A video journalist was allegedly detained and arrested by CUNY Public Safety officers at the Bronx Community College last month. He was accused of harassing students and trespassing in his pursuit of a story for Gothamist.
The ordeal, which was partially caught on film, began on Aug. 16, when independent reporter J.B. Nicholas was sent by an editor at Gothamist to photograph busts of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson within BCC’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans, located on the campus.
“I entered the campus on its north side, at the Hall of Fame gate,” said Nicholas in an email to The Ticker.
“The Latino officer in the video was at the gate with two other campus police officers [Public Safety]. That officer asked for my ID, and I handed him my NYS ID. He handed it to one of the other officers who signed my name in a logbook.”
Once he was done photographing the Hall of Fame, Nicholas made his way to a tree-lined area, just south of BCC’s Ohio Field, setting out to conduct interviews with passing BCC students.
“I approached 10-15 people and asked them if they had heard of Robert E. Lee and the bust of him in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans behind the library on the campus. Most of them did not know who Lee was. Of those that knew, they freely answered my questions,” said Nicholas.
Among Nicholas’ interviewees were mother and daughter Susan and Audrey Powell, Kwon Johnson and Katherine Justiniano. During one of the interviews, Nicholas was approached by BCC Public Safety officers
“A campus police vehicle pulled [up] with the two officers in the video inside,” said Nicholas. “They got out, came over and said ‘The interview is over,’ or words to that effect, and ordered Justiniano to leave. That's when I took my camera out and began rolling the video that you see on YouTube.”
In the video, which was released by Gothamist on Aug. 18, Nicholas can be seen speaking with the two officers, who ask him to exit the campus because he is not conducting “official college business.”
Nicholas states that after turning off the camera and beginning to walk away from the officers, the situation got violent.
“They blocked my way. I went in another direction to go around them, and they and another campus police officer came up from behind me and tackled me face-first onto some kind of stone planter, with a built-in bench,” said Nicholas.
“It was an unprovoked and unjustified violent attack intended to punish me for documenting their interference with my reporting and asking their names. After they handcuffed me, they stood me up. At that point, because they had been pressing me down onto the bench, the blood rushed out of my head and I felt dizzy and fell to the ground.”
Nicholas went on to state that officers “half-carried me, half-dragged me to the police car and stuffed me into the back seat.”
According to Nicholas, he was taken to a precinct on campus, where his pockets were emptied and his New York Police Department press pass was copied. He was issued a summons for trespassing and escorted out of the college’s front gate.
Later that day, Nicholas sent an email to both CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken and BCC President Thomas Isekenegbe regarding the incident, but received no response as of press time. In an email to Isekenegbe that Nicholas was CC'd on, Executive Legal Counsel and Deputy to the President Karla Renee Williams stated that Nicholas was, “aggressively questioning students and faculty and became combative with our Public Safety Officers.”
As of Aug. 21, BCC declined a request from The Ticker to comment on the matter. In a statement released on BCC’s website shortly after Nicholas photographed the Hall of Fame, Isekenegbe announced that both busts would be removed and replaced.
On Aug. 29, reporters from The Ticker retraced Nicholas’ steps through BCC’s campus, photographing the Hall of Fame and interviewing students.
“I stand behind the reason for them taking down the statue, because it’s a representation of negativity and why should we continue on with negativity?” said Keyla Gonzalez, a freshman at BCC who was talking to her brother inside the Hall of Fame. “We should look back on our history to not commit the same mistakes that were done back then.”
Gonzalez’s brother, Kenny, disagreed.
“They shouldn’t have take[n] them down, because it’s a part of your history. If you just take it down and never talk about it again, you’re sugarcoating it. It creates even more problems for the future generations,” he said.