Friday, May 22, 2009

This story originally ran in The Athens NEWS.

Photojournalism student says he'll fight assault charges from fest

Written by Mike Barajas

Eric Jones, a photojournalism student at Ohio University, recalled being knocked to the ground by Athens Police officers, handcuffed and arrested while photographing the deterioration of Palmer Fest May 9.

"I kept telling [the officers] that I was a journalist… I tried to make it very clear that I was a journalist and not a participant," the third-year student said, recalling the incident.

Police have charged Jones, 21, with assaulting a police horse, participating in a riot, and obstructing official police business, each charge a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. Last week at his arraignment, Jones pleaded not guilty to all three charges.

Of the 74 arrests in connection with Palmer Fest, Jones was among those with the most serious charges.

Jones said he had visited a friend’s house on Palmer Street earlier that day, but left in the afternoon. He came back later that night, he said, to get photographs of police breaking up the block party. "I came back specifically because I wanted to take pictures," he said. "Our [photojournalism] program always encourages us to go out and cover local events."

Officers have said that Jones disobeyed police orders and assaulted a horse with his camera. He was using a Canon 5D with a 22mm lens, a camera worth several thousand dollars according to the Web site.

Jones said he was especially baffled by the assault charge. "I was told later that it was my camera… They said the lens gave the horse a gash. I couldn’t believe it."

Jones said he only came close to horses when the mounted officers were running them through the crowds. "Seriously, I mean, most people just laugh when I tell them about [the assault charge]," he said.

Athens Police Chief Rick Mayer made some general comments last Monday about police treatment of news photographers caught up in what he called the "near-riot" at Palmer Fest. "We were trying to move people out of the area… They very well could have been told to get out of the area," he said.

Mayer said that if photographers didn’t leave when asked, they could have been subject to arrest, even if they weren’t overtly breaking any laws. "It doesn’t matter who you are," Mayer said. "You can’t go violating the integrity of the scene." He noted that officers let photographers back into the street to get shots of the damage once the area was cleared.

Will Klatt, an OU senior who has been a vocal critic of the university administration, said he was at a house on the corner of Mill and Palmer streets when police were breaking up the crowd, and witnessed Jones’ arrest. "All that shit went down on the grass, on private property," he said.

Klatt said he saw an officer hit Jones with a baton before "harshly shoving" him to the ground.

Police have confiscated Jones’ camera and memory card, along with 100 or so pictures of that night, as evidence.

After being arrested, Jones was shipped off to spend the night in a cell in the Southeast Ohio Regional Jail. Jones remembers the officers telling him the alcohol needed to leave his system before he could be released. Typically, those picked up for public intoxication or drunk and disorderly conduct are taken to Nelsonville to sleep it off, but none of Jones’ charges is alcohol related.

"I hadn’t been drinking; I wasn’t drunk in any way," he said.

His first time ever being arrested, Jones said he’s shaken up by the whole ordeal. He stressed why he was there in the first place – to document, not to party. "It wasn’t my intent to hinder police business," he said.

Jones’ pretrial date is set for June 18. He has already consulted a lawyer and said he plans to fight all the charges.

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