Freelance photojournalist Ed Thompson said he was assaulted and threatened with a firearm by an individual while covering a protest in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 22, 2020.
Thompson was covering one of the many protests that broke out across the U.S. in 2020 in response to police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting assaults, arrests and other incidents involving journalists covering protests across the country.
On Sept. 22, protesters demonstrating against police violence and the arrest of a prominent activist marched on the home of Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto in the city’s Point Breeze neighborhood.
Thompson told the Tracker in an interview that as protesters were leaving Peduto’s home, he ran ahead to get better shots of them. As he did, he said, a resident of the neighborhood about a block down from the mayor’s residence began to spray him with a hose. Speaking to the Tracker, Thompson said the man then threw a handful of small rocks at him before charging him and punching his hand. Thompson said the assault pushed his camera into his face but left him uninjured.
Following that altercation, Thompson said the man retreated into his residence before reemerging on his balcony, where he threatened to shoot Thompson and others in the crowd before briefly producing what appeared to be a handgun in a holster.
In video Thompson recorded of the incident, the man can be seen standing on a balcony that had signs hanging from it reading “VOTE TRUMP ALLRED,” “NO DEM COMIE CHAOS” and “ALL USA LIVES MATTER.” Apparently speaking to Thompson, the man says, “Get off my property.” Thompson informs him he is on the sidewalk. Seconds later, the man says, “Get off my grass right now. I’ll shoot you.”
“He’s got a gun! He’s got a handgun!” Thompson can be heard shouting as he backs up.
A video shot by photographer and videographer Dan Lampmann showed the man flash what appears to be a holstered weapon more clearly.
The incident had Thompson scared for the safety of himself and those around him, he told the Tracker.
“If he would have shot, he probably would have hit me,” he said. “I was 20 feet away. Even if he was a bad shot, if he pulled off five or six rounds he probably would have got me. But I was worried about the crowd, too.”
While police officers were nearby, Thompson described their response as “nonchalant” and “real chill.”
Thompson said that the man involved in the incidents had previously harassed protesters on other marches to the mayor’s residence. He said the man, who is white, had at times turned to racial taunts.
A video recorded by independent journalist Christian Snyder and uploaded to Twitter at 9:36 p.m. shows the man standing on the balcony shouting, “I’ll shoot you, you fucking cocksuckers!”
Another video shot by Snyder shows the man being confronted by police while holding a hose and yelling at protesters. He eventually drops the hose and walks away while shouting at the protesters, “If it was up to me, you’d all be dead!”
Thompson is unsure whether he was targeted for being press. Part of him thinks that he was just the closest of the crowd to the man. But given the pro-Donald Trump signs on the man’s balcony, he said he worries that the president’s anti-media rhetoric played a role.
“Who knows, maybe it was because I had a camera. I had three cameras and a badge saying I was a journalist. I can’t say either. You can probably assume both,” he said.
Speaking to WTAE-TV the following day, the man, whom the station identified, claimed he “slipped” and hit Thompson’s camera and did not punch him. A video later posted by Thompson that he says was filmed by Snyder showed the man approaching the photographer and appearing to reach up toward him before Thompson stumbles backward.
In the interview with WTAE-TV, the man said he had a microphone in his hand, not a gun, but did say he had threatened to shoot protesters to “protect myself.” He said he may have “accidentally squirted” protesters with his hose or “maybe the hose had a mind of its own.” He added: “They needed a bath anyway.” During the interview, he wore a “Make America Great Again” hat.
Thompson said police took his information down at the scene and said they would be in touch with him regarding the incident. He said at the time they noted that he had video of the incident.
But “to the date, I haven’t been called by a detective or a police officer yet regarding that case,” he told the Tracker in mid-December, nearly three months after the march.
On Sept. 23, the Pittsburgh Current, where Thompson is a contributing photojournalist, reported that police told the paper that they were “aware of the incident and are investigating.”
Responding to a request for comment from the Tracker, Cara Cruz, a spokesperson for Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Safety said the incident had been investigated by detectives but “after a review of available video, it was determined that no charges would be filed.”