Thursday, February 3, 2011

Yes, I CAN take pictures here ...

A racist jerk in my neighborhood, right as he rushed me.

I live in a nice neighborhood, Winston Manor in South San Francisco. It's clean, well-maintained, ethnically heterogeneous, and -- other than having to suffer the occasional annoyance of lazy neighbors parking on the opposite side of the street (i.e., facing the wrong direction) -- it's never bugged me in the eight-plus years I've lived here. Until today.

We have a friend renting out our "library" for a few months as he's just re-located to the Bay Area and needs to get settled. He's enjoyed the town thus far, and has taken walks to the nearby park the last several days. He came back this evening and showed me the following entry he had just put on his Facebook page:

Say what? My friend just wanted to shoot some snaps of our neighborhood for out-of-town friends on the Internet when some idjit tried to shut him down, called him an "Ay-rab" and warned that he could get "shot" if he continued (you know, the "threat that's not an outright threat" game). I was a bit irritated as you can imagine. So what did I do? See if it could happen to me, of course.

Having both a journalism degree (which included courses in media law) and three years dispatching for the police, I know I can take pictures in public with hardly any restrictions. Even a quick Google search will show multiple websites that say taking pictures of houses from the sidewalk is permissible. While it is courteous to ask permission, it is not required for personal, non-commercial purposes like those of my friend.

After asking my friend to stay behind (in order to see if a white person would get the same reception), I began walking down Arlington Drive, in the direction where my friend said the confrontation happened. I occasionally pointed my camera at houses as I walked down the sidewalk at a steady, brisk pace. I rarely actually took a picture. To be perfectly clear, not once did I take any pictures of people or through open windows. And just to prove my point, that we were doing no more than what is already on the Internet, here's a link to the Google Streetview of the area.

About a third of the way down the block, someone on the opposite side of the street stepped out on their porch, yelled "Turn around!" then "Smile!" as they took my picture. I complied -- hey, I was in public and fair game. I thought, "OK, that was probably where (my friend) had his problem," and figured they weren't giving me as many problems because I was white. I kept walking, to finish my loop of the neighborhood.

But about 200 feet down the street, at about the point on the Streetview map above, a burly white man in his late 30s/early 40s, wearing an unflattering sweatsuit combo, approached me and asked what I was doing. I flipped on voice memo on my iPhone and recorded the following:

John (J): "I'm just taking pictures."
Burly Racist Ass (BRA): "Why?"
J: "Frankly my friend, that's not your business."
BRA: "You can't take pictures of houses, that's violating people's privacy."
J: "No sir, it's not. I'm on public property."

At this point I began walking away, in the same direction I was originally heading. All of a sudden, the man gently swiped my foot with his foot and then did it again when I kept walking. It was after that second time that I warned him that I was recording the whole conversation and that was the second time he had kicked me.

BRA (realizing his situation): "I didn't kick you. You need to ask people if you can take pictures."
J: "May I take your picture, my friend?"
BRA: "Yes."

As soon as I pulled out my camera and pointed it, the man pounced. He rushed me, tried to grab my camera (which I protected in my hand) and managed to break the strap (right). I was a bit surprised at how well I kept my temper, and our conversation continued.

J: "You just assaulted me."
BRA: "I didn't assault you."
J: "I've got it on tape." (Actually on flash memory.)
BRA: "All you have is us talking."

I asked his name (to which he offered a colorful non-sequitor), asked him to pay $10 for the broken camera strap (he refused) then told him I didn't appreciate him calling my friend an "Ay-rab," (double wrong because my friend isn't of Middle-Eastern descent). "We don't have room for racists in this neighborhood," I said, then walked off.

The man then mumbled something about talking to another neighbor, who he said was a cop, and stormed off. "Whatever," I said, knowing I was in the right, and continued on my walk. I got to the bottom of the hill, then walked back up to my house on the other side of the street. All my interactions with people on the other side of the street were congenial.

I never saw the burly guy again, and my friend later confirmed (via description and blurry picture) that my confrontation was with the same person as was his.

What it comes down to is this: I have the right to take pictures on a public street. If you want to be suspicious of some otherwise nondescript people taking pictures in a public place, fine -- call the cops. Let them make sure the person isn't up to no good. Don't come roaring out of your house calling people racist names and try to grab their camera. I've half a mind to make this a weekly project, or organize a flash mob to go up and down the street taking pictures.

Oh, and if anyone still thinks I was violating privacy by taking pictures, here's a sample of the (now all-deleted) pictures I did take. It's my own house, and you can see the resolution was quite low.


Anex said...

Honestly that guy is a jerk. I know your friend, I have seen his picture and he doesn't even look Arabic for one (not that it would matter if he was, this guy was just racist.)

The moment he started getting confrontational I would have just called the police. (Though I agree it is hard when you're in the confrontation).

Anonymous said...

I love your flash mob idea.

Rob Roy said...

John, I think I'll avoid the usual "One shall stand, One shall run away" jokes this time. Here is some ammo of your own: