U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Photojournalist targeted with paintballs, mace while covering clashing protests in Portland

Incident Details

Date of Incident
August 22, 2020
Portland, Oregon


Was the journalist targeted?
Courtesy Cole Howard

Photojournalist Cole Howard was documenting dueling protests in Portland, Oregon, on Aug. 22, 2020, when he says he was targeted with paintballs and later a chemical irritant, which he captured in this image.

— Courtesy Cole Howard
December 10, 2021 - Update

Proud Boy who fired paintballs at Portland protests sentenced to prison

In August 2020, independent photojournalist Cole Howard was covering a protest in Portland, Oregon, when he was hit with paintballs and sprayed with mace. A month later, self-proclaimed Proud Boy Alan Swinney was arrested for attacking people with paintballs and mace at that protest and another, also in Portland.

The Multnomah County District Attorney’s office filed 12 assault charges against Swinney. The charges do not name any of the alleged targets. On Dec. 10, 2021, a jury found Swinney guilty of 11 of the 12 charges and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and supervised probation for his actions.

August 22, 2020

Independent photojournalist Cole Howard said he was hit with paintballs fired by a right-wing activist while he was covering confrontations between protesters in Portland, Oregon on Aug. 22, 2020.

Howard said he was also sprayed with mace by a second individual.

Clashes erupted after more than 100 far-right protesters, including members of the extremist group the Proud Boys and supporters of then-President Donald Trump, gathered outside the Justice Center for a “Back the Blue” rally on Aug. 22, the Washington Post reported.

Hundreds of counterprotesters amassed in opposition. 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.

Howard, whose work has been published by Reuters, Newsweek and other outlets, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker he was documenting the confrontation between protesters and counterprotesters when a man on the right-wing side of the clash began firing paintballs at him.

Howard said the man made eye contact with him before firing three paintballs, which hit him across his torso and shoulder. “To have one paintball hit you is one thing,” Howard told the Tracker, adding that because he was hit multiple times, he believes he was deliberately targeted.

Howard said he was “very obviously marked as press” wearing both a flak jacket and helmet with press markings.

Less than an hour after he was struck by paintballs, Howard said another person from the Proud Boys side of the confrontation ran at him and sprayed a chemical irritant, which Howard said he believed was bear mace, in his face.

“From what I could see there wasn’t anybody right next to me — it was pretty obvious that he was targeting me,” he said.

In a photo Howard provided the Tracker, an assailant’s hand can be seen spraying a chemical irritant in the direction of the camera.

Howard said he was wearing goggles, which delayed the effects of the irritant, giving him a few seconds to move away. The irritant caused his eyes to swell shut for about 20 minutes, he said.

He said the irritant left him in pain that day and through the next day.

In September the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office filed multiple assault charges against a man, who was arrested for allegedly attacking people with paintballs and mace at two protests, including the one on Aug. 22. The indictment against Alan Swinney alleges that on Aug. 22 he used a paintball gun to cause physical injury, pointed a revolver at a person and unlawfully discharged “mace or a similar substance” toward another person. The charges do not name any of the alleged targets.

In October, a judge denied a motion for Swinney’s release, and as of March 2021, he was still being held in prison, according to the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department. Swinney's lawyer, Eric Wolfe, did not respond to requests for comment.

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].