Freelance photojournalist Nathan Howard was hit twice with pepper balls fired by federal agents while he was covering a protest in Portland, Oregon, in the early hours of July 23, 2020.
Protests had been held in Portland on almost a nightly basis since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting assaults, arrests and other incidents involving journalists covering BLM protests across the country.
The Portland protests had grown more intense as the presence of federal law enforcement increased in early July. A temporary restraining order on July 2 that barred the Portland police from harming or impeding journalists wasn’t expanded to include federal agents until July 23. Howard testified about another incident to support the class action lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon, that led to the TRO.
Thousands were protesting in downtown Portland on the evening of July 22, when Mayor Ted Wheeler attended and was hit with tear gas alongside demonstrators, ABC News reported. Protesters continued to demonstrate outside the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse past midnight, with the Portland police declaring an “unlawful assembly” at around 12:30 a.m.
Howard was outside the courthouse sometime between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. when a protester who had breached a metal fence surrounding the federal building was injured, he told the Tracker. As two other protesters carried him out, Howard said, federal officers came out of the building to arrest a woman who was inside the fence.
Howard, who was on assignment for Getty Images, said he ran up to photograph the arrest. As he was taking pictures, he said, agents shot him with pepper balls through the fence. After briefly backing away from the fence, he approached again to continue taking photos and was hit with a second burst of pepper balls.
In a video posted on Twitter by photojournalist Justin Yau at 1:34 a.m., Howard, wearing jeans and a green shirt, can be seen approaching the fence and looking through his camera. About 12 seconds into the video, Howard steps back as a burst of white powder comes through the fence. When he approaches again, more powder bursts through.
The impact of the pepper balls left him with welts and cuts on his forearms, which were exposed, and also caused him to cough.
“The way that it works when they’ve got the fence up is they fire through it and it shreds the pepper balls as it goes through, so they kind of like shrapnel into you,” he told the Tracker, adding that his equipment wasn’t damaged.
While Howard was wearing press identification at the time, he said he doesn’t think he was targeted as press.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which has coordinated the federal presence in Portland, didn’t respond to a request for comment about the incidents.