Freelance journalist suing after being arrested and placed in isolation while covering Portland protest

June 30, 2020

Freelance journalist Cory Elia was arrested on June 30, 2020, while covering a protest in Portland, Oregon. Elia — together with Lesley McLam, a colleague at Village Portland and KBOO radio station who was arrested with him — has since filed a lawsuit against the city of Portland, the state, and law enforcement for their arrest and treatment afterwards.

Elia was covering one of the many protests that have broken out across the U.S. 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.

In Portland, nightly protests over Floyd’s death began on May 29, prompting Mayor Ted Wheeler to declare a curfew that lasted three days. Even after the nightly curfew was lifted, journalists continued to be targeted by police, according to a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon. Elia is part of that suit, as well, which resulted in a temporary restraining order and an agreement by the city in July not to arrest, harm or impede any journalists or legal observers.

The June 30 demonstration took place the day before a planned vote to extend the city’s contract with the police union. Protesters marched over a mile from Peninsula Park to the Portland Police Association headquarters in the neighborhood of North Portland. Soon after demonstrators arrived at PPA offices around 9 p.m., the police declared an “unlawful assembly” and ordered them to disperse.

Elia was livestreaming when the police declared a riot around 11 p.m. and followed as they moved protestors east on North Lombard Street, further away from the PPA offices. A little more than 17 minutes into the footage, Elia can be heard telling an officer that he recognizes him. Then the camera goes askew as the officer knocks it out of his hand.

Another livestream tweeted by Elia shortly after shows the police line pushing him back. “One of your officers just tried to break my phone,” he can be heard saying.

After the police stop at an intersection, Elia walks to the other side of a car to create more distance from the police. He can be heard getting into a verbal back and forth with an officer about whether the press is exempt from police orders, and the officer responds that the protest was a riot. Elia then returns to the police line and asks an officer for his name and badge number. “Are you Bartlett? I think I recognize you from the other night,” he says. A little after six minutes into the video, Elia is placed under arrest.

He was charged with two counts of assaulting a police officer, two counts of interfering with a peace officer, one count of resisting arrest, and one count of disorderly conduct. Elia’s phone was seized as part of the arrest, he tweeted after his release the next day. Elia tweeted on July 9 that most of his gear had been returned to him.

On July 8, Elia and McLam filed a civil lawsuit against the city, the state, and multiple law enforcement officers for allegedly violating their constitutional rights and for battery, assault, negligence and false arrest. They are also seeking compensation for their injuries and punitive damages.

The suit alleges that after Elia recognized PPB Officer John Bartlett, who is named as a defendant, the officer “turned to his fellow officer and said something.” Then Bartlett, along with other PPB officers and an Oregon State Police trooper, grabbed Elia and forced him to the ground, “dog-piling” him, according to the complaint. The suit also alleges that in the course of the arrest, an officer kicked him in the groin.

After Elia was taken to the Multnomah County Detention Center, his protective mask was taken from him, which the complaint alleges was a concern since “no officers were wearing masks,” despite the state’s COVID-19 mask mandate, according to the complaint.

Elia was placed in isolation twice, the suit alleges. The second time he “began suffering a panic attack, experiencing severe claustrophobia, heart racing, vomiting and mental anguish,” the complaint said. He was released after 10 hours in jail.

KBOO, where Elia and McLam voluntarily co-host a podcast, released a statement on July 1 strongly condemning their arrest. “The nationwide trend of suppressing the freedom of speech or freedom of press by attack or arrest by police is disturbing and must be addressed,” the station said.

While the police referred criminal charges to the Multnomah County district attorney’s office, attorneys in that office declined to file charges, resulting in a “no-complaint,” according to Elia’s defense attorney.

Because of Elia’s ongoing civil suit stemming from this incident, he declined to comment further to the Tracker. As of press time, McLam said there were no publicly available updates about the lawsuit.

When reached by email about the incident, the Portland Police Bureau declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

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

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