On Jan. 18, hundreds of activists gathered in front of the Fullerton Police Department to decry the acquittals of officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli in the beating death of Kelly Thomas. After peacefully protesting on the sidewalks for hours, around 3:30 p.m., a couple of them were arrested for vandalism. Shortly after, an armored SWAT vehicle swooped in and announced the fun was over.
“I am Corporal [Brandon] Clyde of the Fullerton Police Department,” blared a commander over a loudspeaker. “I am declaring this an unlawful assembly and order you to leave the police department and City Hall area immediately. If you do not leave, you will be arrested for failure to disperse and/or less-lethal [weapons] will be used.”
Dozens of cops suddenly divided into four teams to handle the protesters. Outfitted in riot gear and equipped with gas masks, flex handcuffs and canisters of pepper spray, they stood ready for chaos. But by then, the crowd had thinned out to about 75 people. They booed Clyde's order and began marching away from the scene and toward the Fullerton Bus Depot, the site of a memorial for Thomas.
After a short evening commemoration, some activists tried to go back to the police station, only to be met by cops blocking their path. Live-streaming all of this was citizen journalist PM Beers. As she interviewed an activist at what's called Kelly's Corner who was describing how police had just plucked his friend off the street and arrested him, a patrol car suddenly rolled up. Beers hurried through cars to catch the arrest of her friend Juan Zuletariveros on camera for failure to disperse. Her cell phone quickly panned to another officer, who told her a sergeant watching city cameras back at headquarters instructed him to arrest a woman wearing a black hat embroidered with the word “Press”—just like hers. After trying to get away, Beers captured her own arrest for also failing to disperse as the feed scrambled and dropped around 5:50 p.m. Led away in cuffs, she called for onlookers to tweet what had happened.
By the end of the night, Fullerton police had arrested a total of 14 people, 10 of them for refusing to disperse—some of them hours after and blocks away from where authorities declared unlawful assemblies. Police took Beers and others back to the city jail. Before being transported to county jail, Beers alleges a Fullerton officer said, “There's 12 cops waiting to smash your fucking faces in,” calming down only after Beers countered that she'd report any abuse hurled the way of the detainees.
On April 29, members of the so-called Fullerton 14 had a pretrial hearing at Fullerton's North Justice Center to face misdemeanor charges of refusal to disperse. Although prosecutors plan to try all of them, Beers remains the most fascinating plaintiff, as her case shows the obsession Fullerton police have over someone recording their every move.
Based in Los Angeles, she got her start documenting protests in January 2012, fascinated by the easy technology of streaming video that gained popularity during Occupy Wall Street's heyday. Beers' Ustream channel boasts 1,233 subscribers, and her Twitter account tallies 1,437 followers; she archives all of her footage onto a YouTube channel as well. Her coverage has challenged police spin about protesters before: Shortly after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, activists moved on Hollywood's W Hotel. Later, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesperson confirmed a news report that major property destruction occurred. Beers' on-the-ground streaming showed nothing like that had happened.
A Fullerton police officer cared little for any of that in a confidential report obtained by the Weekly that was written nearly a month after her arrest at the post-acquittal protest. It focused on discrediting Beers' claims as a citizen journalist and casting her as a ringleader of a migrating mob of protesters violating dispersal orders.
“Patricia Beers is a self proclaimed 'citizen reporter' and does not affiliate herself with mainstream media,” officer Anthony Diaz wrote in the report. “In fact, Patricia maintains a 'very biased' viewpoint as stated on her USTREAM web page. Patricia participated in the unlawful assembly and said so defiantly: 'There's been a dispersal order, but we're still here.'”
The quote, while accurate, wasn't her personal opinion, but rather that of a reporter describing a scene to an audience. “My job as a member of the press is to document what's going on,” she says. “I feel like I have a responsibility when police are outside of their cars to film them. If I had left, the situation would not have been as safe.”
Police used Beers' archived Ustream footage, including time-stamped quotes, in making their criminal case against her and others. “Patricia continued to record the unlawful assembly of protesters who just moments earlier were declared an unlawful assembly and told to 'move away from uniformed officers,'” Diaz continued. “The movement of protesters, including Patricia, toward the same uniformed police officers was a deliberate and defiant act, done in disobedience.”
Beers scoffs at how the police reports frame her. In footage that others shot, Beers can be seen off to the side, capturing video in real time with a cell phone, not in front of activists with a bullhorn. “I find that hilariously funny because anybody who knows me wouldn't believe that to be true,” she says. “I am not a person who leads people in marches. I'm very outspoken, but I don't motivate huge groups of people to move in one direction or another.”
Asked for comment over the telephone, Fullerton police Sergeant Jeff Stuart demanded questions be sent via email given the Weekly's “incredible slant.”
According to Cal State Fullerton criminology professor Jarret Lovell, Beers' case is an interesting study in whether citizen journalists can claim in court the same rights as mainstream journalists while covering protests.
“The question about whether citizen journalists have the same protections as professional journalists is an issue that's eventually going to have to be heard in the highest court,” Lovell says. “Is reporting a form of speech or a form of action? If we consider reporting a form of speech, then participating in an action that you're reporting [on] would be protected.”
In addition to being arrested in the past for unlawful assembly himself, Lovell authored a chapter on citizen journalism and police in Law Enforcement Ethics: Classic and Contemporary Issues. In it, he cites a First Circuit Court ruling in the case of Simon Glick, a lawyer who filmed a police encounter only to be arrested for wiretapping. The ruling held the rights of the press are “continuous with the rights of individuals, and police attempts to create a distinction between the two are invalid.”
Whether authorities or prosecutors consider Beers a protester or press, she'll continue on, regardless of the consequences. “Live-stream documentation is the worst nightmare for police because they can't destroy that evidence,” Beers says. Law enforcement, in this case, can attempt to use archived footage against activists and citizen journalists alike, but not without a challenge.
“I know that I'm not guilty,” she concludes. “Whatever happens, I'm not backing down.”
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!