August: While reporting from protests across the country, journalists pepper sprayed, threatened
George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, ignited a sweeping assembly of protesters across the United States — and the globe — a staggering, monthslong outcry for police reform and racial justice. In many moments peaceful, in many others bracingly violent, journalists of all stripes took to documenting these demonstrations. At times, to do the job meant to expose oneself to the effects of riot-control agents, to face harassment from individuals or law enforcement officials, to fear for your safety or have your reporting interrupted. Below is a geographically organized roundup of such examples from around the U.S. during August 2020. Protests in Portland, Oregon, were particularly acute in the summer of 2020. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented incidents that occurred there in a separate roundup.
A full accounting of incidents in which members of the press were assaulted, arrested or had their equipment damaged while covering these protests can be found here. To learn more about how the Tracker documents and categorizes violations of press freedom, visit pressfreedomtracker.us.
Aug. 1, 2020
In Los Angeles, California
- Josie Huang, a reporter with KPCC and LAist, was covering a protest organized by the People’s City Council outside the Getty House, the official residence of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. At around 2:45 p.m., she tweeted: “About a dozen LAPD officers watching from across the street as mariachi music is interspersed with protesters testifying on need to cancel rent during pandemic.” After two and a half hours of peaceful protesting, though, Huang wrote that the “situation has quickly deteriorated.” In a subsequent video, in which Huang noted that she was trying to document the detainment and citation of “an 18-year-old named Elliott ‘for being a pedestrian in the roadway,’” the journalist can be heard identifying herself as a member of the press to a group of encroaching officers. Moments later, a sergeant (identified by his badge in the video) can be seen responding to one of his subordinate’s irritation at Huang’s camera being near his face by saying, “Grab her and cite her!” When she restates her media affiliation, the sergeant’s subordinate responds, “OK, let’s get on the sidewalk, everyone get on the sidewalk” — neither acknowledging her as separate from the protesters nor citing her. When reached for comment about the case, the LAPD declined to comment and directed the Tracker to file a FOIA request for further information.
Aug. 14, 2020
In Washington, D.C.
- Deadspin reporter Chuck Modiano was filming a police maneuver called kettling at the intersection of Willard and 18th streets when several field medical workers moved through the crowd in front of him. A video posted on Modiano’s Twitter feed at 1:35 a.m. shows a senior police officer addressing Modiano, asking, “You gonna go with them?” Modiano responds, “I’m press,” and the officer retorts, “I don’t care who you are. Back up. It means nothing to me.” Modiano then says, “Doesn’t knowing that I’m free press mean anything to the Constitution?” to which the police officer says, “Sure it does. It’s the First Amendment.” When Modiano asks the officer, “Shouldn’t police respect the First Amendment?” the officer affirms his respect for the amendment. He then asks Modiano to respect his work as well before instructing him to leave with the crowd of protesters as the Metropolitan Police Department clears the block. Another officer begins to direct Modiano out of the street. The journalist tries to stay again, stating, “I’m press,” to which officers reply, “Keep moving.” Echoing the prior encounter, Modiano asks, “It doesn’t mean anything?” and the two officers agree, telling him, “It doesn’t matter.” As Modiano repeatedly asks, “Can you acknowledge that there’s no freedom of press?” the officers speak over him, saying, “Keep moving, keep moving.” Modiano continued to cover the protest until 3:30 a.m.
ME: “I’m press”— ChuckModi (@ChuckModi1) August 14, 2020
COP: “I don’t care who you are.
It means nothing to me”
Wasn’t able to film protesters right after they were kettled/arrested cuz MPD walked me off cuz the 1st Ammendment is not respected in the nation’s Capitol. #DCProtests pic.twitter.com/uTc4kSN2vr
Aug. 19, 2020
In Seattle, Washington
- Jon Jussero, a photojournalist for KIRO 7, was stopped in his car and threatened by a group of people while he was trying to film a protest at King County Jail in Seattle, Washington, on Aug. 19, 2020, according to his social media feed. Protesters had demonstrated on a highway and at a medical center that morning before trying to enter the jail, according to KOMO News. In a video Jussero posted on Twitter, a man can be heard saying through the closed windows of the vehicle that he would come to Jussero’s house and threatened to break his window. People draped fabric over Jussero’s windshield and driver’s side window, and shouted obscenities at him. In a different part of the clip, Jussero was outside the vehicle when people surrounded him and shouted at him. “We are just trying to do our jobs,” he wrote in his post. Jussero did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Seattle Police Department said police were not aware of the incident.
Mob would not allow me to do my job today when trying to videotape KC Jail in Seattle. I tried to leave but they surrounded my car put items on windows & continued to terrorize me. One man threaten to break my vehicle windows & come to my home. We are just trying to do our jobs pic.twitter.com/Ek3JRkG12c— KIRO 7 Jussero (@JJusseroKIRO7) August 20, 2020
Aug. 26, 2020
In Seattle, Washington
- Omari Salisbury, founder and reporter for Converge Media, a Seattle-based media company “curated specifically for an urban audience,” was maced several times while documenting a vigil outside a Washington State Patrol building. Salisbury went live on Facebook around 10:15 p.m., just as law enforcement was beginning to fall into formation in an effort to back demonstrators out of the area. In his narrated stream, Salisbury tells viewers that the WSP was reinforced that night with officers from the Seattle Police Department and its SWAT team. He also explains a June court order that “enjoined the City of Seattle, including the Seattle Police Department and any other officers, departments, agencies, or organizations under the Seattle Police Department’s control” from “employing chemical irritants or projectiles of any kind against persons peacefully engaging in protests or demonstrations.” About six minutes into the video, as the line of officers advanced on demonstrators, Salisbury was maced. While backing up, Salisbury announces himself as press, as he continues to narrate the scene. Just past 10:30 p.m., Salisbury was maced again, as officers once again moved to push back the crowd. Shortly thereafter, sprays of mace can be heard and seen in the footage, with Salisbury saying at one point, “Man, you’re macing everybody. Stop macing,” and then shouting, “Press! Press! Press!” as protesters around him were tackled and arrested. “I haven’t eaten this much mace in a long time,” he then says. (In a Dec. 7 court filing, a federal judge held the Seattle Police Department and the City of Seattle in contempt for violating the aforementioned court order on four occasions, including on Aug. 26.)
In Kenosha, Wisconsin
- Freelance journalist Suzette Smith tweeted shortly before midnight that officers were arresting protesters on 54th Street near City Hall in east Kenosha. “Officer holding can of mace on a group of press, that may include a protester,” Smith wrote. In footage of the incident, an officer can be seen holding his arm outstretched and pointing a can of pepper spray toward at least two individuals who are identifiable as journalists, either by “PRESS” markings or visible press passes. In the last seconds of the clip, a second officer approaches, at which point the first officer lowers the can of chemical irritant.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documented four journalists struck with crowd-control munitions or projectiles while covering protests in Kenosha on the night of Aug. 25 that stretched into the early hours of the next day.
Aug. 29, 2020
In Washington, D.C.
- Independent journalist Wyatt Reed was hit with a chemical irritant deployed by police during a protest in Washington, D.C. Protests were intensified by anger over the Aug. 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as well as by the gathering of thousands in the nation’s capital the day before for the 57th anniversary of the civil rights era March on Washington. According to the Washington Post, a group of about 175 protesters had marched through several Northwest D.C. neighborhoods that evening, at times setting off fireworks and lighting small fires before converging on Black Lives Matter Plaza, just north of the White House. Reed, who also produces the radio show By Any Means Necessary on Russian-state owned Radio Sputnik, was covering protesters near the plaza. In a video he uploaded to Twitter at 11:40 p.m., police can be seen deploying tear gas canisters on H Street in front of the St. James Episcopal Church, just a block north of the White House. As officers advanced east on H Street, one can be seen spraying with a sweeping motion a chemical irritant that appears to hit Reed. “DC Cops are going CRAZY at BLM plaza,” Reed wrote on Twitter alongside the video. “They arrested someone and then started unleashed tear gas on the crowd, then unloaded pepper spray DIRECTLY at me for recording.” In the video, Reed’s camera shook as he got hit, but he continued filming as police cleared the area and deployed more tear gas. “They didn’t get me that bad that night,” Reed told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. He added he was wearing goggles, which reduced the effect of the irritant. Reed was wearing press identification, but told the Tracker he believed the officer was firing indiscriminately at everybody near him. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department told the Tracker it couldn’t comment on the incident because “it is currently under active investigation by our Internal Affairs Division.Early the next morning — at the same protest — Reed was again sprayed with a chemical irritant and shot in the arm with a projectile. The Tracker documented that assault here.
- Independent photojournalist Oyoma Asinor was covering protests around BLM Plaza that evening as well, according to an Aug. 12, 2021, lawsuit the ACLU of DC filed on Asinor’s behalf. At around 11 p.m., Asinor photographed as riot officers advanced down H Street toward 16th Street. “Several riot officers, apparently frustrated that [a] demonstrator was now closer to them, grabbed the demonstrator and pushed him to the ground, wielding batons against him,” the lawsuit states. When the demonstrator attempted to get away from the officers, and officer “unleashed liquid containing chemical irritant toward the demonstrator and the people near him, hitting Mr. Asinor.” The spray caused Asinor to have trouble breathing, cough, and experience disorientation, according to the suit. Just over 24 hours later, Asinor was assaulted, arrested and his equipment seized in the early hours of Aug. 31. The Tracker documented that incident here.
Aug. 30, 2020
In Washington, D.C.
- Independent photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Kian Kelley-Chung had been filming the D.C. Black Lives Matter movement since the middle of June. He told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in a phone interview that on the evening of Aug. 29, he was planning to take the night off. But at 8 p.m., one of the movement’s organizers called him and his friend and colleague Andrew Jasiura to tell them that protests near Black Lives Matter Plaza downtown were escalating. The two filmmakers got to the scene by 9 p.m. and saw the Metropolitan Police Department “just spraying people willy-nilly,” according to Kelley-Chung. In the early hours of Aug. 30, he said that he watched as a crowd of protesters gathered to face off against a police line at 16th and K streets, less than a block away from the plaza. At 1:42 a.m., according to the time stamp on his camera, Kelley-Chung, who said he’d been walking through the crowd to get a panning shot of the scene, was hit in the side of the face “with just tons of pepper spray.” While he’d brought goggles with him that night, the filmmaker told the Tracker that he hadn’t put them on before the incident because he was not expecting the sudden use of crowd control munitions at that moment. “It came out of nowhere,” he said. He said that he ran to the other side of the street, trying to continue to film, but his eyes burned badly enough that he had to stop. He attempted to flush them out with a water bottle he had but soon yelled for a medic until a few came over and flushed his eyes with saline. Shortly thereafter, in an interview with Deadspin reporter Chuck Modiano, Kelley-Chung suggested that the police were aiming at someone near him, but he “was caught in the crossfire.” He later told the Tacker: “Independent press were largely not considered legitimate press by the police, so they were often victims of pepper spray, arrests and other things of that nature. Just getting brutalized by police.”
Aug. 31, 2020
In Kenosha, Wisconsin
- Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske, arrived in Kenosha after the city had seen days of unrest following the Aug. 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake and was anticipating a visit from President Donald Trump on Sept. 1. Hennessy-Fiske tweeted a little before 8:30 p.m. that she’d momentarily stepped out of her hotel to put a parking pass on her car when she saw police restraining an individual. When she and photojournalist Amy Katz approached, wearing credentials and clothing that said “press,” an officer shouted, “Last warning! Get in the hotel or you’re going to get arrested. I don’t care what the mayor says.” When Hennessy-Fiske then identified herself and Katz as press, the officer did not reply. When the two journalists then reentered the hotel, an officer inside the building told her that media were not explicitly listed as exempt from a citywide curfew that had gone into effect at 7 p.m. In a later Tweet, Hennessy-Fiske noted that she explained to this officer “respectfully, that media are not mentioned as subject to curfew, and since there’s a #FirstAmendment and #FEMA deemed us essential workers, if they don’t mention it, we’re exempt. If they do mention, it would trigger litigation. #1A.”
Emerged from #Kenosha hotel to put parking pass in car, saw police restraining guy, went over with colleague and officers shouted get back in hotel or we’d be arrested. Reporters are not exempt from curfew, he said, no matter what the mayor says. #Journalismisnotacrime pic.twitter.com/ol0KHatn1y— Molly Hennessy-Fiske (@mollyhf) September 1, 2020
Information in this roundup was gathered from published social media and news reports as well as interviews where noted. To read similar incidents from other days of national protests also in this category, go here.