Federal agents in Portland spray independent journalist with a chemical irritant

July 30, 2020

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.

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

Related Incidents

Videographer pushed, phone knocked from her hands

April 12, 2021
Independent videographer Melissa Lewis said she was targeted and pushed by Portland police while documenting a protest in northeast Portland, Oregon, on April 12, 2021.According to KOIN News, Portland's CBS affiliate, demonstrators gathered in Laurelhurst Park to hold a vigil for Daunte Wright, a 20-year old Black man who was shot by a white police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, during a traffic stop. Wright’s death, on April 11, occurred as a former police officer in nearby Minneapolis was on …

Journalist shoved, threatened by armed individual at pro-police rally in Portland

November 19, 2020
Videographer Garrison Davis was shoved by armed pro-police demonstrators, including one who bumped the journalist’s smartphone with a rifle butt while he covered a Nov. 19, 2020, rally in downtown Portland, Oregon, the journalist tweeted and told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.Protests had been held In Portland on almost a nightly basis since late May in response to police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The …

Photojournalist’s camera damaged during arrest in Portland

November 5, 2020
Freelance photojournalist Clementson Supriyadi was assaulted and arrested by Oregon State Police while covering a protest in Portland, Oregon, on Nov. 5, 2020.In Portland, protests had been held on almost a nightly basis since late May in response to police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following 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.At around 8 p.m., …

Journalists shoved by law enforcement officers while covering overlapping protests

November 4, 2020
Two independent journalists said they were pushed by law enforcement officers in separate incidents while covering demonstrations in Portland, Oregon, on Nov. 4, 2020.Garrison Davis and Bethany Kerley were documenting two protests. One group was calling for every vote cast in the U.S. presidential election to be counted, while another expressed a combination of dismay with the electoral system and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Protests had been held in Portland on almost a nightly basis since the …
More related incidents