Don't Imprison This Photographer

In late November of this year, Yonatan Souid, a 23 year old French photographer visiting New York City for a Chabad trip to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Shabbat, made a bad decision. On the last day of his visit to the city, he decided to expand his portfolio by adding a few shots of the New York city skyline. Unfortunately for him, he decided to do that by climbing onto the Brooklyn Bridge. Souid was consequently arrested on the spot, managed to make bail and is now currently awaiting his trial date on December 9th. What makes this bad decision even worse, however, is that the people in charge of America's legal system want this young man to serve jail time for his mistake, and they seem to be pressing hard for it.



Alright, first thing's first: climbing the bridge was obviously a mistake. This was obviously not allowed, because Souid had to jump a fence in order to be able to even get access to those cables. Mistakes should have consequences, and I fully support that. However, this young man, who can barely speak English by the way, is from a completely different country where the repercussions for such activities might be quite different from what he's experiencing now.

I'm not trying to make excuses for him, and if what I've read about this story wasn't so INSANE up to this point, then I would simply let it go by saying, "Well, he'll get a slap on the wrist and maybe a fine and some community service, but he'll learn his lesson."

But what Souid didn't know, and what any visiting French national who doesn't keep up with the latest events in New York City could miss, is that there have been other incidents involving the Brooklyn Bridge this year that have gotten authorities on edge (more on that later). Because of these incidents, the tempers of the powers-that-be have boiled over, and I fear they're out to paint Souid as an example. What I've been hearing about his potential punishment troubles me, and so now even though I know what he did was wrong I can't simply sit by and say, "He'll learn his lesson", because I think the only people that actually need to learn a lesson by this are the police and law enforcement of New York City themselves.



I mentioned that there have been other incidents involving the Brooklyn Bridge in the recent past, neither of which Yonatan Souid apparently knew about. I buy that he didn't know about them, because I didn't know about them either, and chances are you don't know about them as well.

In the early morning hours of July 22, two German artists named Mischa Leinkauf, 37, and Matthias Wermke, 35, completely scaled the 276 foot towers on the Brooklyn Bridge and replaced the American flags with versions that were bleached white. They claimed that they did it in honor of the death of Brooklyn Bridge designer John Roebling, who died on the same day in 1869. They stayed in New York City for two additional days, apparently watching the news unfold and watching reports of the police being baffled, before they returned to Germany. They later claimed responsibility there, and despite what New York city law enforcement says I haven't heard of any charges being brought up for them (not even through INTERPOL).

Then, a month later, a 24 year old Russian tourist named Yaroslav Kolchin climbed a support beam of the Brooklyn Bridge, made it all the way to the top of the tower, snapped some pics and a selfie and then later came down where he found law enforcement waiting for him. He was arrested and spent a few days in jail before making bail. Kolchin was charged with reckless endangerment and criminal trespass and has since returned to Moscow after serving 90 hours of community service. His pics, courtesy of the NY Daily News, are below.

Here are some quotes from news outlets about this case (sources articles at bottom of blog post):

In Russia, this is normal thing to do,” Kolchin said of going up the span. “I was a little bit scared, but it was my last day in New York. I want to save memories of my trip and take beautiful pictures.

This is a key fact to keep in mind here. There's no malicious intent here, in fact there are cultural differences that may completely cloud people's better judgment. Surely the DA and law system in New York City, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, can understand this and keep that in mind when deciding on punishment for these mistakes, right?

We wanted the defendant to serve 90 days in jail because no one has a right to trespass on a potential terrorism target, especially in this era of heightened security,” said Lupe Todd, a spokeswoman for Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson.

Wow, Lupe Thompson. Ten points each for mentioning terrorism and heightened security in the same statement to the press. That's the 2001 playbook, haven't we realized yet that not everyone in this world is a terrorist? District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, who just took over office this January, must really be out to prove his worth.

Kolchin obviously went up to snap some pics, and not in a malicious "this is me covertly planning a Russian operation on American soil way" but in a more "I want to put this on my Instagram to show all of my friends" intention. And how exactly is security heightened when anyone can JUMP OVER a single gate to access these support beams? We'll touch on that again later.

At any rate, as we mentioned, the judge in Kolchin's case let him off with a conditional discharge, ensured Kolchin did his community service to understand the severity of his mistake and then Kolchin left. Rather than spending his time in a  jail cell, Kolchin gave back his time to New York's schools, pantries and parks. Cooler heads than Ken Thompson's prevailed and maybe some good came out of it.

Unfortunately, when we come back to Yonatan Souid, we can see how it looks even worse now that he stepped onto the Bridge. He's not the first person to attract police attention, and as I mentioned earlier, tempers have boiled over.


So Yonatan Souid climbs the bridge to take photographs, and that kind of makes sense to me because if you look at his website you can see that he enjoys landscape photography. At any rate, he gets arrested on the spot and spends a night in jail before an anonymous donor helps him make bail. An online fundraising campaign to repay the donor has already been successful.

After a court appearance Monday, Souid’s lawyer, James Medows, called Souid a “naive tourist” who did not deserve to spend time in jail. “He did something foolish,” Medows said outside court.

Yes, it was foolish. There should definitely be some repercussions here. What do you say about this, New York City?

The Brooklyn Bridge must not be trespassed upon, no matter who does it or for any reason,’ said Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson.

Pretty sure we've heard that twice this year already and you've done...nothing? To secure the bridge? Sorry I'll let you finish.

This is defendant’s foolish and unlawful conduct is a breach of security and a danger to himself and others,” Thompson said. “It will not be tolerated. This is not a game and we will be seeking jail time.

OK going straight for the jail time again, but...

In this age of terrorism, it’s very important that we protect the security of the bridge at all times and under all circumstances,’ he added.

...ooohhh Ken. Yes, agreed, protect the Bridge, but use common sense and realize that THIS French young man was not maliciously trespassing to cause anyone harm. Can we stop calling this the age of terrorism finally? For God's sake, if all a terrorist has to do is JUMP A FENCE to access the bridge can you PLEASE heighten THAT security and stop wasting your time prosecuting kids with cameras who make stupid choices? 

In fact, Ken Thompson, why don't you take a cue from your own bio?

DA Thompson also implemented a policy to not prosecute low-level marijuana possession arrests in order to save young people from a criminal record and allocate those resources to prosecute more serious crimes.

So Ken. Why don't you save Yonatan Souid from a criminal record and allocate your resources to prosecute something more serious? According to what I've read, such low level marijuana possession is a misdemeanor, and criminal trespass and reckless endangerment are also usually classified as misdemeanors for bridge climbers. Is it fair to throw out one case and not another?


Yonatan Souid doesn't look like a hardened criminal to me.

Yonatan Souid doesn't look like a hardened criminal to me.

Let's also not forget that Yonatan is a French speaking French national who gets by speaking broken English when visiting America. He has a true passion for photography and by all accounts he probably wouldn't have gone up onto the Bridge had he known that it was a serious offense. I don't know him personally, but this guy does:

Souid comes from a small Jewish community near La Rochelle. It was such a misunderstanding. He has a strong passion for photography, so he thought, ‘I want to get a better view.’ He’s not a daredevil,” said pal Jeff Sternfeld, 24. “There’s a cultural barrier. To him and people in France, they said, ‘They put him in jail for this?

I doubt this young man even understands how the New York government thinks he could have caused any harm to anyone else by doing what he did. Doesn't anyone recognize that perhaps his cultural upbringing governed his decisions?

The August incident [Yaroslav Kolchin] drew response from Mayor de Blasio, who said the city is in the process of upping security measures at the bridges. To the amusement of Judge Laura Johnson on Monday, Souid’s attorney James Medows suggested warning signs in French might have kept his client out of trouble.

Two things here. First, Mayor de Blasio, you might want to speed up the implementation of those security measures, and secondly, I think you and Medows should get together because signs are a great idea. Wait, the judge was amused? Why are you amused Judge Laura Johnson?

I see, so the city of New York should be putting signs in multiple languages that you can’t climb the bridge?” she said incredulously.

Umm. Apparently, YES! In fact that should be the first step of Mayor de Blasio's "upped" security measures. Signs usually dissuade me, and yes, multiple languages would be a GREAT idea, because IT'S NEW YORK CITY:

New York City’s Top International Markets (2013 tourism figures):

1. United Kingdom 1,108,000
2. Canada 1,100,000
3. Brazil 895,000
4. France 697,000
5. China (PRC) - excluding HK 646,000
6. Australia 619,000
7. Germany 608,000
8. Italy 464,000
9. Spain 383,000
10. Japan 337,000



If you think Yonatan Souid taking photographs was a threat to other peoples lives on the bridge, can you even imagine what someone who ACTUALLY had malicious intent would do? When a landmark has a problem, it's up to the government and law enforcement to do something about it. Prosecuting foreign tourists and putting them into our jail system isn't going to change the fact that YOUR BRIDGE IS BROKEN.

New York, please meet San Francisco. San Francisco has a bridge problem as well. The Golden Gate Bridge is, unfortunately and unpleasantly, one of the most popular suicide destinations on the planet. But instead of prosecuting anyone who tries to commit suicide (and they'd have to apparently fail at that), they've recognized that they have a bridge problem. Here are some Golden Gate Bridge Key Dates:

  • April 11, 2011: The Golden Gate Bridge security program includes features that are visible to the public and many that are not. Security measures are modified and/or upgraded routinely. The latest addition, the first of four (two on each of the main cables) Main Cable security gates, was installed on the west side main cable to further assist in the prevention of unauthorized persons climbing on the main cables.
  • June 27, 2014: The Board of Directors approved a funding plan for the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge Physical Suicide Deterrent System Project in the amount of $76 million. This decision came with the understanding that the project will be funded with $22 million of federal Local Highway Bridge Program (HBP) funds programmed by Caltrans, $27 million of federal Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds programmed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), $7 million of California Mental Health Service Act Funds (Proposition 63), and $20 million from District reserves. 

So apparently San Francisco reinforced the gates in 2011 and are now spending $76 million on a suicide prevention project which includes a net system.

Then I hear a judge laughing incredulously at the thought of putting up a few signs in multiple languages on the Brooklyn Bridge. I'm looking at you, New York.



Hopefully DA Ken Thompson, who doesn't mind if you're smoking a little bit of marijuana but will come after you with God's wrath if you trespass on a public structure, is the only one who wants to see Yonatan Souid in jail.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams spoke with WCBS 880, and said he is supporting legislation proposed by Sen. Dan Squadron to include jail time for trespassing on a New York City landmark.

“Penalties should be tougher and that ensures tourists spend time in one of our greatest landmarks: Rikers Island,” Adams told WCBS 880.

Wow, what a fantastic tourism slogan President Adams. I really can't wait to see the ads for that quote playing in the International terminal at JFK. But since you brought it up, let's talk about Rikers Island for a second.

Rikers Island is where prisoners go to serve out sentences that are too short to warrant being shipped upstate. Of the 10,000 inmates serving time there, some of them are some are pretrial defendants who can't make bail and some are nonviolent offenders with short sentences. Even being a new inmate can be a death sentence, apparently. Recent exposés indicate that the question "Are you with it?" was asked to new inmates by older inmates. If the new inmates happen to say no, they are beaten. Sometimes to death. Apparently the guards were in on it as well:

Correction officers struck adolescents in the head and face at “an alarming rate” as punishment, even when inmates posed no threat; officers took inmates to isolated areas for beatings out of view of video cameras; and many inmates were so afraid of the violence that they asked, for their own protection, to go to solitary confinement, the report said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte now says he wants to take a fresh look at the system from the ground up, but this sounds as though he has just become aware of the nightmare that has been glaringly obvious for quite some time to anyone who knows the city’s jail system.

Yeah, that sounds like the perfect place to send a young French national who only wanted to take a few pictures of New York City's skyline. Don't want to give young people a criminal record, DA Ken Thompson? How about protecting their lives and not exposing them to a corrupt and violent foreign jail system?



When Yonatan Souid appears for his hearing on December 9th, I hope that he is reminded of his poor choice and as a result of his actions I hope he serves community service just as Yaroslav Kolchin was sentenced to do. I do not condone what Yonatan Souid did and I do not recommend that anyone ever try to climb that bridge in the future, but I also don't want to see anyone's life destroyed for this kind of mistake. By doing community service, Souid will actually be helping the city of New York as his apology and won't be subjected to a jail system that taxpayers already pay for.

In this day and age, violent crimes get a lot of media attention and we should encourage the full press of law enforcement and prosecution to go after these criminals and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. However, when a situation that is obviously the result of a misunderstanding between the foreign defendant and the domestic countries laws gets attention, we do not need to make an example of someone and potentially ruin their lives (or get them killed in a foreign prison because they don't understand that environment). It only sounds ridiculous until it happens.

In closing, how do the residents of New York City feel about this? How does a normal person with no political agenda think this situation should be handled?

They’ve got to figure out ways to keep people from being able to climb up it. Policing to me is just ridiculous if there’s just a bunch of cops standing around all the time and they’re not really doing anything. Since this is the third time, obviously them not doing anything isn’t working,” one man named Chad told 1010 WINS’ Roger Stern when asked about how police should secure the bridge.


Don't imprison this photographer, New York. Fix your bridge instead.



UPDATE, 12/13/2014: 

The sentence is in.

Yonatan Souid was sentenced to 240 hours of community service cleaning the Manhattan Detention Center, better known as The Tombs. According to the article linked below, Souid says he “prefers cleaning a jail than to actually live in one".

The full article, including other comments from the judge and Souid's defense lawyer, are here:

I'm glad that Souid didn't end up at Riker's in the end, and I hope this concludes a bizarre series of events at the Brooklyn Bridge. I'm reminded of the expression, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Well, when in New York, tourists should do as New Yorkers do - and I don't see any New Yorkers climbing bridges!