Broadcast photojournalist hit with pepper balls and tear gas during Tulsa protest

May 31, 2020

Two journalists for KTUL, Tulsa, Oklahoma’s ABC affiliate station, were hit with pepper balls fired by police while covering protests against police violence on the night of May 31, 2020, according to social media and a news report.

The Tulsa protests were part of national demonstrations that followed the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25. May 31 was also the 99th anniversary of what’s known as the Tulsa race massacre, when a racist white mob killed hundreds of Black residents in the then-thriving Black business community.

Photojournalist Jacob Aranda and reporter Ethan Hutchins were covering a standoff between police and protesters outside a gas station at the intersection of East 36th Street and South Peoria Avenue at around 10 p.m. Footage that streamed live on the station’s Facebook page shows people milling about near the gas station, with flashing police lights down the road in the distance.

“So something is happening here, we’re not exactly sure,” a female voice, presumably from the KTUL studio, says. “We do have three crews that are there.”

As popping noises erupt, some projectiles can be seen flying through the air, leaving smoke trails. “We see something beginning,” she says.

“Hey, guys, A.J, pull back,” said Hutchins on the broadcast. “Kim, oh, Kim, I just got shot, excuse me, with a pepper ball,” a likely reference to Kim Jackson, the weekend anchor at KTUL who had been speaking.

“Police officers have thrown a flash-bang, they have thrown a flash-bang, and my photographer and I, Jacob and I, have gotten hit with pepper balls,” said Hutchins, who declined to comment for this article. “The demonstrators have walked off now. We’ll toss it back to you real quick.”

“We are seeing a lot of commotion right now and a lot of confusion,” Jackson says.

A portion of the same broadcast later posted on the station’s Twitter account:

The footage changes to another reporter on the ground, Tyler Butler, in a mask, who says, “I see Ethan, he’s OK. They’re just catching their breath. As you can see, all that smoke there.”

“We saw a canister of tear gas that one of the protesters kicked backwards,” he said.

When contacted about this incident, Danny Bean of the Tulsa Police Department communications unit, described it as “a peaceful protest that escalated into an unlawful assembly” and that journalists were not targeted by police.

The police response was “to agitators in certain crowds throwing objects at police officers and private property being vandalized. When this begins to occur officers will take action to disperse the crowd, including the use of pepper balls in some cases,” Bean wrote in an email. “At no point was Ethan, or any other member of the media, targeted by TPD. Ethan and his cameraman were inside of the crowd that was being dispersed where TPD introduced pepper balls.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd-control ammunition or tear gas or who had their equipment damaged in the course of reporting. Find all incidents related to Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality protests here.

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

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