The reluctant poster boy

Pitt student photographed in humiliating pose with police



These days, Kyle Kramer finds himself juggling emotions of anger, confusion -- and a strong desire not to become anyone's symbol.

But whether he likes it or not, the University of Pittsburgh senior was the focus of one of the most compelling images to come out of last month's G-20 protests on that school's campus -- a grainy video posted on YouTube showing a line of police in riot gear posing for a group photograph, with a young man in handcuffs they'd just arrested, kneeling before them on the street.

That video has been taken down from YouTube's Web site -- for reasons that aren't clear -- but it triggered thousands of page views and plenty of buzz in the blogosphere.

"Thugs take a trophy on Pitt campus," declared PittsburghPoliceBrutality.com.

Other bloggers declared it comparable to abuses at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, while still others said police were following correct procedures by photographing suspects to create a record.

While calling the incident "kind of degrading," Mr. Kramer, 21, also said he felt uncomfortable about his status as a poster child for police excess, even though he, like so many of those arrested during those two nights of confrontations, believes he was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I don't want to get used," he said Friday. "I don't want to become a symbol, but I can already feel that happening. A couple of times people have compared it to Abu Ghraib. One guy even argued with me about it. But I wasn't wearing a hood and it wasn't as intense."

It was still intense enough.

Shortly after being arrested at the intersection of Fifth and Tennyson avenues around 11:20 p.m. on Sept. 25, Mr. Kramer, an English and writing major who hopes to become a journalist one day, was asked by one officer what he was majoring in.

When he told them, he said "They laughed and someone joked, 'We're going to give you plenty to write about tonight.' "

Mr. Kramer, who has retained a lawyer, declined to give specific details surrounding his arrest because he's still navigating the legal system in an attempt to clear his record.

While he is listed in police reports as being charged with failure to disperse and disorderly conduct Mr. Kramer says he hasn't yet been formally notified of the charges against him.

Last week, Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper said his office would not investigate the incident, but said the officers in the video were from the Chicago Police Department.

In a statement, he said "the photo that is being taken may be the Chicago PD's way of documenting the fact that they effected this arrest. If they were conducting any improper actions we would not condone this. Given this one singular photo we cannot determine what, if any, improper actions are taking place."

"It's difficult to believe that 20 officers were involved in the arrest to the point at which they needed to be photographed with Kyle," said Mr. Kramer's lawyer, Cris Hoel, who is also representing two staffers from the Pitt News who were also arrested that Friday.

During the events that evening, Mr. Kramer recalls feeling a curious sense of detachment, beginning with his arrest and subsequent transport to Western Penitentiary for processing.

When he realized he might get arrested, he said he felt apprehension. But once it happened, he felt, oddly, like a third party observing the scene, fascinated with the goings on.

"Things were happening so fast, and I didn't know how I was going to be treated. The atmosphere was edgy, ominous, a little spooky and pretty interesting."

There was a "weird rapport" between him and his arresting officer, "a big dude. He was kind of up and down, angry and then friendly." When the officer told him to pose for the photo, he said, "I kind of gave him a little bit of an argument, but I told him I would be in the picture. It's kind of hard to say how they would have reacted if I had said no."

Indeed, he said, "the only time I was really mad was when I was made to kneel like that. That made me mad. It was kind of a natural response, I guess."

At one point, he found himself discussing Chicago jazz clubs with the officer. "I figured if you can have some friendly conversation it's a lot less likely you'll be charged with anything extra," although when he asked for the police officers' names, he said, they laughed.

Now, his first priority is to clear up his legal situation.

"I have a clean, clean record right now, and I'd like to keep it clean," Mr. Kramer said.

Then, he'd like to write about what happened to him. "I just have this need to put it all down on paper, to put it all in context, for myself and for other people," in part, he said, to maintain ownership of an experience that he already feels is slipping away from him.

This weekend, though, he headed off for a much-needed break in Cincinnati to visit friends he met while studying in Morocco. While there, they planned to buy books to send to a Moroccan friend.

Among the titles?

" 'Animal Farm' and '1984,' " Mr. Kramer said. "It's kind of ironic."


Staff writer Dennis B. Roddy contributed. Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at 412-263-1949 or mcarpenter@post-gazette.com . First Published October 4, 2009 4:00 AM


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