Independent photojournalists hit with pepper balls fired by federal agents in Portland

October 18, 2020

At least two journalists were 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.

Independent photojournalists Maranie Staab and Sean Bascom were both shot by pepper balls while covering a demonstration outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in South Portland.

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 ICE building in a demonstration that stretched into the early hours of Oct. 18.

Around midnight, Staab was on an adjacent street outside the ICE building, documenting a standoff between protesters and officers in an alleyway, she told the Tracker. Staab was behind the first row of protesters when officers started to rush at the group, shooting pepper balls while running.

“I was shot numerous times. I took one to the knee that put me on the ground,” she said. “They continued to shoot at me while I was on the ground. I was pretty messed up because they got my finger too.”

Staab said she was clearly marked as press, yet officers continued to fire at her. She posted images of her injuries on Twitter, including welts on her lower back and knees and a splint on her right middle finger. She later told the Tracker that the finger had been severely sprained.

Additionally, her new camera stopped working out of the blue and was in repair for more than two weeks, Staab said. When she received the $700 repair bill, it stated that damage was caused by “corrosion due to paint and chemical substances.”

“It’s whatever they’ve been gassing us with. It’s getting into equipment and literally causing corrosion to camera,” Staab said. “I was not OK there for a little while, but the reality is I’m tough, because I realize that anything that I’m going through is nothing compared to what people have and continue to go through at the hands of the police. I have every intention to continue doing this work.”

Meanwhile, Bascom was also 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 said. “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 (DHS) 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.

On the evening of Oct. 17, two additional journalists were targeted with crowd-control munitions while covering earlier parts of the protest.

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

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