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Chicago journalist pepper-sprayed in the face while holding up press credentials and screaming ‘Press!’

May 30, 2020

Freelance journalist Jonathan Ballew was pepper-sprayed at close range by a law enforcement officer on May 30, 2020, while covering protests in downtown Chicago. The assault occurred as he screamed “Press!” and held his press credential above his head.

The protests were sparked by a video showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, for eight minutes and 46 seconds during an arrest in Minneapolis on May 25. Floyd was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Ballew, who freelances for The Daily Beast and Block Club Chicago, was walking on Grand Avenue in Chicago at 8 p.m. ahead of a police line when the attack occurred, he told the Committee to Protect Journalists, a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. Ballew said he was complying with officers’ orders to walk back when an officer in a dark green uniform and a protective mask started spraying pepper spray. As the officer aimed the can in Ballew’s direction, Ballew yelled, “Don’t shoot! I’m fucking press! I’m fucking press!”

Ballew captured the attack in a Twitter livestream.

“I remember making eye contact with [the officer] and then he directly sprayed me right in my face, even as I was screaming ‘Press, press, press!’” Ballew told CPJ.

On the livestream, Ballew narrated the event: “I just got pepper-sprayed by a cop. I’ve been holding my press pass up in his face. Told him I was press. Directly pepper-sprayed me.” Ballew then addressed other officers passing by: “You guys are pepper-spraying press? Come on. I’m holding my press pass. Your brother in blue there is spraying press.”

Ballew told CPJ he is a Marine veteran. He said that he has been trained to protect himself from pepper spray and tear gas, and was able to shield most of his face from being hit, taking much of the pepper spray onto his forearms. Ballew poured water onto his face and continued reporting that evening. But after showering, his arms “felt like someone actually set them on fire,” he said.

It’s unclear to which agency the officer with the pepper spray belonged. The Tracker reached out to the Chicago Police Department for help identifying the officer in Ballew’s livestream video, and for comment on the incident, but the request was not immediately returned.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred total incidents of journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or had their equipment damaged while covering protests across the country related to the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Find all of these cases here.

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

June 11, 2020 Update

Freelance journalist Jonathan Ballew filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Chicago and an unnamed police officer after he was sprayed with a chemical agent while reporting on a protest.

Ballew was documenting a protest on May 30, 2020, in downtown Chicago spurred by the death of George Floyd while in police custody. The lawsuit, filed on June 11, alleges that Ballew was recording the demonstration shortly after 8 p.m. when an unknown Chicago police officer used what is believed to have been pepper spray against him without cause.

The complaint says that when the chemical irritant was used Ballew was clearly identified as press, a safe distance from CPD officers and retreating along with the crowd.

“Plaintiff suffered immediate physical injury and pain, including but not limited to, difficulty in breathing, choking sensation, burning eyes, skin irritation, and blurred vision,” the complaint says.

As a result, it adds, Ballew was prevented from documenting the identity of the officer who attacked him and from continuing to cover the protest and police response.

The suit seeks a declaration that the officer’s conduct violated the First and Fourth amendments and instruction to prevent future use of unjustified force against the press, as well as damages and attorney’s fees.

Ballew’s attorney Matt Topic told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the suit is aimed to discourage the police department from engaging in excessive use of force and disrespect for journalists.

Topic told WTTW, “A free press is critical to democracy, especially when it comes to monitoring the police.”

CPD's attack on a journalist who was doing his job and posed no threat to anyone cannot and will not be tolerated,” he added.

Kathy Fieweger, the director of public affairs for the city’s Department of Law, declined to comment citing the pending litigation. Ballew did not respond to request for comment.

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