Clayton Patterson, the longtime Lower East Side documentarian, got a phone call on the afternoon of Sat., March 13, from an Orchard St. resident, who told him there had been a stabbing in a building on the block between Houston and Stanton Sts.
Patterson grabbed his digital camera, plunged into the downpour that was soaking the city that weekend, and hustled over to the scene, just a few blocks from his place on Essex St.
But once he arrived, Patterson said he was shocked at his treatment by Seventh Precinct police, who used some unorthodox tactics to keep him from getting the shot he wanted — namely, officers bringing the stabbing victim out of the building and loading him into an ambulance.
At first, the police were inside the building. When they came out, there were six or seven of them, and the victim was in a wheelchair holding his bloody, bandaged arm in the air. Things got off to a bad start, as police confronted Patterson, he said.
“One cop runs over and bangs into me and says, ‘Why did you push me?’” said Patterson, who answered, “Look, I didn’t push you.”
Then, the photographer said, “The sergeant came up to me and started screaming, ‘I’m f---ing tired of you.’ ... I don’t even know who he was — he knew who I was.”
Next, as the victim was being put into the ambulance, still another officer tried something different on him, Patterson said.
“One cop was jumping in front of me,” he said. “I said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ He said, ‘I’m a monkey.’” Another officer joined in and also started jumping around like this, Patterson said.
“It was bizarre. It was totally, totally bizarre,” the documentarian reflected.
Patterson said the sergeant had told him he had to stand on the sidewalk across the street and stay there or he would be arrested. Patterson said he complied.
However, to top everything off, Patterson said an officer then drove his car up onto the sidewalk, right next to him, blocking him off from the scene — even though he was staying where he had been told.
“I mean, driving the car up on the sidewalk — what, are you crazy?” Patterson asked incredulously. “Think about it — that’s a deadly...weapon. He’s aiming his car at me. That’s a gross abuse of power.
“It’s at the point where this is getting out of hand,” said Patterson. “It’s pouring rain, it’s like a monsoon — I wanted to get the shot and get out of there.”
The photographer said he thinks an investigation of the officers’ behavior is warranted.
“I mean, if they’re out of control in this situation, what’s happening the rest of the time?” he said.
Patterson has obsessively documented neighborhood people and events for 25 years, though his dogged determination has sometimes rubbed police the wrong way. He’s been arrested 14 times, always while photographing. He’s a serious photojournalist and just wants to get the shot, he stressed.
“I’ve published books, I’ve had a movie made about me,” he said. “It’s not like I’m just some sort of wacko lacking credibility. I’ve photographed for The Villager longer than any other photographer — and I’m not a paparazzi.”
Patterson, who often shoots local artists and gallery scenes, was eager to get this latest crime photo, since it was hard news, which has become increasingly rare in the neighborhood.
“I got the shot, and I got it into The Villager. That’s the important thing. This is a newsworthy event,” he said, adding, “To be honest, there aren’t that many newsworthy events over here. There’s lots of bars, parties, bands... .”
Patterson was last arrested in November 2008 when he persisted in taking photos of a fire scene on Ludlow St. after police told him to back off. He’s suing the Police Department and city over that incident for “wrongful arrest, probably harassment,” he said.
The new book by the Unbearables, “The Worst Book I Ever Read,” includes a chapter by Patterson and his wife, Elsa Rensaa, titled the “Worst Court Transcript.” Their entry details Patterson’s successful court fight six years ago to vacate assault charges filed against him after police threw him out of an auction of Lower East Side properties at Police Headquarters in 1998.
Patterson also filmed one of the main videotapes of the 1988 Tompkins Square riots; he said his tape led to a police shakeup, including a chief retiring, a commanding officer being moved out of the Ninth Precinct and six officers being criminally indicted. He feels his arrests in the years after the riots were payback for his videotape.
Although it probably would help him to have one, Patterson does not have a Police Department-issued press pass, saying he doesn’t need it.
Asked if he thought his countercultural appearance — long beard, skull-pattern baseball hat, black leather jacket — might have anything to do with his treatment by police, Patterson said it’s irrelevant. Asked if a more conservative-looking photographer would have been treated differently, Patterson said he had no idea, and that, anyway, an experiment would have to be done “20 times” to test that theory.
The Seventh Precinct and the police press department did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Patterson said he’s also under attack on another front. Three months ago, he got a ticket telling him to remove the graffiti from his signature front door or the city would power-wash it. There was a provision under which he could keep the graffiti, but as of this week, Patterson said he was still being fined $300 over his own door
At 9:30 p.m. last Thursday, city workers suddenly showed up and started loudly cleaning the door.
“Elsa thought we were being robbed,” Patterson said. “She said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ and then they went away. Not only are they trying to get $300 from me, they’re out there with a power tool gouging up my metal door. … That’s a landmarked piece of the neighborhood. Bloomberg wants to make everything into a picket fence. You can’t even be an artist on the Lower East Side anymore?”