Police knock photojournalist to the ground, damaging camera lens, during Portland protest

September 26, 2020

Independent photojournalist John Rudoff was shoved to the ground by police while he was photographing an arrest during a protest in Portland, Oregon, late on Sept. 26, 2020.

Rudoff, whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Nation and Rolling Stone, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he hit the ground “so hard that my teeth hurt” and that his camera lens was significantly damaged.

Rudoff was documenting one of the many protests that had been ongoing for months in downtown Portland and across the U.S. in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25. The Tracker is documenting assaults, arrests and other incidents involving journalists covering protests across the country.

Law enforcement officers in Portland have targeted journalists since the outbreak of the demonstrations, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon. The ACLU suit led to a temporary restraining order, and later a preliminary injunction, barring the Portland Police Bureau from harming or impeding journalists. Rudoff is a plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit.

Earlier in the day on Sept. 26, a rally organized by the Proud Boys far-right extremist group drew some 800 people to Portland, while at least 1,000 counter-protesters gathered nearby, The Oregonian reported. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had declared a state of emergency ahead of the rally, putting officers from the Portland Police Bureau, Oregon State Police and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office under a unified command. After those protests ended, left-leaning demonstrators gathered downtown later that night, according to The Oregonian, and police declared an “unlawful assembly” around 11:40 p.m.

Rudoff told the Tracker that he was following a crowd of protesters around 11:45 p.m. when several police officers ran up the sidewalk and tackled a demonstrator. Rudoff crossed the street and ran to document the arrest, along with several other journalists and photographers.

When Rudoff started taking photographs, standing at least 10 feet back, two officers put their hands on him and pushed him backwards, he said. He didn’t have time to put a foot back to catch his balance, and he landed on his right hip and the right side of his back. The right side of his head got slammed to the ground, he said.

“All the teeth in my mouth hurt from the impact of my helmet on the sidewalk,” he said.

Video posted on Twitter at midnight by Mike Baker of The New York Times shows officers running alongside a wall and tackling an individual to the ground. About 20 seconds into the video, Rudoff, wearing a bright yellow backpack, can be seen standing several yards back from the arrest, holding a camera up to take a photograph. Then two officers approach him, put their hands on his shoulder, and push him to the ground.

Rudoff said he was protected from the impact because he was wearing a helmet and body armor. He continued to work for about 20 more minutes before going home. He didn’t require any medical attention, he said, but was sore for the next few days.

His 24-70mm Canon lens, the shorter of two lenses he had with him that night, was significantly damaged and had to be repaired, he said.

Rudoff said he believes PPB officers pushed him, but that it’s possible it was a state trooper.

He doesn’t know whether he was targeted because he was a member of the press, saying it’s possible he was pushed because he was a civilian approaching a police action. However, he believes it’s more likely he was shoved because he was a clearly marked journalist photographing a violent arrest. “That would be the argument, that I was targeted because I was able to record what they were doing,” he said.

Rudoff noted that he had “press” written on his helmet and body armor, press identification around his neck, and professional-grade cameras.

Attorneys involved with the ACLU suit are aware of the incident on Sept. 26, he said.

The ACLU called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate police treatment of journalists that night, The Oregonian reported. Matt Borden, a lawyer on the ACLU case, was quoted as saying the incident involving Rudoff “violates basic human decency in addition to the Court’s injunction.”

Brown tweeted on Sept. 27 that she asked the individual law enforcement agencies to investigate any allegations about the use of force against members of the press or public. In a statement on behalf of the three agencies, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office said it was aware that video had been taken of several incidents involving force, which would be reviewed to determine whether any officers violated law enforcement policies, according to The Oregonian.

A spokesperson for the PPB declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. A spokesperson for the OSP said they weren’t aware of the incidents.

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

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