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

June 30, 2020

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

McLam 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. McLam 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 protestors arrived at PPA offices around 9 p.m., the police declared an “unlawful assembly” and ordered them to disperse.

McLam 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. About 22 minutes into the footage, she captures Elia’s arrest. She can be heard demanding that they release Elia and turn over his phone and other personal items to her. The tracker has documented Elia's arrest here.

About 11 minutes later, the video shuts off at the moment McLam gets arrested. After an officer tells her to “Get off the street,” she can be heard responding, “I’m a member of the press. I’m on the crosswalk.” Then an officer can be seen approaching her, and the camera goes askew and filming ends.

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.

According to the complaint, as McLam attempted to film the officers present at Elia’s arrest, she was rushed by approximately six officers. “McLam’s glasses flew off as she was tackled,” it said, adding that officers “hit and/or punched McLam in the legs and knees, causing contusions and muscle pain and spraining her ankle.” She also had swelling, bruising and tenderness from her handcuffs, according to the complaint.

In addition, due to the stress of her arrest, McLam experienced vomiting and urinary incontinence, according to the complaint. In a video posted on Twitter by a bystander, a handcuffed McLam can be seen vomiting as officers empty her pockets.

McLam was taken to Multnomah County Detention Center, where she was placed in an isolation cell “covered in what appeared to be dried, sticky vomit and smeared feces,” according to the complaint. When she started to feel cramping, McLam worried that the stress had started her menstrual cycle early. She called out for a menstrual pad which wasn’t brought to her until more than 30 minutes later, the complaint 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 McLam’s defense attorney. But the police continued to hold her for several more hours before releasing her around 6:30 p.m. on July 1, the complaint said.

KBOO, where McLam and Elia voluntarily co-host a podcast, released a statement 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.

Asked by the Tracker about the civil suit in March 2021, McLam said there were no publicly available updates.

“I think it’s really important that people have a better understanding of the dynamics that are actually happening on the ground,” she said.

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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