Independent Portland multimedia journalist tackled, maced and arrested by federal agents

July 27, 2020

Independent multimedia journalist Grace Morgan was hit with pepper spray, thrown to the ground and detained for hours by federal agents while covering protests on July 27, 2020.

Morgan was documenting the nightly protests in downtown Portland in response to police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis on May 25.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting assaults, arrests and other incidents involving journalists covering protests across the country.

In the early morning hours of July 27, Morgan was covering a protest in front of the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse. Demonstrators had gathered outside of the fence surrounding the building. In a video Morgan tweeted at 1:14 a.m., federal agents can be seen walking outside of the fenced area, after firing tear gas, pepper balls and flash bang grenades at protestors from inside.

“I was filming a pretty violent arrest of a protester, Noelle Mandolfo,” Morgan told the Tracker. “There were at least 20 other members of the press all surrounding her.”

Morgan said she and other journalists followed closely as Mandolfo and another protester were walked back to the courthouse.

“I remember thinking I was physically pretty close to the agents, but that wasn’t unusual for how the protests have been going,” Morgan explained.

As they walked, federal agents began firing more tear gas into the crowd and one canister landed next to Morgan’s feet, which she said she immediately kicked to her right.

“The next thing I know, I was being tackled to the ground, initially by one agent and then another,” she said. Elijah Schaffer, a reporter at Blaze Media, was walking behind Morgan at the time and recorded the incident, posted at 1:28 a.m. A federal agent can be seen spraying mace into Morgan’s eyes right before another slams her to the ground.

She said she told them that she was a member of the press. She also had two laminated press passes displayed as well as labels on her helmet and backpack. The agents gave no response as to why she was being detained, and walked her along with several protesters to a concealed parking lot at the back of the federal courthouse. When they arrived, agents cut Morgan’s backpack off of her, ruining the straps, and took her gas mask.

“We never got read our rights. The only way I found out why I was being detained was because they put masking tape on our backs and had written on it,” Morgan told the Tracker. “After we were put in our holding cells, we read each other’s backs to each other and that’s how I found out I was being detained for assault on an officer.”

Several times throughout the morning, Morgan said federal agents would tell them all to face the wall and an agent would forcefully push their heads into the wall.

“It wasn’t a full on slam, but it was enough that it was painful and super unnecessary,” she said. That happened at least three times.”

Morgan also asked for medical attention to address the mace in her eyes, which burned, but received no response. Eventually, she tried to wash off the residue with the toilet water in the cell, the only water available, which made her eyes burn even worse.

When she was released around 5 a.m., Morgan said she received her gas mask back, but the straps were cut off, even though agents had already removed the mask from her face.

She told the Tracker that on her release, she was told, “the evidence in your case has been reviewed, and the attorney general has decided to drop all charges.”

A preliminary injunction a judge put in place in July that bars federal agents from harming or impeding journalists was upheld by an appeals court in October. Morgan isn’t sure which federal agency detained her, but the Department of Homeland Security, which coordinated the federal presence, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In a tweet sent at 10:45 a.m., Morgan wrote, “I went to urgent care this morning after release – just a light concussion, fractured knee cap and mild chemical burns on my arms from the mace. Which means! I can probably go back out again tonight if I rest up today!”’

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

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