U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Journalist doused with chemical irritant multiple times while covering countering Portland protests

Incident Details

August 22, 2020

Independent videographer Melissa Lewis said she was doused with bear mace by individuals at a far-right protest while covering clashing demonstrations in Portland, Oregon on Aug. 22, 2020. Lewis, whose work has been published by Yahoo News, said she required medical treatment for injury from the chemical irritant.

Clashes erupted between members of far-right groups and counterprotesters on Aug. 22 outside the Justice Center in downtown Portland, the Washington Post reported. Members of the extremist group the Proud Boys and supporters of then-President Donald Trump gathered for a “Back the Blue” rally, and hundreds of counterprotesters, including Black Lives Matter activists, organized in opposition.

In video footage captured by Lewis, she appears to be filming clashes from behind a van parked on the edge of Chapman Square, a small park opposite the Multnomah County Justice Center. A man wearing a T-shirt that reads “TRUMP” approaches her and tells her to leave.

Seconds later, another man wearing a helmet and a gas mask appears and begins spraying an irritant, hitting Lewis. As that assailant retreats, a man in khaki shorts, taking cover from counterprotesters behind newspaper vending boxes, appears to spray an irritant toward Lewis. She takes a few steps backwards and a third individual appears from behind the van and sprays an irritant directly at Lewis.

Lewis tweeted that when one individual sprayed her “head to toe,” she turned her head away and the chemical irritant went down her ear canal.

After retreating, Lewis said she began “furiously” removing her gear, but once she took off her gas mask, the irritant flowed into her face and all over her body.

“Because my hair was so soaked, it just ran down as soon as I took off my gas mask — that’s what was holding it back,” she said.

Lewis said the irritant caused her intense pain.

“It was like I had showered in it. I was absolutely bathed in bear mace,” she told the Tracker. “It was the most pain that I’ve ever been in.”

With ambulances unable to reach the area due to the unrest, Lewis said some other protesters carried her away from the area until she could get an ambulance to a hospital emergency room, where she said she was treated with pain medication.

Lewis and several counterprotesters filed a lawsuit on Sept. 25 against several far-right group members and supporters who were involved in the unrest on Aug. 22. As of March 2021, she said the suit was still pending.

Lewis was wearing a press badge while she was covering the protests, according to the lawsuit. She told the Tracker she does not know if her attackers identified her as a journalist.

“I was sprayed because I was recording and not right wing,” she told the Tracker in an email.

Protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement had been held in Portland daily for months, sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting assaults, arrests and other incidents involving journalists covering protests across the country.

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