Photographer says he was targeted by police with projectiles and tear gas during Portland protest

May 31, 2020

Independent photographer Mathieu Lewis-Rolland said he was fired on by police and targeted with tear gas at close range while covering protests in Portland, Oregon, on May 31, 2020.

Lewis-Rolland, based in Portland, was covering one of the many protests that broke out across the U.S. in response to police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man. A viral video showed a white police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck during an arrest in Minneapolis. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.

In Portland, protests over the death of Floyd began on May 29, prompting Mayor Ted Wheeler to declare an 8 p.m. curfew that lasted three days. Around 10:40 p.m. on May 31, Lewis-Rolland went to investigate a loud bang at the intersection of Southwest Salmon Street and Southwest Third Avenue, on the same corner as the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, according to a class-action lawsuit filed by American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon. Lewis-Rolland is a plaintiff in the case, which led to an agreement by the Portland Police Bureau in July not to arrest or harm any journalists or legal observers of the protests.

The intersection by the U.S. Courthouse was mostly clear of protesters when Lewis-Rolland arrived, according to his case filing. As he began photographing, an officer aimed a gun directly at him. Shortly after, the officer fired several projectiles toward him without warning, according to the filing.

The police also threw tear gas, according to the suit. “Mr. Lewis-Rolland was overcome by the effects of tear gas and was unable to continue documenting protests or police action at that location, but he attempted to continue operating his camera to the best of his ability while recovering from the effects of the tear gas,” says the complaint. “He was able to capture a visual cloud of gas hovering over the intersection he had just retreated from.”

Lewis-Rolland later posted a photo on Facebook showing the officer just before he fired. “He could see I was holding a camera as well as I could see he was holding a gun,” Lewis-Rolland said in the post. He added that while he wasn’t injured, he felt shrapnel hit his body.

About an hour later, he was photographing a protest around the corner from the first incident, at Southwest Fourth Avenue and Southwest Taylor Street, when a different officer threw a canister of tear gas designed for crowd control at his feet, according to the suit. The photographer was again momentarily incapacitated by the effects of the tear gas.

When he started covering the protests on May 30, Lewis-Rolland wore a shirt and jeans and carried a Nikon camera with a telephoto lens, he told the Committee to Protect Journalists, a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, in a recent interview. “Before this I covered local music, festivals, local business editorials, landscapes, and weddings,” he said.

Lewis-Rolland told CPJ that he later had a T-shirt printed with the word “press” on the front and back and received a press pass from the Portland Mercury. He couldn't be reached for further comment about the incident.

The ACLU class-action complaint said that during the May 31 incident, Lewis-Rolland was “unmistakably present in a journalistic capacity” since he was carrying a “large Nikon D850 camera with a 70-200mm lens and a flash.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists being assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd-control ammunition or tear gas, or having their equipment damaged while covering protests across the country. Find these incidents here.

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

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