Independent social media journalist Joey Wieser said he was shoved by police and sprayed in the face and mouth with a chemical irritant while reporting on a protest in Seattle, Washington, on July 25, 2020.
Protests in Seattle had been held regularly since George Floyd, a Black man, was killed during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25. In late July, the Seattle protests intensified when the Trump administration deployed U.S. Department of Homeland Security officers to the city, Crosscut reported.
Wieser, who told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker he began covering protests in late May by livestreaming and posting videos on social media, said that on July 25 he was reporting from the front of a large protest on 11th Avenue in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle. Police began advancing on the crowd of protesters, shepherding them around a corner onto a narrower street, Wieser said. Because of the size of the crowd, Wieser said, he couldn’t move quickly.
A video he posted on Facebook shows Wieser repeating, “we are moving back, we are being peaceful.” Suddenly, an officer lunges toward him, sprays him and shoves him.
Wieser coughs and shouts out, “Oh my god I just got shoved and sprayed!” Seconds later the camera turns back toward the police, and an officer blasts an orange substance, which Wieser told the Tracker was pepper spray, directly toward Wieser, who begins screaming and repeats “I’m being attacked, I’m being attacked.” The camera becomes blurry from the spray.
Wieser told the Tracker he was “completely incapacitated.”
“I cannot breathe, and I cannot see, and I'm practically flailing about trying to get out of that situation,” Wieser said. “And then I am shoved incredibly hard — I mean the hardest I've ever been shoved in my entire life.”
Seconds later on the video, several bangs can be heard. The video, blurry from the spray on the camera lens, shows a bright orange flash, and Wieser shouts, “That exploded!” He told the Tracker that was when blast balls — explosive devices containing a chemical irritant — started erupting around his feet. He said it felt as though one had gone off directly near him, because he felt heat rushing up his legs.
Wieser said he was incapacitated for about half an hour after he was attacked. The video shows that he retreated to an alley where someone came to help him wash out his eyes. Wieser told the Tracker his Samsung phone, which he used to stream video, was so badly damaged from the spray that he needed to replace it.
In a July 27 declaration he gave for an American Civil Liberties Union motion for contempt, Wieser said he couldn’t open his eyes for at least 15 minutes, and his face, arms and neck were burning. “It was the most excruciating pain I have experienced in my adult life,” he wrote.
The ACLU motion argued that the city had violated an earlier injunction restricting Seattle police from using chemical agents and projectiles, and that the Seattle Police Department “repeatedly targeted journalists with brutal violence” on July 25. The motion led to a modified court order on Aug. 10 that barred police from targeting projectiles and chemical irritants at journalists, as long as they are displaying a press pass or wearing clothing that distinguishes them as members of the media. Wieser, identified as an independent journalist, is named in the ACLU motion.
Wieser said that at the July 25 protest, he was not wearing any press identification, but he stood near other members of the press who repeatedly shouted to police identifying themselves as media.
Weiser said he did not feel that he was targeted because he was a journalist. “I feel that the animosity towards just about anybody on the street was indiscriminate,” he told the Tracker.
Three other journalists — Omari Salisbury and John Mitchell of Converge Media and Renee Raketty of the Seattle Gay News — were also hit with crowd-control devices while covering the July 25 protest, according to statements included in the ACLU suit, interviews with the Tracker and social media footage. Find all incidents from that day here.
Julie Davidow, a spokesperson for the ACLU, said in a statement to the Tracker that the August court injunction had been effective in strengthening protections for journalists, as well as legal observers and medics.
“[W]e have not seen journalists subjected to the same kinds of indiscriminate and excessive police force they faced while covering the demonstrations that took place in Seattle last summer in response to the murder of George Floyd,” Davidow said.
Seattle Police Department spokesperson Randy Huserik told the Tracker in an email that the department investigates cases of use of force or crowd control devices. Huserik confirmed that the department used pepper spray and flash-bang devices on July 25.
“If journalists covering events choose to place themselves within a crowd where those devices may be deployed, they have the potential to be exposed to these devices,” he said.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists being assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas, or having their equipment damaged while covering these protests across the country. Find these incidents here.