a fluke. But the fact that Tim Nelson of MPR and others have had nearly the same experience tells me that St. Paul is not ready in any way for "prime time." My experience ended amicably enough on the surface. But I'm seriously angered about the crude infringement of my American civil rights visited upon by the pinheads at Wackenhut and the St. Paul police.

Posted by Guy Flaneur | September 2, 2008 10:22 PM


They asked us to stand up in their wedding with them, we could not be more honored to do that, and we're thrilled to walk alongside them, and they us, for this season of life in S. LaterA biplane circling a windless sky dipped its sun-setWings in salute. I wish I could say that this is the first time I've known people my age to get divorced, but that's far from the truth, even in my 20s. We also decided to go out of Hyderabad on this occasion for a day.Accordingly,we planned to go to Yadagirigutta which is an hours distance away from Hyderabad. Just doing this alone will help diffuse negative feelings and tension.Don't Promise You're Going To Change Or Swear Things Will Be Different.

Posted by scocheBic | January 23, 2009 3:03 AM


Posted by drop and rol,
The pole is made of carbon fiber and the officer did indeed try to break it. He grabbed the tip in his right hand and reach as far as he could down the pole with his left hand and walked toward the butt end of the pole bending it. When it didn't break he raised his leg and attempted to stomp on it, but before he could break it the pole rotated away from him and he lost control and the pole fell to the ground. As he walked away he gave the pole a kick with his foot ans said, "See where your rights get you." This was in response to my telling him I had a constitutional right to take photo's on public property.
Peter Panos wasn't there to see his fellow officer grab my arm, bruising it, and rip my camera from my hand with enough force than he cracked the LCD screen. He then searched the photo's in my camera without cause or a warrant. It was an hour later that the officers grabbed me again and charged me with yelling and screaming at visitors aboard a military vessel. This was minutes after I attempted to hail a woman on board the boat who I had reason to believe was a reporter. She had two large cameras hung from her neck and was standing outside the engine room of the boat. I was hoping that she could help me.
This officer clearly used poor judgment and over reacted to a new method of taking aerial photo's that he didn't understand. I told him, while I was cuffed and sitting in the squad car that if he had approached me in a decent manner I would have bent over backwards to explain how my camera equipment worked.

Posted by Jerry | July 1, 2009 5:45 PM


drop and rol,
The pole is made of carbon fiber and the officer did indeed try to break it. He grabbed the tip in his right hand and reach as far as he could down the pole with his left hand and walked toward the butt end of the pole bending it. When it didn't break he raised his leg and attempted to stomp on it, but before he could break it the pole rotated away from him and he lost control and the pole fell to the ground. As he walked away he gave the pole a kick with his foot ans said, "See where your rights get you." This was in response to my telling him I had a constitutional right to take photo's on public property.
Peter Panos wasn't there to see his fellow officer grab my arm, bruising it, and rip my camera from my hand with enough force than he cracked the LCD screen. He then searched the photo's in my camera without cause or a warrant. It was an hour later that the officers grabbed me again and charged me with yelling and screaming at visitors aboard a military vessel. This was minutes after I attempted to hail a woman on board the boat who I had reason to believe was a reporter. She had two large cameras hung from her neck and was standing outside the engine room of the boat. I was hoping that she could help me.
This officer clearly used poor judgment and over reacted to a new method of taking aerial photo's that he didn't understand. I told him, while I was cuffed and sitting in the squad car that if he had approached me in a decent manner I would have bent over backwards to explain how my camera equipment worked.

Posted by Jerry | July 1, 2009 5:46 PM


drop and rol,
The pole is made of carbon fiber and the officer did indeed try to break it. He grabbed the tip in his right hand and reach as far as he could down the pole with his left hand and walked toward the butt end of the pole bending it. When it didn't break he raised his leg and attempted to stomp on it, but before he could break it the pole rotated away from him and he lost control and the pole fell to the ground. As he walked away he gave the pole a kick with his foot ans said, "See where your rights get you." This was in response to my telling him I had a constitutional right to take photo's on public property.
Peter Panos wasn't there to see his fellow officer grab my arm, bruising it, and rip my camera from my hand with enough force than he cracked the LCD screen. He then searched the photo's in my camera without cause or a warrant. It was an hour later that the officers grabbed me again and charged me with yelling and screaming at visitors aboard a military vessel. This was minutes after I attempted to hail a woman on board the boat who I had reason to believe was a reporter. She had two large cameras hung from her neck and was standing outside the engine room of the boat. I was hoping that she could help me.
This officer clearly used poor judgment and over reacted to a new method of taking aerial photo's that he didn't understand. I told him, while I was cuffed and sitting in the squad car that if he had approached me in a decent manner I would have bent over backwards to explain how my camera equipment worked.

Posted by Jerry | July 1, 2009 5:47 PM


drop and rol,
The pole is made of carbon fiber and the officer did indeed try to break it. He grabbed the tip in his right hand and reach as far as he could down the pole with his left hand and walked toward the butt end of the pole bending it. When it didn't break he raised his leg and attempted to stomp on it, but before he could break it the pole rotated away from him and he lost control and the pole fell to the ground. As he walked away he gave the pole a kick with his foot ans said, "See where your rights get you." This was in response to my telling him I had a constitutional right to take photo's on public property.
Peter Panos wasn't there to see his fellow officer grab my arm, bruising it, and rip my camera from my hand with enough force than he cracked the LCD screen. He then searched the photo's in my camera without cause or a warrant. It was an hour later that the officers grabbed me again and charged me with yelling and screaming at visitors aboard a military vessel. This was minutes after I attempted to hail a woman on board the boat who I had reason to believe was a reporter. She had two large cameras hung from her neck and was standing outside the engine room of the boat. I was hoping that she could help me.
This officer clearly used poor judgment and over reacted to a new method of taking aerial photo's that he didn't understand. I told him, while I was cuffed and sitting in the squad car that if he had approached me in a decent manner I would have bent over backwards to explain how my camera equipment worked.

Posted by Jerry | July 1, 2009 5:48 PM


Sorry for the multiple posts, I was getting an error message and didn't realize that my comment had listed successfully.

Posted by Jerry | July 7, 2009 1:05 AM



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