In the late spring of 2004, the NYC MTA considered banning all photography in and around the subway system. They did so at the request of the NYPD, who grew afraid that terrorists were documenting the subway system to plan future terror attacks.
We found this notion to be paranoid and dangerous – an infringement upon our constitutional rights. Criminalizing photography? No way. We immediately decided to hold a protest.
I set the date – June 5, 2004 – and a small army of friends spread the word. It took no time to get the ball rolling. The press started calling, and I took time off work to take point. I didn’t have to “lead” though – everyone took the ball and ran with it. When an idea is pure and just, it takes hold immediately and cannot be stopped.
For a rally cry I stole a page from Charlton Heston – “The only way they’ll get my camera is from my cold, dead hands”. Guns may be largely illegal in NYC – but photography would never be. Nope. Not in my house.
On the day of the protest Roughly 100 people turned out – an impressive showing for a hastily organized event based on what surely may have seemed like a niche issue. After 2 or 3 hours of riding around town shooting photos without incident, I knew it was a battle won. We blocked the entrance to MTA headquarters and planted out flag (the Stars and Stripes, borrowed from a squatter friend). No signs were necessary. Our cameras were our sign, and the photographs told the story in thousands more words than can be written.
The protest made the news from here to Australia. Newspaper polls showed overwhelming support for our cause. Online petitions drew thousands of signatures. Mayor Bloomberg commented that the ban was a dumb idea (one of few things I ever agreed with him on). The MTA quickly realized the idea was a non-starter, though they puttered on the issue for months hoping it would quietly go away. We made sure they knew we were watching, and would not accept any infringement upon our rights.
In the end, The proposed ban was never voted on and never spoken of again within the MTA. We fought and we won – thus preserving your god given right to take as many selfies on the subway as you jolly well want.
10 years later, one can only imagine the backwards version of NYC we would live in had the ban actually happened. Would the ban have lead to attempts at censorship of books and existing websites already containing subway photos? Would carrying a camera in NYC become automatic grounds for arrest? Women photographing pervs who expose themselves on the subway would be criminals – not victims – and their harassers not brought to justice. How far through the courts would we have to fight such a ban? (I was prepared to go all the way – my name on a Supreme Court case? Fuck yeah I’d love that). These ideas seem insane today, but 10 years ago – with the patriot act just stating to be abused, G.W. in office starting wars based on lies, and stories of new unconstitutional searches cropping up daily… The loss of more rights and fear of an ever repressive government rule felt inevitable.
Fighting and winning? It was, in many ways, a turning of the tide: a pushback against the authorities using 9/11 as an excuse to search and detain whoever they wanted. Yes, there still is terrorism paranoia out there, and cops do occasionally harass photographers, but those incidents have dwindled significantly. Having a camera in your hand doesn’t automatically make you a suspect as it did 10 years ago. Just the idea that it would is probably completely alien to many people today.
In 2004, I would estimate that only a few hundred people in NYC were carrying cameras every day. Today, just about everyone in NYC has a phone with a camera. Everyone on the subway these days is using a smartphone. Millions of people carrying cameras every day, all of whom could have become criminal suspects had we not stood up and protested.
Being a part of this small victory will always be a moment in my life I’m proud of. We were 100% right – a fact proven by the test of time. For everyone that helped in the effort, it was an honor to stand with you. A few names come to mind – ACF, Sleazy, Adolf, Zeed, Clayton and a swarm of people I never met who spread the word via message boards and pestered the MTA with petitions. All of the awesome reporters and bloggers that covered the story – Alan Feuer, Jake Dobkin, Mike Epstein, Kevin Walsh, Joe Holmes, – all come to mind, along with faces whose names I can’t recall. We were not backed by any large organizations (though some seem to claim they took part). No one compensated any of us for our efforts, and none of us would have wanted a dime for it. Looking back, it stands out as a wonderful example of a rag-tag bunch of rabblerousers who took on the powers that be and showed them who is really in charge: We, the people.