U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Photographer pepper sprayed while covering Seattle protest

Incident Details

July 25, 2020

A photographer said a Seattle law enforcement officer pepper-sprayed him while he was covering protests in Seattle, Washington, on July 25, 2020.

The independent photographer, who asked to remain anonymous, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker it was clear police were aiming for his head when he was hit with pepper spray. “The entire right side of my helmet was blue,” he said.

The Washington Post reported there were approximately 2,000 people demonstrating that afternoon, the largest gathering in more than a month, as part of a response to news that federal agents had been deployed to Seattle. That morning, Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best released a statement outlining that officers would carry pepper spray and blast balls, but not tear gas.

During the demonstration, the journalist said he was photographing a large gathering of protesters at the Seattle Central Community College and followed them as they began marching. He broke off from the group, he said, when another group of individuals began damaging property. He told the Tracker that he’d gotten ahead of the march when he heard a large explosion.

Seattle police later reported that a device had exploded, leaving an 8-inch hole in the side of the East Precinct at 12th Avenue and Pine Street. Not long after the explosion, a riot was declared and police began clearing people from the area.

The photographer said he was walking down Pine Street on the sidewalk after the demonstration was declared a riot with a group from Converge Media. He said they were walking away from protesters who were marching in the street when he was hit with pepper spray.

“It was pretty clear that a significant group of us were media,” the photographer said. “I had my NPPA [National Press Photographers Association] badge clearly displayed on the right side of my backpack, with press on my helmet, and a big camera.”

He told the Tracker he was most upset that he couldn’t take anymore pictures with his camera because it was covered in pepper spray.

The photographer said he knew what he was going into and that blast balls had already exploded near his feet, but that he didn’t expect to be sprayed in the face.

“I’m not sure what caused the pepper spray,” he said.

He was wearing a respirator, goggles and a helmet, so the side of his neck was the only part exposed to the chemical irritant. He said he experienced chemical burns, but did not seek medical attention. His camera, a Canon 5D Mark IV, had to be sent in for servicing, he said.

The Seattle Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting assaults, arrests and other incidents involving journalists covering protests across the country that followed the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

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