September 12, 2012
Vol: 19 No: 37

Feature

Changing Focus

While documenting Occupy Seattle's first year, photographer Alex Garland discovers a new identity

Photos by Alex Garland

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In late September of 2011, I read something in the news about a group of people in New York spending time at Zuccotti Park, camping in tents. The more I read, the more I realized that they were like the people I knew. Many of the issues that mobilized those people — how corporations and big banks funnel money to politicians,

how United States tax dollars support war instead of infrastructure, how those who aren’t white, male, straight, wealthy and/or Christian experience overlooked oppression, how our economy is in tatters — were the same issues I had discussed for hours with my wife and our friends. It was exciting to see other people not just talking about them, but voicing their concerns in such a public way.

I made it down to Occupy Seattle in Westlake Park in the last week of September. Camera in hand, I wanted a little practice with my photography. There were hundreds of people there. Milling about, talking in small groups, smiling, laughing, arguing: all of them working together to begin the process of building a better world. I couldn’t get enough. Around every corner another great photo presented itself.

The first photo I took was of someone wearing a mask. Standing somberly on their own, the person held a sign that just read, “Decolonize War$treet.” It stuck with me. “Decolonize?” It was then I realized just how much I had to learn. I joined conversations and attended meetings. I got involved. And always, I took photos.

I spent every day there for a month. I listened, and people listened to me. Before, I wouldn’t have sat down with any random person just to talk. Occupy changed that. I spoke to lots of people, whether it was someone living on the streets or a self-described anarchist. Hearing radically different political ideologies and life experiences gave me a profoundly new perspective.

Soon I was being invited to several Occupy-related events a week. I went to anti-police brutality marches, No-War-in-Iran marches, solidarity marches, silent vigils, flash marches, sit-ins, festivals, talks, concerts and everything in between. I was taking so many photos, I could hardly keep up.


On the waterfront

Then came the Dec. 5 shutdown of West Coast ports. I knew it was going to be a huge deal, and even though I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, by this time I had built friendships with many of the people planning to shut down the Port of Seattle. I considered it a responsibility to go. Jess, my wife and no stranger to protests, came with me.

Once there, things got wild. Seattle police officers moved in with their bicycles and started pushing up against the crowd. I was shooting video and fairly close to the action. Through the lens I saw officers slamming their bicycles against people in the front. Then the horses moved in. A road flare was thrown. Suddenly, a flash-bang grenade went off.

I immediately went to look for Jess. As we were leaving, a second flash bang went off less than five feet from her. I started yelling at the police to stop using pepper spray and flash bangs behind people if they wanted them to leave the area. I got angry. Later, I realized that it wasn’t very professional. I had come to a decision: From then on, I would focus on the art of journalism. I went from being an “activist with a camera” to a “journalist with empathy.” Despite my lack of experience, I decided to strike out on my own.


May Day melee

Fast forward to May 1, 2012. I was on a bus with Jess and we were headed down to the May Day protests. I looked at her and said, “Now, don’t go getting arrested today. You have to work tomorrow.” She replied, “You, either. You also have to work tomorrow.” I laughed and said, “It’s cool. I’m just a photographer.”

Once downtown, I was quickly greeted by many of my friends, some dressed in pink, others painted like clowns, some preparing signs and banners: all of them excited. I also saw a lot of people I couldn’t tell if I knew, because they were covered from head to toe in black. We started marching. I just tried to stay in front.

As the march reached Niketown, Jess pointed out the smoke pouring off the awning. I ducked down between two parked cars to take photos. Suddenly, shadows broke out from the crowd and smashed the windows. A man in a white shirt darted past me and grabbed one of the shadow figures. They scuffled. As I backed away, still taking pictures, I was doused in the face — twice — with pepper spray.

Thirty extremely painful minutes later, with the help of a friend, I was up and ready to go again. I caught up to the marchers as they streamed toward the John T. Williams Memorial before heading down to the Pike Place Market. Once we rounded the corner into the market, I spotted a friend being arrested. I ran over to photograph it. As I angled for a better view, I was suddenly pushed hard, grabbed and thrown to the ground. In an instant, I had six of Seattle’s finest on me. I was arrested for assaulting a police officer.

I spent the next 26 hours being strip searched, finger printed, photographed (I smiled for some reason), evaluated, booked and finally jailed. The situation was so new to me, so completely unexpected, I experienced it all in a confused state of shock. I then shared a room with 20 guys, trying to “sleep” with pepper spray all over my face and hands, and getting woken up constantly. Then came my first hearing. I learned the arresting officer had changed his story. He claimed I had “grabbed him with both hands, twisted his wrist and tried to pull him into the crowd.” I faced a felony.

After the arrest, Jess staved off reporters. She found me an excellent attorney — big shout out to Andy Robertson — but in the end, I was lucky. After a stressful two weeks, a YouTube video surfaced of my arrest. It clearly showed a significant difference in what had actually happened and what the arresting officer had said happened in his report. The only thing I was guilty of was what I had gone there to do — take pictures. After viewing the video, the prosecuting attorney dropped the case.

A fire had been lit inside me. I decided to continue pursuing photojournalism with the help and support of many of the people I’d met all those months before at Westlake Park. To my delight, the Seattle Weekly, MSN and the nonprofit news network rt News all wanted my photos. My first checks came not long after. I was so excited. It propelled me to shoot more. These days, I freelance and photograph anything that will help pay the bills. And while weddings and family photos are nice, my dream is to work as a full-time photojournalist for a major media outlet.

Now, because of Occupy Seattle, I follow the lens. So far I’ve taken more than 1,000 photos of the movement. We’ll see where it takes me. In the meantime, I love every second of it.

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