U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Photojournalist sprayed with chemical irritants during Portland protest

Incident Details

Date of Incident
October 17, 2020
Portland, Oregon


Was the journalist targeted?
October 17, 2020

Photojournalist Cole Howard said he was sprayed with chemical irritants by law enforcement officers during a protest at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Portland, Oregon, on Oct. 17, 2020.

Racial justice protests had been held regularly in Portland since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Several protests in the city have targeted federal government buildings, and on the evening of Oct. 17, protesters marched on the ICE building in South Portland.

Howard told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker he was following the crowd that evening when it arrived at the ICE building. He said protesters were attempting to tie balloons to the gate of the facility when federal agents moved in to confront them.

“This one specific officer had a can of mace and unloaded it into my face,” he said. “He aimed at me and then he aimed over. So it wasn’t like I was the only one who was hit in that moment.”

But he said it was definitely a direct blast, even though he was wearing press credentials, including a big press badge on his body armor and another on his backpack.

“I was very obviously press,” he added.

Howard captured the moment the officer sprayed him in a photo.

A video shot by journalist Justin Yau and uploaded at 9:09 p.m. showed Howard getting sprayed in the face with a chemical agent at close range as he tried to take photos.

Howard had a gas mask with him, but wasn’t anticipating getting hit with a chemical agent at that point and wasn’t wearing it. After being helped to safety about a block away, he said it took him 10-to-15 minutes to regain vision that was good enough for him to work. He said his skin burned for the next day.

“I always feel like my eyes are kind of foggy after that for a while,” he said. “But I don’t know if that’s something that’s proven on paper or just me feeling disoriented.”

Howard feels that he was targeted initially by the officer, but that they changed their aim when they realized aiming at a journalist “wasn’t going to look good on paper.”

The Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond to a request for comment on the incidents from the Tracker. ICE, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security, responded by telling the Tracker to contact the Department of Homeland Security.

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.

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