Independent journalist Brian Conley was sprayed in the face with a chemical irritant by federal agents during a protest in Portland, Oregon, on the morning of July 30, 2020.
Conley was covering one of the many protests that had broken out across the U.S. in response to police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement after the May 25 death of George Floyd. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting assaults, arrests and other incidents involving journalists covering protests across the country.
The Portland protests, held nightly since late May, had grown more intense as the presence of federal law enforcement increased in early July. A temporary restraining order on July 2 that barred the Portland police from harming or impeding journalists was expanded to include federal agents on July 23. Conley is a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon.
On the night of July 29, protesters gathered downtown at the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, which had emerged as a nightly flashpoint between protesters and federal agents. The protest continued past midnight and into the next day.
Early on the morning of July 30, Conley was filming a confrontation between federal agents and protesters behind the courthouse on Southwest Second Avenue when officers began using crowd-control munitions and chemical irritants.
In a video of the incident Conley posted on Twitter, the scene appeared relatively calm despite a standoff with federal agents, as one protester can be heard playing ditties on a trumpet. After a loud bang, agents can be seen firing crowd-control munitions, with one officer spraying an irritant directly at Conley despite his shouts of “press!”
Conley said he believed he was targeted. “He knew I was press, he knew the person next to me was press, there were no protesters nearby. So yeah, he had no reason to do that,” he told the Tracker.
About 20 seconds after he was sprayed, Conley’s video shows multiple agents spraying a protester who is on their knees in the street with their hands up.
Another video, uploaded by journalist Cory Elia at 12:33 a.m., also captured Conley getting sprayed. He is visible on the other side of the street, holding a camera with a bright light mounted on it.
Conley, in a statement for the ACLU suit, said there were “maybe four or five protesters a few feet behind me” when he was hit.
“At point blank range, the federal agent nearest to me unleashed a deluge of pepper spray directly at me, dousing me in pepper spray,” he said in the statement. “The pepper spray covered my face, hands, clothing, camera, and gear.”
Conley’s body armor and helmet were both marked “press” at the time he was hit. He was also wearing a gas mask, which delayed the effects of the irritant. But once he started feeling the irritant, he was “severely uncomfortable, like burning on fire, for easily 12 hours after that, probably longer,” he told the Tracker.
“I’ve been pepper sprayed before and I’ve never had such a bad experience,” he added.
The Department of Homeland Security, which has coordinated the federal presence in Portland, didn’t respond to a request for comment.