Award-winning Indian film-maker harassed by NYPD

Freedom’s on the march. That’s why a South Asian man gets detained by the police for taking photos on the streets of New York. Gotta love the irony. Thanks to the Independent Press Association’s Voices That Must Be Heard, “the best of New York’s ethnic and immigrant press,” for passing this along.

Colored? Carrying a camera? Banned in New York
By George Joseph, India Abroad, 24 June 2005

Taking photographs in New York City can be dangerous, especially if your color is brown.

Rakesh Sharma, a filmmaker from India who captured the violence in Gujarat in his film Final Solution, learned it the hard way. His crime: taking photographs of taxis, pedestrians and buildings around Park Avenue and 39th Street in Manhattan around the Metlife building.

Sharma was in America on a screening tour of his film across several universities since March 22. He arrived in New York May 12 from Los Angeles for a screening of his film at the New School, and was staying at Hotel Bedford on 40th St.

The next day he was out about 2:30 PM with his tourist-grade Sony palmcorder. “I walked around the block and found an interesting visual—yellow cabs emerging from the underpass and receding against the backdrop of tall buildings,” said Sharma.

That is when his troubles began. “I took several shots and started walking to the next block, en route to Times Square when I was approached by a gentleman wearing a pair of jeans and a shirt, who flashed or rather rapidly flipped a badge and identified himself as Detective Elimeyer of NYPD,” Sharma said in a complaint filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent mayoral agency which reviews police conduct.

“For nearly three hours, I was detained for no apparent reason, physically and verbally assaulted by a plainclothes detective and harassed and questioned by several others,” the award-winning filmmaker said in his complaint.

According to Sharma’s account in the complaint, the officer asked him why he was taking shots of the MetLife building for over half an hour, to which he responded that he had no specific interest in the building, but was primarily shooting traffic and had tilted up to the only well-lit building getting direct sunlight among a cluster of other buildings in shadow.

“The detective told me he found me suspicious because I had been shooting at the spot for half an hour,” said Sharma. The filmmaker offered to put the officer in touch over cell phone with his hosts, professors at the New School and Columbia University. But the officer instead called two patrolmen to the scene.

“He insisted that I was shooting a ‘sensitive’ building… He said less than five minutes was fine but when I asked what about 15 or 20 or more, he said, ‘Buddy, that’s going to be a problem’.” By standing in one spot, the officer told Sharma, he was engaging in “suspicious behavior.”

Then he asked to check Sharma’s shoulder bag. “Even though I felt that it was illegal, but since the detective had already been intimidatory [sic], had seized my passport and I wanted the situation to be quickly resolved, I allowed him a peek into my bag.” Its contents? An umbrella, a banana, a copy of the New York Times city guide and a copy of Time Out—NY… Sharma turned on the camera to offer to play back the recorded footage, when, he said, the officer charged him, shoved him, snatched the camera and said, “We know how to deal with you guys.” The officer then said he was authorized to punch him if necessary, Sharma said.

For nearly two hours Sharma was made to stand on the sidewalk outside a Starbucks, coffee shop with his camera and passport in the detective’s possession, not allowed to move, not allowed to use his phone or buy water. He said he was humiliated in front of hundreds of passers-by and onlookers.

Sharma was questioned by two other detectives and taken to the precinct, where Sharma used Google to show them hundreds of web pages about him and his work, with his picture. One of the detectives then apologized, said Sharma. But his camera was still with one of the other officers, who replayed the pictures and asked why they were taken. When the camera was returned, Sharma noticed it was damaged.

Andrew Case, a spokesperson for the CCRB, said the complaint had been received and was under investigation. He described the process. “The first step is interviewing Sharma,” said Case. “Since he is traveling out of the country it could be over the phone.” After the interview, the investigator would review police records, interview the officers and file a report to the 13-member board.

“The Board will decide what action should be taken. If they think the police acted wrongly, they will recommend disciplinary action to the police commissioner. The Board has no power to take disciplinary action,” said Case.

But the harm has been done. “Sharma left the country thoroughly shaken,” said Sanjay Ruparelia, lecturer in International and public affairs at Columbia University who hosted the screening of Sharma’s film. “This incident may compel him to reconsider his plans of returning to New York City in the future — of great concern to any university,” said Ruparelia in a statement supporting Sharma’s CCRB complaint.

The wonderful irony is that Sharma’s film is meanwhile being censored in India, where the Central Board of Film Certification has apparently refused to approve it. (Midday, India, July 19, 2004)

See our last post on paranoia in New York City.