Federal agents hit freelance photojournalist with crowd-control munitions during Portland protest

July 24, 2020

Freelance photojournalist Lee Smith said he was hit with crowd-control munitions shot by federal agents while he covered protests against police violence in Portland, Oregon, on July 24, 2020.

Smith was documenting protests that continued for months in downtown Portland and across the U.S. in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting assaults, arrests and other incidents involving journalists covering protests.

On the evening of July 23, demonstrators gathered outside the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse where law enforcement had constructed a fence around the perimeter. According to news reports, federal officers occasionally warned protesters when they shook or hit the fence. The officers later fired pepper balls at the protesters. At 12:30 a.m. on July 24, Portland Police declared an unlawful assembly after firework mortars and other objects had been launched over the fence, according to a report from the Department of Homeland Security.

Smith told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker federal agents had conducted numerous pushes throughout the night to disperse the protesters, but mostly stayed behind the fence, deploying tear gas, pepper balls and other crowd-control munitions. Officers also positioned themselves on top of the courthouse with long-range flashlights that would emit green lasers, which Smith said law enforcement was using to point out particular individuals.

“They kept singling me and a couple of people out, targeting specific press and activists,” he said. Smith said he had distinct “press” markings on his helmet and backpack and wore a press pass issued by Raindrop Works, a Portland-based site that has covered the protests there. “Eventually that person was either arrested or shot with munitions,” he said, of those picked out by the green lasers.

In a video Smith tweeted later that morning, there is a loud bang at 0:48 and the camera jerks. He can be heard saying, “They just hit me again.” Smith said his press pass had been hit by a canister that exploded and shattered the case.

Smith said he was shot at least 12 times that night by a variety of crowd-control munitions, including pepper balls and foam rounds. He said the hits left bruises across his body, especially on his chest. He said he also suffered effects from tear gas and pepper spray, and he told the Tracker that at some point his iPhone 6S camera was broken.

Smith’s injuries came just hours after a judge’s July 23 preliminary injunction barred federal agents from harming or impeding journalists. The ruling was upheld by an appeals court in October.

The Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond to a request for comment on the incidents.

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

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