Sunday, May 10, 2009

About the Lawsuit

When I initially started the subway project, I had the idea to photograph both the inside and outside of every subway station in New York. Of course, I didn’t consider the fact that as a dark-skinned person this might lead to some problems in our post-9/11 world, even if casual photography in the train is totally legal and does not require a permit (see MTA Rules of Conduct 1050.9.c).

On the very first day of the project, I was five stops in, at the 207 St. stop on the 1 Train in Inwood. I had just finished taking photos off the northbound platform (the station is elevated) when I saw a cop watching me from the southbound side. Knowing I was doing nothing wrong, I didn’t pay it any mind. However, when I went down to street level to walk around a bit and take some more photos, he approached to interrogate me. He asked what I was doing, and I explained the project. He then requsted to see some ID, so I gave him two forms. He subsequently asked to see my photos, which I demonstrated to him on the back of my digital camera. However, he wasn’t satisfied, saying he needed to “take me to the station house to run my ID”. He then asked me turn around and placed me in handcuffs. I ended up in cuffs for around 25 minutes, standing on the corner of 207 St. and 10 Ave. during the middle of rush hour.

Finally, some more senior, plainclothes officers eventually arrived, questioned me, and released me. I was not ticketed or charged with any illegal activity. Unfortunately, they had no good advice on how could avoid similar run-ins subsequently in my project, so I decided to just try to avoid cops seeing my camera whenever possible.

After this incident I was concerned that something was amiss. While I had not been greatly harmed by the police intervention, I was also confident that had I not been dark-skinned there was no way I would have been detained by them. I contacted a lawyer friend who encouraged me to get in touch with the New York Civil Liberties Union. The NYCLU had been trying through legal means to get the NYPD to reform their heavy-handed policies regarding photographers and videographers in New York. Fortunately, the attorneys there were receptive to my case and were willing to pursue it. My case was filed in December 2007 in federal court (see the NYCLU description here) as part of a series of cases filed by the NYCLU against the NYPD regarding photography and videography.

The case received a good amount of press, both in New York (Gothamist, Daily News, Post, NY1), nationwide (Reuters), and abroad (Hindustan Times). While the NYPD eventually forced us to settle my case without any change in their policies, the NYCLU was ultimately successful in getting the NYPD to change their training procedures regarding photography and videography (see Gothamist story here). I am proud that my subway project was able to contribute to this furthering of our civil liberties. I hope that in the future, law-abiding, amateur photographers such as myself won’t have to be afraid when taking photos near the subway.