Indianapolis Star photojournalist Kelly Wilkinson was tear gassed, pepper sprayed, threatened and shot with a pepper ball on May 29, 2020, while documenting the first night of protests in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The protests were sparked by a video showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a local hospital. Protests against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have been held across the U.S. since the end of May.
Wilkinson told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the protests that day had been largely peaceful until shortly after sunset when something triggered a back-and-forth between protesters and law enforcement.
“It sort of spiraled downhill after that,” she said.
Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers began launching tear gas into the crowd, Wilkinson said. It was the first time she had experienced the chemical irritant.
“I don’t know whether I had a panic attack or what, but that first time that it got me, it got me good,” Wilkinson said. “I thought I was going to die.” After taking a few minutes to recover she said she was able to resume working.
Shortly before 10 p.m., as the skirmish between police and demonstrators continued, Wilkinson said she was working near a street corner where a number of police officers were assembled in a line. In a video captured by Eric Weddle, a reporter with NPR affiliate WFYI, Wilkinson can be seen approaching the intersection with one of her cameras raised as she photographs the scene.
An officer breaks away from the police line and approaches Wilkinson with his weapon trained on her. A second officer appears to intervene and directs Wilkinson to step back; as she does, the first officer appears to begin lowering his weapon.
Wilkinson told the Tracker that she didn’t remember the incident happening until she saw the video and that she hadn’t felt threatened at the time. “It does look quite shocking though, when you see it,” she added.
Wilkinson noted that in a separate incident that night she was struck above the knee with a pepper ball. She didn’t realize what hit her until she researched the wound pattern when she got home.
Later that evening, after Wilkinson had put on a gas mask to protect herself from the tear gas, officers directly pepper sprayed her, Wilkinson said.
“It looked like he was pointing right at me,” Wilkinson said. “I was maybe 8 to 10 feet away from him, so not too far.”
“Again, I thought I looked like a photographer, but maybe I didn’t. I did have all of my equipment on me,” she added, noting that she was carrying two cameras, a fanny pack and her press pass.
The following day, Wilkinson said the Star issued new press passes that are bright yellow and marked PRESS in large capital letters. Editors from the Star did not respond to requests for comment.
The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department did not respond to a voicemail requesting comment.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or had their equipment damaged while covering protests across the country related to the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Find all of these cases here.