American Cartoonist Susie Cagle Improperly Arrested, Detained and Charged While Reporting on the Occupy Oakland Movement


Photograph by Elijah Nouvelage

As the Occupy movement has spread from Wall Street to a number of American cities, so has the detaining and arresting of journalists reporting on the protests.  This trend (which is well documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists in their November 11, 2011, article At Occupy protests, U.S. journalists arrested, assaulted) is a disturbing new threat to the First Amendment rights of journalists.  On November 3, 2011, we were informed that editorial cartoonist and reporter Susie Cagle was arrested in Oakland while reporting on the Occupy Oakland movement.  She was detained for approximately fifteen hours and cited with failure to leave the scene of a riot as if she were a demonstrator and not a journalist.  That charge is still pending against her despite the fact that Ms. Cagle has made extraordinary attempts to identify herself as a member of the press to the Oakland Police Department (OPD).  Before the protests began she frequently phoned and emailed the OPD's Public Information Officer seeking an OPD press badge.  At the time of her arrest she openly and prominently displayed her employer issued press badge while verbally informing the arresting officer of her status as a member of the press.  To date the Oakland Police Department and the Oakland District Attorney's office has yet to dismiss the charge even though the OPD has since granted Ms. Cagle an OPD press badge and thus acknowledged Ms. Cagle's status as a journalist.    

On Friday November 25, 2011, CRNI Executive Director Robert Russell and Deputy Director Drew Rougier-Chapman interviewed Susie Cagle about her arrest.  Below are excerpts of that interview followed by a short video taken by Ms. Cagle shortly before her arrest.  Shortly after that interview our office faxed the Oakland Interim Chief of Police, the Alameda District Attorney, and the Oakland Mayor, requesting that the charge against this reporter and cartoonist be dismissed.  That fax reads in part, "We call on your office and the Oakland Police Department to review Ms. Cagle’s case, immediately drop the charge against this journalist, and enforce a new policy of noninterference towards the constitutionally protected activities of journalists. ... We would like to note that in the twenty years our office has endeavored to protect the human rights and free speech rights of editorial cartoonists around the world, this is the first time we have felt compelled to write such a letter to American officers of the law, individuals who have sworn to uphold the Constitution."

11/25/2011 Interview of cartoon journalist Susie Cagle

Drew Rougier-Chapman – This is Drew Rougier-Chapman, Deputy Director of the Cartoonists Rights Network International.  I’m here with Bro Russell our Executive Director and we’re speaking over the phone with cartoon journalist Susie Cagle who was arrested at the Occupy Oakland protest movement.  Susie, when did you first arrive at the movement technically the day before your arrest?  

Susie – I had been down there since 9 AM on November 2nd.  It was a pretty full day of action.  It was the general strike that Occupy Oakland had called for a couple of weeks prior.  So it was a pretty packed day of marches and rallies.  I was trying to do as many interviews as I could as well as doing a lot of drawings because it was one of those rare days of action at Occupy Oakland that happened during the day when it was light out so I could actually draw.  So I was there basically all day in some capacity [either drawing or interviewing] and at different points followed marches away from the [Frank H. Ogawa] Plaza and followed marches down to the Port [of Oakland] where protesters shut down the Port of Oakland and marched back to the Plaza.  The events that led to my arrest probably started shortly after 10 o’clock in the evening of November 2nd when protesters tried to take over a foreclosed building just north of the Plaza and when they heard that police had been mobilized.   Police had been actually mobilized many, many hours prior.  But when people actually heard that there were eyewitness accounts of them [the police] mobilizing nearby and they were on their way, the whole situation escalated quite a bit.  Occupiers began building barricades to block off the street that the foreclosed building was on.  Then I got out of there and moved north to follow the mobilization of the police and by that point the police had made their lines north of the action, north of the foreclosed building and the barricades.  The barricades were being lit on fire.  Things were getting real crazy, real fast.  That was probably around eleven thirty to midnight.  

Bro – Did the Occupy Movement at that time have a proper permit to demonstrate?

Susie – No.  Occupy Oakland has never sought to get permits for anything that they have done.  

Drew – For the record, you did have your press pass on you, correct?

Susie – Yes.  It was a press pass that had my editor’s information on it and her phone number and the AlterNet website [contact info].

Bro – And they are of course still willing to back you up and confirm that they gave you permission to use their name to be identified as a press person?

Susi – Sure.  They are the ones who backed me up to get my Oakland Police Department press badge just this week.  So they’ve been backing me up this whole time.  

Photograph by Elijah Nouvelage

Drew – Has the Oakland Police Department, to the best of your knowledge, attempted to contact your editor to verify that you are a reporter with them?

Susie – No, which is kind of funny because I filled out their application for the press pass, which included having to send it to my editor at AlterNet and have her put down my information.  She hasn’t told me that anyone has contacted her for any reason.  It’s very strange.  Well, it is not strange.  It is just a mess.  I had been in contact with the Oakland Police Department Public Information Officer since before my arrest, several days before my arrest, trying to get a [Oakland Police Department] press pass specifically so something like that wouldn’t happen.  And I had a meeting [scheduled] with her [the Public Information Officer] that same morning that I was arrested to fill out [the rest of] my application and show her my clips.  I told my arresting officer that, “You can call my editor and moreover you can call the PIO [Public Information Officer] because we have a meeting and she recognizes my name, she knows who I am.”  Let alone make an effort to call my editor, they [the arresting officers] didn’t try to call the person in the Police Department who knew who I was and was in charge of press relations.  

Drew – And I understand that the officer even taunted you a little bit about your upcoming appointment with the Press Officer.  What exactly did he say?

Susie – My arresting officer and a female arresting officer that was with him were making fun of my press pass and making fun of my credentials as a reporter in general saying that I must just write for my own blog and that they had never heard of AlterNet.  And when I said I had a meeting [scheduled] with the PIO he said, “Well, call her and tell her you’ll be late.”  And [with my hands cuffed behind my back] I said, “Could you please call her.  I would really appreciate it.”  That’s when one of the other officers came up and said, “Oh, Susie Cagle, I know your work.”  He even gestured at me and my badge and then talked to his buddy, my arresting officer, for a minute and then walked away.  That was when my arresting officer said, “So you draw comics.  Well, okay.”  It was a clear change in his attitude.  

Bro – Was it a clear change to being more positive or more facetious?

Susie – More positive, much nicer.  After that he was just much more kind in general.  He was not nearly as hands-on in how he handled me.  He put new flex cuffs on me that were much looser and more comfortable.  It was pretty clear that something changed when he realized that I really was press.  But he didn’t want to unarrest me at that point.  

Drew – Can you describe what led up to your arrest and the arrest of the others around you?

Susie – Sure.  At about 12:30 to 12:45 I had been on the opposite side of the police line just north of the Plaza looking sort of toward the south end of the Plaza from behind the cops.  My understanding was that they were telling people to go into the Plaza.  So I went around the side, moved south-southeast, to get into the east corner of the Plaza to see what was happening there.  I was surprised to see that the crowd was much smaller than I thought it would be.  There weren’t all that many people facing down the cops and the rest of the Plaza was kind of operating as normal.  People were sitting on benches, walking around and eating.  The situation did not feel as high stakes and high pressure as other times at Occupy Oakland certainly have.  I was many yards behind what I perceived to be the frontline and where things might happen with the cops.  I couldn’t hear any sort of dispersal order telling people to go anywhere except into the Plaza.  We were actually physically in the Plaza at that point.  So I didn’t think that there was a problem.  I was turning to move south … tweeting … looking down at my phone.  I guess police had been sent around to the same southeast corner entrance where I came in fifteen minutes prior.  They came running out through that entrance throwing tear gas canisters, throwing flash-bang grenades and targeting people with less lethal projectiles at close range and some pulling out batons.  But it was the less lethal projectiles, the shotgun projectiles, that were very scary because when they came out, it was not a crowd.  It was just a few of us standing around with no protection in an open plaza.  That’s about the point that I started recording on my phone and shortly before I started running.  I was running for a far doorway that looked safe and well lit.  But then things escalated very quickly and there were many more flash bangs and much more tear gas and many more nonlethal bullets.  So I slipped into a closer doorway with legal observers and people marked very clearly as medics and other people just looking generally scared and wanting to hide in this very open plaza.

Drew – Susie, what do you mean by legal observers?  

Susie – NLG legal observers.  They are there as representatives of the National Lawyers Guild to document not just brutality but the weapons that police have.   Especially in Oakland that really has been a big ongoing issue of what are they actually shooting at people, what are the circumstances surrounding the shooting of these specific weapons because they are not supposed to be using any of these weapons on people.  

Drew – And have these individuals been arrested, detained and charged?  

Susie – Yes, all of the NLG legal observers have been arrested, detained and charged and that’s not against OPD crowd control policy.  In OPD crowd control policy they are allowed to arrest and charge legal observers.  They are not supposed to arrest and charge journalists.  

Drew – Then what happened?

Susie – We were all cowering in this corner thinking this was the safest place for us to be at the time.  A line of police marched down from the north end of the Plaza arresting people as they went.  They came up to the entrance of our doorway and everyone cried out in fear, “Please don’t shoot us.”  Clearly OPD was kind of deciding what to do.  About half a minute later they decided to get us all on the ground and arrest us.  

Drew – Kneeling or lying down?

Susie – Lying down, lying face down.  Then they came around and zip cuffed us all.  I said I was press.  They said they would take care of that in a minute.  Then they pulled me out onto the curb.  They basically said that my press pass was meaningless and charged me along with everyone else.  We were on the curb being processed and organized for about three hours and then spent about six hours at the first jail.  Then all the women were transferred to the second jail because the two jails in Oakland apparently don’t have the supposed capacity to hold any female prisoners.  So, all female prisoners have to be transferred about thirty miles outside of the city.  We were all transferred out there for another six hours before we were released.  

Drew – If you wish to talk about it, what was your experience like being detained?

Susie – I guess my experience was probably about the same as other people’s experiences every day in jail.  It was dehumanizing and there was harassment, there was denial of meals, [and for a couple of the women I was detained with, there was] denial of medication.  It was extremely unpleasant.  

Drew – At the end of all that, you were charged with what specifically?

Susie – I was charged with PC409 misdemeanor, which is failure to disperse at the scene of a riot.

Drew – Have the Oakland authorities attempted to place any restrictions on you since your arrest and detainment?

Susie – When I was released from jail with about seven of the protesters and also bystanders, we were told by the Alameda County sheriffs who were processing our release and our citations that if we were caught at the Plaza again – which is where the camp was – and arrested at Occupy Oakland again before our arraignment, we would be charged with a felony.  It would actually just be a misdemeanor.  [But they said] they would charge us with a felony, hold us in jail on thousands of dollars of bail, which we would either have to post or stay in jail until our court date.  So it could be up to a week in jail.  That was very intimidating at the time.  But what I have since discovered is that that is more or less an outright lie.  Two misdemeanors, especially these misdemeanors, do not equal a felony.

Drew – How do you respond to the argument that since you largely agree with the protesters, that you are a protester and not a journalist?

Susie – I haven’t heard that argument specifically.  I usually get the argument that I confuse people because on the surface I totally look like a protester.   I blend right in.  I wear similar type of clothes.  I’m about the same age.  I just look like I mix and most journalists don’t.  Most journalists make an effort to look separate from the group.  They dress up.  They wear really nice clothes.  A lot of them have really big equipment, especially cameras that set them apart and make them very visible.  I find that I do my best work by being more invisible and not intimidating my subjects.  That’s how I win trust and that’s how I get good information.  I have always been an opinionated reporter.  I have been a reporter for more than six years now.  This is what I have always done.  My personality has always been a part of my work.  At this point I’m used to the claims that I’m not objective because I agree [with the protesters].  I don’t think anyone is objective.                 

Drew – Tell us about your background, your journalistic background.

Susie – I started my own quarterly magazine that was distributed around California, an arts and culture magazine, from 2003 to 2005 that had a circulation of about 15,000.  After that I went to Columbia Journalism School.  Graduated in 2006.  I did several years of blogging freelance and then full-time professional blogging for many different outlets as well as freelance writing for weekly newspapers and magazines and websites.  I only started doing cartooning in about 2009.  I wouldn’t say it has been a career change, but a career addition.  I still do writing.  Right now I’m covering Occupy in several different media.  I’m writing an article for the Atlantic right now.  I’m drawing for Good and Truthout and other places and I’m also doing radio stories for Citizen Radio.  So to me I just see cartooning as a different medium for my journalism.  It is still all journalism.  I like working in these different mediums.  

Cartoon by Susie Cagle from her website
This is what concerns me

Drew – The charge is still pending against you, is that correct?  And when are you scheduled to appear in court?

Susie – That is correct.  And I am scheduled to appear in court Monday, December 5th at 9:00 AM with I believe about two hundred other people.  

Drew – Are you surprised that even in the United States you can be charged with a crime even though you were acting as a journalist covering a story?

Susie – When it happened I was surprised and I was outraged.  That was November 3rd.  This is about three weeks later now.  What surprises me now is how much my worldview has changed in such a brief period of time.
Drew – How so?

Susie – At that point I really was shocked and now I’m not.  After seeing what force the police have used, not just against the protesters but specifically against media there to cover the protests [and] in cities around the country, and how this is kind of accepted, I’m not surprised any more.  They [the police] have been acting with impunity and there doesn’t seem to be any sort of real public backlash against it.  Yeah I was shocked and outraged three weeks ago and now it has set in as a new normal.
Bro – I am equally as shocked as you are, I think, that Americans aren’t as outraged by these infringements of First Amendment rights and that attacks against the media are being ignored.  Not even the media is picking up on that.  

Susie – It does not seem to concern people the way I thought at first it might.

Drew – This is a total aside.  But one thing that I don’t understand about the Occupy Movement is that they don’t seem to want to support any particular legislation or any particular candidates.  I’m baffled by that.  Any movement that has had a positive influence on American politics got people elected, got laws passed.  How is a movement supposed to have a positive effect if it is not willing to be a part of the process?

Susie – You’ve hit it on the nose.  They don’t see themselves as part of the process.  They are not interested in being part of the process.  They see it as a revolutionary movement as opposed to a reformist movement.  And that is probably the biggest issue within the movement right now as well.  Because there are people that want to make it a reformist movement.  But there are extremes within their reformer groups too.  There are people that want to use it as a way to get out the vote for Obama.  I think that the next few months are going to see a lot of growth and change within Occupy as they really figure out what it means to be either reformers or revolutionaries.  And maybe that takes the form of something like the way that Students for a Democratic Society split into reformer group and revolutionary group.  And that’s how civil rights history went as well.  I think that is likely because you can’t keep the reformers and the revolutionaries together for all that long.  I think that they [the revolutionaries] see themselves as creating a separate thing that solves the problems that government hasn’t been able to solve.  So they don’t see the answer being to invest further in government which they have seen not work for them.   

Drew – It sounds like you’ll be there to cover whatever happens, whichever way it does go?

Susie  – That’s the plan.  

Bro – Susie, thank you so much.  

Susie – No, thank you.