Converge Media producer John Mitchell was pepper-sprayed, hit with projectiles and shoved by law enforcement officers while covering a protest in Seattle, Washington, on July 25, 2020.
According to Crosscut, demonstrators that day had gathered in the Capitol Hill neighborhood both as part of the wave of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, on May 25, and in response to the Trump administration’s recent deployment of federal officers to the city. Tensions escalated throughout the afternoon, Crosscut reported, and at 4:25 p.m., police declared the gathering a riot. In the hours that followed, law enforcement repeatedly deployed chemical agents and crowd-control munitions.
The police response to the protest led the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington to file a motion for contempt, arguing that police violated a court order that had been issued in June restricting them from using chemical agents and projectiles.
Mitchell did not respond to the Tracker’s requests for comment, but in a declaration filed as part of the ACLU suit, he said he’d been “standing off to the side of the street with a group of members of the media,” his press badge clearly displayed, when “police began deliberately attacking our group by throwing blast balls right at us, even though our group only contained members of the media.”
Mitchell said that as police were throwing the devices toward the group, a blast ball exploded very near him, with shrapnel hitting him in the neck and arm. A photograph included in the declaration shows a red mark on his neck under his chin.
“Even though I was wearing a neck covering, I felt extreme pain and I had to be helped to the ground because I could barely stand,” he stated in the declaration, dated Aug. 3. “I still can’t hear correctly out of my right ear due to the explosion.”
A couple minutes after the blast ball, he said, as he and his colleagues were trying to leave the area ahead of a line of officers, holding his press badge over his shoulder so he could still be identified as a journalist, police advanced and started to spray blue dye OC spray, also known as pepper spray, at the group. The spray hit Mitchell’s face, arm and credentials. He also stated that he did not hear a warning before the spray was used. “After being sprayed in the face with blue dye OC spray,” he said, “a colleague attempted to administer saline solution and water to flush my eyes. The police forced us to keep moving and wouldn’t let us to stop so I could get medical aid.”
The ACLU motion argued that the Seattle Police Department “repeatedly targeted journalists with brutal violence” on July 25. On Aug. 10, the court issued an order clarifying the initial preliminary injunction and barring police from targeting projectiles and chemical irritants at journalists, as long as they are displaying a press pass or wearing clothing that distinguishes them as members of the media.
Julie Davidow, a spokesperson for the ACLU, said in a statement that the injunction the court approved in August strengthened protections for journalists, as well as legal observers and medics.
“Since the clarified preliminary injunction was approved by the court, we have not seen journalists subjected to the same kinds of indiscriminate and excessive police force they faced while covering the demonstrations that took place in Seattle last summer in response to the murder of George Floyd,” Davidow said.
Seattle Police Department spokesperson Randy Huserik told the Tracker in an email generally that the use of force and crowd-control devices were being investigated by the department and acknowledged that the SPD had used pepper spray and flash-bang grenades that day.
“If journalists covering events choose to place themselves within a crowd where those devices may be deployed, they have the potential to be exposed to these devices,” he said.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd-control ammunition or tear gas or who had their equipment damaged in the course of reporting. Find all incidents related to Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality protests here.