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Photographer Harassed by BP Security, Detained by Police While on Assignment at BP Texas Refinery

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We speak with Lance Rosenfield, a freelance photographer who was hired by ProPublica to take pictures of BP’s Texas City refinery that had spewed thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals into the skies. While on assignment, Rosenfield was followed by BP security and then detained by local police. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to go to the issue of the difficulty of reporting this. I want to bring in Lance Rosenfield, the freelance photographer hired by ProPublica to take pictures of BP’s Texas City refinery. While on assignment, he was followed by BP security, then detained by local police. He joins us now from Austin, Texas.

Lance Rosenfield, welcome to Democracy Now! Describe what happened to you.

LANCE ROSENFIELD: Simply put, well, I was hired by ProPublica, like you said, to augment the story that Ryan is speaking of. And I was taking photographs. It was a two-day assignment, so I had various parts to cover, including basically giving a portrait of the town itself. So I had found a decorative “Welcome to Texas City” sign on a public highway south of town near the refinery. And, simply put, I was taking pictures of that sign. I pulled off the shoulder, like I would normally do, of the public street, walked over to the median, took the pictures, and then walked back to my car. And I was going to go back to my hotel to file the pictures, and I noticed that I was being followed by a security truck.

So, I needed gas, anyway. I didn’t feel like going — letting this guy, you know, follow me to my hotel. So I pulled into the gas station. He continued on, so I thought really nothing of it. Then police pulled in and essentially, you know, blocked me in as if I was going to try to go anywhere, and got out, asked who I was. They had got reports that I was taking photographs. And I said, “Yes, I’m a photojournalist.” And they said, “We need to see your pictures.” And I said, “Well, you know, without a warrant, I don’t feel like I need to show you the pictures.” And he said, “Well, we can — you can show them to us now, or we can do this later with Homeland Security,” sort of as a — it seemed to me like some sort of additional threat.

So, because I was on deadline, I made the decision to show them the pictures. I just wanted to get this over with. I knew I had nothing, you know, threatening on my photographs. I showed them the pictures, and he took my information. At this time, the security guard that was following me had turned back around, pulled into the parking lot. He was a BP security guard. And the BP security guard asked for my information, as well. And I declined, because he’s a corporate security guard. So he turned to the police officer who had just taken my information, including my Social Security number, and gave — I’m not sure exactly what of the information that the police officer took, what of that he gave to the BP officer, but he gave him whatever he needed.

And so, I protested. I said I didn’t understand, you know, why that was happening. I didn’t — I was never on BP property. And so, I asked, under what grounds was he able to share my information with a private corporation? And basically, I didn’t get a straight answer. I just got, “Well, this is Homeland Security procedure. We can call Homeland Security agent Tom Robison down here, you know, if you have a problem with it.” And I said, “Well, you know, I’m just trying to understand what legal grounds you have to do this, because I was never on BP property.” So he said, “Well, I’ll just call Tom Robison.”

So he called Tom Robison, who — at the time, I didn’t know who he was, of course. I’ve found out since that he’s a local police corporal who is the liaison to the FBI and Homeland Security, so — and he heads the local Joint Terrorism Task Force there in Texas City and, I guess, maybe the region. So — but at that time, I didn’t know who he was. They just referred to him as FBI and Homeland Security. They called Tom Robison. He actually gave me the phone, which I thought was a little unusual. But my natural reaction was to take the phone. Tom Robison got on the phone and asked me what my problem was. And I said, “Well, I’m just trying to understand why this is happening with BP getting my information.” He said, “You’re staying there. Don’t go anywhere until I get there.” And so, I gave the phone back to the police officer. He said, you know, “You need to stay.”

And at that point, I felt like, you know, the police officer had looked at my photographs on my camera. He had determined that there was no threat. And at this point, why was I being detained? It wasn’t clear to me, so — other than the fact that Tom Robison wanted to come down. So he showed up and basically approached me in a very, you know, antagonistic and aggressive manner. He was shaking. He was worked up. He was loud. He was boisterous. He asked what my problem was. He said his main concern was my attitude. And, you know, all I was trying to do was find out why BP was getting my information. And, you know, it was his antagonistic behavior that I had a problem with. I felt like he was harassing me. The BP security guard stepped in, and they both, you know, were trying to relate my activity as a photojournalist to terrorist activity, giving various scenario —-



JUAN GONZALEZ: Lance, was there any follow-up by ProPublica to find -— understand why this was happening or under what basis, because obviously if you had been with one of those automated cameras of Google in a car, just driving down the road taking photos, there wouldn’t have been any problem, would there?

LANCE ROSENFIELD: I guess not. You know, I don’t know. I mean, there was follow-up. And the statement that we got from BP said that they were following federal law. And there was another statement that BP followed up with, with once this sort of hit the blogosphere and airwaves, BP sent another reaction to ProPublica that gave the actual federal code that they were following. So, that was my answer. I mean, there was, in fact, a federal code that says BP is required by federal law to submit a report to the NRC. My question then is — and I’m not a lawyer, but my question then is, well, if I was never on BP property, and there were no infractions — I was not arrested —- then still, why was BP getting my information? And that, to me, is still unclear.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, and we’re going to continue to follow this -—


AMY GOODMAN: — from Texas City to the Gulf of Mexico, where new rules have been laid down for journalists, making it much more difficult for photographers, videographers to get close to cleanup areas. This is an issue we’ll continue to cover. Lance Rosenfield, thanks for joining us, freelance photographer who was working for ProPublica, and Ryan Knutson, for your piece, the latest piece, “BP Texas Refinery Had Huge Toxic Release Just Before Gulf Blowout.”

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