Daily Californian Journalist Recounts Freeway Protest, 20-Hour Jail Stint

18-Year-Old Multimedia Producer Films Demonstration on Freeway: 'Mass Havoc Just Breaks Loose'

Photo: Cameron Burns
Cameron Burns

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Protesting crowd marches onto freeway

Cameron Burns, a multimedia producer for The Daily Californian, follows the demonstration from Oakland onto the freeway ramp. Along with around 150 protesters, he was arrested that evening and released Friday afternoon.

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Cameron Burns' March 4th experience

My name is Cameron Burns and I am a multimedia producer for The Daily Californian. On March 4th, I was arrested while covering the protests. Here is what happened from my point of view.

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Photo: <b>Demonstrators</b> ran onto Interstate 980 last Thursday. Nearly 150 of them were booked, along with freshman Cameron Burns of The Daily Californian, who was filming the protest.   

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Standing on the freeway on-ramp, Cameron Burns realized he had forgotten his press pass. What he had on his hands instead was a video camera and a protest that was about to unfold.

It was Thursday, March 4, and Burns, 18, was on assignment as a multimedia producer for The Daily Californian. The UC Berkeley freshman had walked from Berkeley to Oakland, Flip camera in hand, recording a crowd of demonstrators who were advocating for funding to public education. Now roughly 150 of them were splintering off from the protest at Oakland City Hall and heading for Interstate 980.

"They're running onto the freeway," Burns said over the phone to Joanna Brockhouse, the paper's multimedia coordinator. "Should I follow them?"

Brockhouse's last words, according to Burns, were: "Go get the story-go get it!"

So he did.

For the intended business administration major from Carlsbad, Calif., what began as a filming of the long-anticipated protests culminated in a 20-hour stint in jail. Burns was booked along with the nearly 150 activists on the freeway, including 36 other UC Berkeley students. He was held at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Calif., until Friday afternoon. He is charged with obstructing a public place and unlawful assembly, the same charges facing many of those who were arrested.

On the freeway, Burns drifted behind the anarchists as they chanted, "They say class cuts, we say class war!"

Then, as Burns recalled in an interview, "I looked behind and there was another line of riot cops behind us that were charging up the off-ramp, and that's when I'm like, 'Oh, crap, we're kind of stuck here.' Ten seconds later is when everyone else figures it out and starts running; mass havoc just breaks loose and I have no idea what to do."

Burns said he was tackled to the ground, handcuffed and moved into a bus heading for jail. He repeatedly identified himself as a reporter for The Daily Californian, he said, but could not prove it without the press pass he had left in the newsroom.

So that's how Burns-a self-described "goody two-shoes" whose sole memory of punishment dates to second grade-found himself in a cinder block cell, wedged between anarchists.

"They were mostly nice," Burns said of his fellow inmates. "They targeted me as the guy that definitely doesn't belong there, made sure that I felt comfortable."

As evening became dawn, the inmates told stories, joked and planned their next protest. Burns waited. Then, on Friday afternoon, he was released, and picked up by Will Kane, editor in chief and president of The Daily Californian.

"It's unfortunate he didn't have his press pass because I think it would have saved him a lot of grief, so to speak," Kane said. "But I think at the root of all this was a desire to get the story, and I think it's commendable."

Kane said he is working with campus officials, an attorney and state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, a known advocate of student media, to ensure that the charges against Burns would be dropped because he was acting as a journalist. He is scheduled to appear in court on April 6.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said reporters are often confused for protesters-even with their press passes.

"The best thing a journalist can do, professional or student, to avoid getting arrested is to make sure every officer they interact with is aware they're a journalist," he said.

Neil Henry, dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, said that student journalists should generally be treated with the same respect as journalists from the mainstream press. "They do same thing-they report under high standards to a significant population," he said.

Burns, for his part, said he would head onto the freeway again if given the chance.

"When I called Joanna to ask her, 'Do I follow those guys?' I probably wasn't even looking for the answer she gave me, even though she gave me that 'Yeah, go get it' answer," he said. "I immediately said bye and went. As a journalist, I have to report back to the students and get the information correct."

Stephanie M. Lee is the managing editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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