Photojournalist hit with pepper balls fired by federal agents while covering protest in Portland

October 18, 2020

Independent photojournalist Sean Bascom said he was hit with crowd-control munitions fired by federal law enforcement officers during a protest in Portland, Oregon, on the early morning of Oct. 18, 2020, despite a court order banning federal agents from targeting press.

Protests had been held In Portland on almost a nightly basis since late May in response to police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the May 25 death of George Floyd. A temporary restraining order in early July barring the Portland police from harming or impeding journalists was expanded to include federal agents later that month. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting assaults, arrests and other incidents involving journalists covering protests across the country.

A number of protests in Portland have targeted federal government buildings, and on the evening of Oct. 17, protesters marched on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in South Portland, in a demonstration that stretched into the early hours of Oct. 18.

Bascom told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker he was struck by pepper balls fired by federal agents stationed at the ICE building. Around 2:15 a.m, Bascom posted footage on Twitter of the agents firing pepper balls as they moved. His shoes got covered in residue from the munitions as agents fired at him, he told the Tracker. Without a gas mask on, he couldn’t see as he retreated.

“I was clearly marked as press. I have a high-vis vest on, ‘press’ clearly marked on my helmet,” he said.

The federal agents pushed protesters and the press onto Southwest Moody Avenue, just north of the facility, where they then used tear gas. In a video posted by Bascom on Twitter, federal agents can be seen firing pepper balls through clouds of tear gas that filled the street. One hit him in the lower chest, near his lowest rib, and left a paintball-sized welt, he said.

“They gassed it and just started firing pepperballs into the smoky gas. Like we couldn’t see them, and they definitely couldn’t see us,” he told the Tracker. “And it was mostly press that was closest to them, because that’s who gets close to them.”

To Bascom, the actions of the federal agents towards himself and other members of the press “wasn’t explicitly targeting, it was more disregarding,” he said.

The Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond to a request for comment on the incidents. ICE, which operates under the DHS, referred the Tracker to the DHS 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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