Freelance journalist struck by tear gas canister fragments while covering protest in Portland

July 15, 2020

A federal law enforcement officer fired a tear gas canister toward freelance journalist Justin Yau on July 15, 2020 in Portland, Oregon, striking him with two burning fragments.

Yau, a student at the University of Portland whose work has been featured by the Daily Mail and The New York Times, 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 wasn’t expanded to include federal agents until July 23. Yau provided a declaration in support of the suit and deferred additional comment to that declaration.

In the early hours of July 15, Yau was covering a protest outside the Multnomah County Justice Center and the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse downtown, according to his declaration. He was taking photographs with a Nikon camera and filming on his cellphone and gimbal. He was also clearly marked as press, with a neon reflective vest and helmet reading “press” in block letters as well as a press pass around his neck.

A few minutes before 4 a.m., Yau was filming and photographing protesters at the intersection of Southwest Third Avenue and Southwest Main Street as they were pushed north by federal agents, according to the court filing. He was standing about 40 feet from the protesters as federal agents fired on the crowd with flash-bang grenades, pepper balls and tear gas. Although Yau was covering the protest from a distance, a federal agent fired a tear gas canister directly at him, he said, striking him with burning fragments.

Independent journalist Garrison Davis captured part of the shooting in a video he posted on Twitter around 5 a.m.

Shortly after, Yau replied to Davis’ tweet with his own post, saying, ”It was 2 pieces of burning fragments from the Teargas grenades that landed briefly on my arm and jeans. The burning pieces can be seen briefly on the ground.”

“I have covered protests in Hong Kong, where a totalitarian regime is suppressing protesters with brutal violence,” Yau said in the court filing. “Even Hong Kong police, however, were generally conscientious about differentiating between press and protesters,”

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]

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