Journalists covering protests hit in eye, leg with projectiles fired by police
Two journalists covering protests in Washington, D.C., were struck by objects fired by police on May 30, 2020.
The protests were sparked by a video showing a Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds during an arrest on May 25. Floyd was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
On May 30, 2020, Wil Sands, a freelance photographer based in Richmond, Virginia, was covering protests in Washington, D.C., near the AFL-CIO building when tensions began rising around 11 p.m., he told the Committee to Protect Journalists. Individuals had set some vehicles ablaze and Sands began planning how to leave the area. He was standing behind a light post looking at his cell phone when a flying object he suspects to have been a tear gas canister bounced off the light post before hitting him squarely in the face, on his right eye. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker could not confirm the type of object he was hit with.
A street medic in the crowd quickly found him and put gauze over the wound, and told Sands he needed to go to the hospital. Sands walked to the police cordon and, after seeing his wound, they let him through. “I pulled off the gauze, their faces changed, and the commanding officer allowed me to pass through," Sands said.
He told CPJ that he believes the object that hit him was launched from an area where D.C. police officers had been standing. There were officers from multiple law enforcement agencies operating in the general area at the time, according to news reports. Sands, a member of Fractures Collective, was wearing a press pass at the time he was hit.
He wrote in a series of Instagram posts that he spent 16 hours in the emergency room, and suffered a partially torn retina and damaged cornea. He had surgery on his right eye on June 1. "My retina was reattached, a silicone band was permanently inserted around my eyeball, and a bubble of gas was inflated behind the retina," he wrote. "It is unclear how much of my sight in my right eyes [sic] I will get back."
Alaina Gertz, a D.C. police spokeswoman, declined to comment on the incident that led to Sands’ injury.
That same evening, Philip Lewis, a front page editor at the HuffPost, was covering the protests near the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute when vandals began breaking out the windows of the building, Lewis told the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Police began releasing tear gas and setting off flash bangs to disperse the crowd, Lewis said, and so he decided it was time to leave the area. As he tried to leave, he said he was struck by a small object in the left leg at around 11:35 p.m. “It was definitely a stinging pain,” he said.
Lewis did not recover the projectile after it hit him, but said he believed it to be a rubber bullet, due to the size of the mark it left and the fact that he had seen one on the ground earlier in the day. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker could not confirm the type of projectile he was hit with.
Lewis tweeted about the incident a few minutes later:
Just got shot in the leg with rubber bullets. Not great!— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) May 31, 2020
Lewis, who was wearing press credentials at the time, did not believe he was the intended target. The projectile left behind a slight red bruise several days later, he said.
Kristen Metzger, a D.C. police spokeswoman, wrote in an email to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the Metropolitan Police Department has not “deployed rubber bullets during the demonstrations.” In a follow-up email, she confirmed that the department “may deploy … when necessary,” pepper spray, sting ball grenades that expel tiny rubber balls at high velocity and tear gas.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred total incidents of journalists who were 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.