Independent journalist Brian Conley was shot with paintballs by a person participating in a pro-Donald Trump rally in Salem, Oregon, on Sept. 7, 2020.
For months, Oregon’s largest city, Portland, had witnessed frequent and heated protests over racial justice and police violence that were initially sparked by the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. At times, those demonstrations attracted counterprotesters, particularly ones who visibly claimed support of President Trump.
On Sept. 7, a large group of Trump supporters gathered in Oregon City, a suburb to the south of Portland. Later, some of those gathered drove nearly 50 miles south to the Oregon Capitol in Salem. Among the supporters were members of far-right groups such as the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer. Some showed up with guns and other weapons.
Ahead of the election, President Trump amplified his denunciations of the media at rallies and online. As of Oct. 1, the president had tweeted negatively about the press more than 2,300 times since declaring his candidacy in 2015, according to a U.S. Press Freedom Tracker analysis.
The pro-Trump camp was met in Salem by a smaller group of opposing protesters, chiefly supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement.
At one point that afternoon, Conley was in the park across the street from the capitol building speaking with a Trump supporter who had an American flag he said he had “liberated” from the Black Lives Matter movement. The man described the flag as having been “under a vehicle, upside down” and on the ground — at which point Conley started asking why he hadn’t destroyed the flag, which Conley asserted was dictated by the U.S. Flag Code. (Although the U.S. Flag Code says the flag should never touch the ground, it prescribes destroying the flag, preferably by burning, when it “is no longer a fitting emblem for display.” The flag touching the ground alone doesn’t necessitate its burning. While the guidelines are technically federal law, they are unenforceable and remain advisory.)
Conley’s questions soon attracted a crowd that grew hostile.
“Other allied protesters, they came in and one guy with a kind of GoPro on a little handheld monopod sort of thing started calling me “lying press,” “fake press” and “Antifa press,” and a couple more people came over,” Conley told the Tracker by phone. Facing increasing harassment, Conley said he lost his cool and gave that person the middle finger before trying to leave the area. Conley said he tried to ignore a crowd that followed him as he attempted to leave.
“And then I got shot, I think three or four times in the back, by this guy with a paintball gun,” said Conley, who was wearing body armor emblazoned with the word “PRESS.”
In a video captured by journalist Sergio Olmos, Conley can be seen walking away from a crowd shouting at him and heckling him when several shots from a paintball gun can be heard.
After Conley was shot with the paintballs, the Trump supporter he had been interviewing before stepped forward to protect Conley saying “I’m not going to let you get shot at” but told Conley that he had been “disrespectful.”
A photo tweeted out by the South Salem High School newspaper The Clypian at about 4:30 p.m. shows Conley standing in a crowd with the back of his body armor stained pink and orange by paintball impacts. “A member of the press corps from Portland was just shot with paintballs as protestors yelled “Antifa press” at him,” the paper’s tweet said.
A photo later shared by Conley on Twitter showed a man with a paintball gun who Conley says is the man that shot him. Conley said the man denied shooting him when he turned around to confront them after getting shot.
The paintballs hit Conley’s body armor and he was uninjured.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting hundreds of incidents of journalists being assaulted, arrested, hit by crowd control munitions or having their equipment damaged at protests around the country in 2020. Find these incidents here.