Portland journalist arrested, his equipment damaged and seized

July 1, 2020

Freelance journalist Justin Yau was arrested on July 1, 2020, while filming the arrest of a protester in northeast Portland, Oregon.

Yau, a student at the University of Portland whose work has been featured by the Daily Mail and The New York Times, was 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 following 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.

Law enforcement officers in Portland have targeted journalists since the start of nightly demonstrations in late May, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon. Yau is a plaintiff in the suit, which led to a U.S. District Court judge issuing a temporary restraining order the day after his arrest that barred police from arresting or harming journalists. The city later agreed to a preliminary injunction in July to not arrest, harm or impede the work of journalists or legal observers of the protests.

In the early hours of July 1, Yau was following a group of protesters moving toward the North Precinct of the Portland Police Bureau. The police had earlier declared a riot and dispersed the protesters shortly after 10 p.m., and the group had reassembled.

Yau told the Tracker that the crowd he was following made visual contact with a police riot line at around 12:45 a.m. at the intersection of Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Northeast Killingsworth Street. Police pushed the crowd westward. “I was about like 30 feet away from the police line and I was walking away following instructions and I was on the sidewalk matching their pace,” said Yau.

As they moved down Killingsworth toward Northeast Mallory Avenue, Yau observed a protester walking slowly with their hands up. Then he heard police warn the protester to get out of the street faster, followed by an order to arrest them. He began to film the arrest on his cell phone. But when the police charged forward, Yau didn’t initially realize they were taking him into custody as well.

Yau was tackled from his right side and fell on his left side on top of his camera and the gimbal he used to stabilize it. His phone flew out of his hands and was permanently damaged, though still working. “I just went limp and didn’t say anything,” he told the Tracker.

Freelance photojournalist Alex Milan Tracy captured video of Yau’s arrest. The video shows Yau being cuffed on the ground. “The person that you are arresting clearly is identified as press from his helmet,” Tracy could be heard telling the officers, who didn’t respond. “Why are you arresting a member of the press?”

In addition to wearing a helmet marked as “press,” Yau said he had a glow vest attached to a backpack labeled “press.” He was also wearing neutral colors to distinguish him from protesters, who are often in all black.

Tracy also captured footage of one of the arresting officers putting his backpack in a bag and escorting him into a police van. The restraining order required the police “to return any seized equipment or press passes immediately upon release of a person from custody,” but Yau’s equipment was not returned until July 6, according to the ACLU claim.

Yau appears to be limping in the second video from the impact of landing on his knee during the arrest. “My left knee was kind of in a lot of pain throughout booking, I couldn’t sleep,” he told the Tracker.

The reason given for Yau’s arrest was felony riot and interfering with a peace officer — this resulted in a no-complaint charge after the district attorney decided not to press charges.

Yau believes he was targeted for being press, a view shared by Tracy, who referenced Yau’s arrest in a declaration for the ACLU suit. “It seemed to me that the police were specifically targeting and retaliating against reporters for seeking to enforce out First Amendment protections,” said Tracy.

The PPB has said it wouldn't comment on incidents involving journalists covering the protests, citing continuing litigation in the ACLU case.

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

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