Photojournalist Nathan Howard was hit by projectiles fired by federal law enforcement officials in the early hours of July 20, 2020, while he was covering protests in Portland, Oregon.
Howard was hit by pepper balls while 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. Howard 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 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.
The Department of Homeland Security, which has coordinated the federal presence in Portland, didn’t respond to a request for comment.