Independent journalist struck with munitions while covering Olympia protest, press pass damaged

December 20, 2020

Independent videographer Melissa Lewis was hit multiple times by crowd-control munitions while covering dueling demonstrations in downtown Olympia, Washington, on Dec. 12, 2020. One of the rounds struck and damaged her press pass.

Lewis told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker she was covering a “Stop the Steal” protest organized by the far-right group Patriot around the state Capitol, where counter-protesters had also gathered.

“There was a much larger ‘Stop the Steal’ presence than anti-fascist presence, so the anti-fascists were beat back by the far-right very quickly,” Lewis said.

The Olympian reported that the two groups began to clash around 12:30 p.m., and soon after Olympia police declared a riot and issued orders to disperse.

Around 2:30 p.m., Olympian reporter Rolf Boone tweeted that police pushed back antifa protesters using flash-bang grenades.

Lewis told the Tracker the Olympia Police Department officers were using small, round flash-bang grenades, some of which contained OC “pepper” capsaicin dust, an irritant also used in some tear gas and pepper sprays.

As the officers pushed the antifascist counter-protesters away from downtown, Lewis said officers blocked the north and south sides of the street, forcing protesters to choose between facing them or entering a private parking garage.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” Lewis said, adding that police were using so many chemical irritants that residue built up in her eyes.

“[It got] to the point that it was gritty and I had to have my eyes washed out,” Lewis said, “and I was afraid that it might scratch my corneas.”

Lewis said she was physically struck twice in the thigh and once in the chest with the plastic flash-bang grenades. The one that struck her in the chest damaged the press pass from the Industrial Workers of the World Freelance Journalists Union that she was wearing on a lanyard.

“If they had been the [flash-bang grenade] canisters, I would have been incredibly injured and I’m honestly very glad they were the plastic kind,” Lewis said. She added that the multiple layers she was wearing because of the cold also prevented her from being harmed more extensively.

Lewis said that in addition to the press pass around her neck, she had “PRESS” markings on her backpack. Lewis said she believed police were deliberately targeting her because the incident took place in broad daylight and because of her identifying markings.

The Olympia Police Department did not respond to an emailed 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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