An Oregon journalist was attacked on Oct. 4, 2020, in a public park by attendees of what he believed to be a meeting of a local militia group.
Chris Bristol, city editor for the Grants Pass Daily Courier, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he was tipped off to what was described to him as a meeting of a local militia group that was being held at Reinhart Volunteer Park in Grants Pass. Bristol referred to the group as the JoCo militia, a reference to Josephine County, Oregon, of which Grants Pass is the county seat.
Bristol had previously covered a Sept. 6 meeting of the group, which he said was organizing for major civil unrest following the presidential elections. Bristol spoke with Joseph Rice, whom he described as a member and purported leader in the group.
"I do have concerns about civil unrest," Rice told Bristol at the time. "Look at what's been happening in Portland for 100 days now. I wouldn't have believed that before."
Since the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, Portland has been the site of near-nightly civil unrest. The Tracker has captured press freedom violations in that city here.
In an interview with the Tracker, Rice denied having a leadership role in the JoCo group. He said the real leaders of the group asked him to facilitate the Sept. 6 meeting, as well as act as spokesman.
Bristol told the Tracker that he received a tip that the JoCo group was meeting again on Oct. 4 to “hand out assignments.” Bristol arrived at the meeting with colleague Shuan Hall and said “things quickly began to devolve.”
Rice told the Tracker that the meeting of about 15 people held that day in a park pavilion was not affiliated with the JoCo militia — it was a “support group” unaffiliated with the militia group.
Rice said that the JoCo militia was coincidentally holding an unrelated gathering of about 30 people in another part of Reinhart Volunteer Park at the same time.
“He made the assumption that it was a ‘quote-unquote’ militia meeting,” Rice said of Bristol. “It was not.”
Rice said he had no knowledge of the larger gathering on the other end of the park. He declined to disclose what the group he was with was meeting for, citing privacy concerns for those in attendance.
Bristol said some of the attendees to the park meeting did not like his previous coverage and threatened to assault him if he tried to take videos or photos. At that point, Bristol began to take video.
“You’re the problem, not us,” one man said to Bristol, insisting that the group was meeting for a class reunion, according to Bristol’s video.
Bristol said that Rice, who was captured in the video, then called over other members of the group. One man, later identified in both a Oct. 8 column in the Daily Courier and on KOBI-TV NBC5 as Jim Thalhamer, then lunged toward Bristol and began shouting.
“Don’t be taking my fucking picture, cocksucker,” Thalhamer yelled at Bristol, inching close to his face. The journalist, who was also holding a bicycle, said he tried to push Thalhamer away but other individuals grabbed and twisted his arms, causing him to drop his phone.
“They were beginning to mob me when one of them charged into me (I was standing stationary the entire time, holding my bike), getting spittle all over my face as he swore at me,” Bristol told the Tracker in an email. “Just as I realized that I wasn't wearing a mask, the old guy charged into me again. I pushed him away from me, and they all went nuts, accusing me of assaulting the man, grabbing and twisting my arms, knocking my phone out of my hand, and kicking me and my bike.”
Rice said that Bristol’s push caused Thalhamer to fall to the ground and hit his head. Hall, who had picked up the phone for his colleague, pointed it back toward the scuffle showing Thalhamer on his feet and again facing Bristol.
Both Hall and an individual at the meeting called the police, Bristol and Rice said. Paramedics arrived at the scene and examined Thalhamer but did not transport him from the scene. No arrests were made and Bristol said his phone was not damaged.
The Grants Pass Department of Public Safety confirmed to the Tracker that the matter has been referred to the Josephine County District Attorney’s office. The DA’s office did not respond to a request for comment.