East County Magazine photojournalist Henri Migala was shot with pepper balls on two occasions while covering protests in La Mesa, California, on May 30, 2020.
Protests that began in Minnesota on May 26 have spread across the country, sparked by a video showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest the day before. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
Migala told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he was photographing demonstrations near the La Mesa police station at around 6:20 p.m., having received word that officers had begun using tear gas on demonstrators.
In an account for the magazine, Migala wrote that when he reached the station, the standoff between police and protesters was well underway. The tear gas in the air caused his eyes to burn. Migala worked his way toward the south side of the station and crossed the street to distance himself from the protesters.
“I was wearing a bright yellow safety vest with my ‘MEDIA’ badge on the front,” Migala wrote. “I stood alone, away from any of the protesters so that I wouldn’t be mistaken for one of them. But despite standing there, alone, for about 20 minutes, I was shot with a pepper spray paintball in the leg.”
Migala told the Tracker that the pepper ball hit his right thigh, leaving a large amount of the chemical irritant powder on his leg.
Police continued to engage with protesters over the next hour, he said, firing various crowd control munitions to disperse the demonstrators.
“I had been there for so long that my back started hurting,” Migala said. “So, I sat on the curb in front of the postal office across the street from the police station, pretty far from the main demonstrators.”
As he sat there, police suddenly fired pepper balls at him again, striking him an additional two to four times, he said.
“One of the pellets exploded and a bunch of the powder went into my nose, my mouth and in my eyes,” he said. “I was instantly incapacitated.”
Migala said a couple of young women were able to lead him to safety. One woman held his camera, glasses and hat as the other rinsed out his eyes for at least five minutes.
He added that the powder was still covering his respirator mask, face, clothes and beard when he got to his car, and caused him significant difficulty breathing. The following day, some powder residue still covered his camera, and when he attempted to brush it off, his eyes watered and became irritated.
“Just molecules of that stuff is enough to irritate your eyes with burning pain,” he said.
Migala told the Tracker and wrote about a second journalist who was also struck with a projectile — believed to have been a rubber bullet — while covering the protests that day. The Tracker was unable to identify the journalist as of press time.
East County Magazine Editor Miriam Raftery told the Tracker that they don’t know for sure that Migala was intentionally targeted. ”It seems to me they should have been able to see that he was media,” she said.
The La Mesa Police Department did not respond to phone requests for comment.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or had their equipment damaged while covering protests across the country related to the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Find all of these cases here.