Photojournalists hit with projectiles while covering Portland protest

July 20, 2020

Two freelance photojournalists were hit by projectiles fired by federal law enforcement officials in the early hours of July 20, 2020, while they were covering protests in Portland, Oregon.

Nathan Howard was hit by pepper balls, while Jungho Kim was hit by a pink paint projectile. They were covering one of the many protests that had broken out across the U.S. in response to police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement after the May 25 death of George Floyd. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting assaults, arrests and other incidents involving journalists covering protests across the country.

The Portland protests, held nightly since late May, 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. Both Howard and Kim gave declarations in support of the class action lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon, that led to the TRO.

In the early morning of July 20, Howard was covering federal officers clear protesters from the area outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse, according to the ACLU declaration. One group of officers exited the courthouse and pushed protesters across Chapman Square to Southwest Fourth Avenue. Howard remained in the square to document a second group of federal agents, which then emerged from another federal building two blocks away. At the time, the only other people in Howard’s proximity were journalists, as the protesters had already been dispersed.

When the second line of agents advanced north through the park, some of them turned their attention to Howard, he said in the filing. He held up his National Press Photographers Association press pass and shouted, “I’m press!” Then the agents told him to stay where he was.

After the two groups of officers merged, some agents once again noticed Howard, according to the filing. When he held up his press pass again and repeated that he was press, one of the agents told him to stay where he was. However, another agent fired at least two pepper balls at Howard at close range, he said. Howard then hid behind a tree until he felt safe to continue working.

Howard tweeted about the incident at 12:12 a.m., though he said in the declaration that it may have occurred just before midnight.

He told the Tracker that he had been wearing a puffy jacket, so the initial effect of the pepper ball was a mild sting. But he also experienced the full chemical effects of the projectiles.

Howard, who had been on assignment for ZUMA Press that day, said that he has no doubt that he was targeted. “During the 2020 Portland protests, I have been hit by pepper balls three times. The first two times, they were not obviously targeted at me, so I gave the police the benefit of the doubt. This time was radically different,” he wrote in his declaration.

Meanwhile, Kim was also hit by federal agents while photographing a protest in the same vicinity where Howard was targeted around the same time.

At 12:05 a.m., Kim was standing between Chapman and Lownsdale squares after federal agents had cleared the area and formed a police line, he told the Tracker. He estimates that there were about 50 federal officers in the area, with the closest ones about 20 feet away from him.

“All of a sudden I felt this impact on my chest,” said Kim. “I looked down, and I was covered in pink paint.” He didn’t suffer any bodily harm from the impact, which he attributes his ballistic vest. The last photograph Kim took before he was hit shows a line of dozens of officers ahead of him, too far away to make out any identification.

At 12:20 a.m., Kim tweeted, “Portland Police are targeting journalists, including me (I'm okay, I'm wearing a ballistic vest). Do I look easy to mistake for anything other than press?” He clarified in a later tweet that he thought it was actually federal agents that shot him.

The accompanying photo shows pink paint splattered on the reflective part of Kim’s neon yellow vest, where the word “press” is written in large letters. A press pass is hanging from a lanyard around his neck.

Kim isn’t sure who fired the rounds, but he believes he was targeted for being press. “The fact that I was shot in the chest, basically where it says press, I think that that’s pretty blatant,” he told the Tracker, noting that he was in a well-lit area with no protesters around.

The Department of Homeland Security, which has coordinated the federal presence in Portland, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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

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