U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

ACLU sues Washington, D.C., police for violating photojournalist’s rights during protests

Incident Details

Date of Incident
August 29, 2020
Case number
1:21-cv-02158
Case Status
Dismissed
Type of case
Civil

Assault

Was the journalist targeted?
Unknown
August 29, 2022 - Update

Judge dismisses photojournalists’ lawsuit against DC government, police

A district judge for the District of Columbia dismissed the lawsuit from independent photojournalists Bryan Dozier and Oyoma Asinor against the DC government and multiple Metropolitan Police Department officers on Aug. 29, 2022.

Dozier alleged that exactly two years prior — on Aug. 29, 2020 — officers targeted him with chemical irritants and stun grenades while covering Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C. Asinor was arrested, assaulted and his camera equipment seized on Aug. 31.

The American Civil Liberties Union of DC filed a lawsuit on the photojournalists’ behalf in August 2021.

District Court Judge Amit Mehta granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss some of the claims on Aug. 29, 2022, ultimately extending his judgment to include all of the remaining claims and therefore ruling in favor of the DC government and officers.

In his ruling, Mehta declined to exercise federal jurisdiction, writing that the photojournalists’ claims both under the District’s First Amended Assemblies Act and of assault and battery would be better addressed in local courts.

The ruling can be appealed, but the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker was unable to confirm whether the photojournalists intend to do so.

August 29, 2020

Bryan Dozier, an independent photojournalist, was covering Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 29, 2020, when he was targeted by chemical irritants and stun grenades by Metropolitan Police officers, according to an American Civil Liberties Union of DC lawsuit filed on Dozier’s behalf.

In August 2021, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the D.C. government and the MPD officers, based on this incident and another involving independent photographer Oyoma Asinor. The Tracker documented Asinor’s arrest, assault and equipment seizure here.

Dozier was documenting the BLM protests in central D.C. when police deployed chemical irritants and stun grenades, even though these tactics have been banned by the D.C. Council for dispersing protesters, according to the legal documents issued by the ACLU, and reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. Dozier did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

The Metropolitan Police Department’s use of chemical irritants and stun grenades violated the D.C. First Amendment Assemblies Act and D.C. common law, according to the ACLU.

On that day protesters gathered at about 7 p.m. and arrived at the junction of 16th Street and H Street NW, near Black Lives Matter Plaza, around 11 p.m.

At about 11.30 p.m. Dozier saw one of the officers closest to a barricade on H Street shove a demonstrator. When the protesters near the individual yelled at the officer, Dozier moved closer to film the incident, according to the document.

Dozier, whose work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, the Financial Times, and The Guardian, did not see any demonstrator touch the officers, throw objects at the officers, or do anything other than continue to verbally protest.

But a Metro Police officer who was standing farther west on H Street, by or behind the H Street barricade, released a munition into H Street. Dozier heard “a hissing sound, like pressure being released, and then saw some form of gas or smoke with chemical irritants ascend rapidly,” the report said.

The smoke prompted Dozier and many protesters to back farther away from the barricade. As protesters were moving back, a second officer released another munition, causing more smoke or gas with chemical irritants to fill the air.

The document stated: “Despite Mr. Dozier’s attempt to retreat, the irritants made contact with him and caused him to cough. Dozier ran east on H Street toward its intersection with Vermont Avenue to escape. Many demonstrators started running in that direction too.”

Near the intersection, Dozier saw officers wearing riot gear with helmets and batons marching forward in a line spanning the width of H Street. As Dozier was looking for an exit, the riot officers marched through the intersection and past him.

But suddenly one police officer grabbed Dozier, “lifted him, and pushed him west on H Street, through the line of riot officers that had just passed by him, and back near the clouds of chemical irritants produced by the two munitions Mr. Dozier had been running from.”

Dozier was forced to continue west on H Street, through the clouds of irritants. He “struggled to breathe as he moved through the chemical irritants. He continued to cough, his nose ran, and he felt burning across his face. He continued west on H Street, then turned north onto 16th Street.”

Another officer began deploying a series of at least six stun grenades in close succession, near the intersection of 16th and H Streets. At that time, Dozier said he had not seen any protester make contact with officers, throw objects at them or engage in any violent behavior, the document reported.

Dozier, who was described in the document as terrified and disorientated, feared that “either the officers or explosive devices deployed by the officers” would hit him. At that point Dozier left the protest and went home.

For about 30 minutes after returning to his apartment, “he felt intense burning in his eyes and could feel the sting of the irritants in his nose and throat. He took a shower to wash off the irritants but continued to feel a burning sensation on his skin. After the shower, he dry heaved for approximately half an hour,” the document stated.

The Aug. 29 attack caused Dozier “significant psychological distress, the effects of which continue to this day.” The legal document reported that Dozier met with a psychologist after the incident, who noted that he had several symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and that he continues to experience some of the PTSD symptoms, including “heightened sensitivity to loud noises, sudden, unexpected anxiety attacks, and a fear of being trapped with no ability to exit. He additionally continues bi-weekly therapy sessions, which help him deal with his PTSD symptoms.”

MPD told the Tracker they did not comment on active cases.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]