Mike Bivins was sprayed with a chemical irritant by federal law enforcement officers while covering protests in Portland, Oregon, in the early hours of July 21, 2020. Multiple other journalists also reported being targeted with crowd-control munitions that day.
The journalists were covering one of the many protests that broke out 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.
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 wasn’t expanded to include federal agents until July 23.
Demonstrations that began the night of July 20 stretched into the early hours of the next day, according to the Oregonian, as the “Wall of Moms” and other protesters confronted federal officers stationed at the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse and the Multnomah County Justice Center downtown.
Around 12:30 a.m., as protesters tried to pry protective plywood off the courthouse, federal agents emerged from the building to confront the crowd. Around that time, Bivins was documenting federal agents yelling at protesters to disperse and pushing people back when he got pepper sprayed in the eyes, he told the Tracker.
In a video Bivins shared with the Tracker, a federal agent is seen rushing up to him and yelling, “Get out, now!” Then the video goes askew as the agent sprays Bivins.
“I could feel it all on the side of my head,” Bivins told the Tracker. “I thought my skin was going to fall off.” While Bivins was wearing protective glasses, he said that within a minute after getting sprayed, he could no longer see out of his left eye. Several protesters led him away and provided him with assistance.
Bivins had a press identification from the local news outlet Village Portland hanging around his neck and visible to the officers, he said.
Bivins said he plans to sue the Department of Homeland Security for $1 million over the incident. His attorney, Michael Fuller, sent the agency a notice of intent to sue on his behalf in November.
DHS, which has coordinated the federal presence in Portland, said in a statement that officers used pepper balls and tear gas to respond to an “assault” against the courthouse and law enforcement officers by rioters. The agency didn’t respond to a request for comment on the incidents.
The Portland police said in a statement that its officers weren’t present and didn’t engage with protesters that evening.