Independent journalist Garrison Davis said federal law enforcement officers shot crowd-control munitions at him on two different occasions on July 17, 2020, while he was covering protests outside a federal building in downtown Portland, Oregon.
The Portland-based journalist 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 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.
In the early hours of July 17, Davis was filming federal agents returning to the building, which houses the local offices of the Internal Revenue Service and other federal departments. “They just started shooting at the press with mainly pepper bullets because we could see them breaking on the fence,” Davis told the Tracker, referring to the fence that was in place to prevent protesters from entering the closed city parks.
At 1:07 a.m., Davis tweeted a video showing officers shooting pepper balls towards him and other journalists from across the intersection of Southwest Madison Street and Southwest Third Avenue. “DHS shooting at press. There were no protesters behind me. I have press on my helmet and am holding out my press pass,” he wrote in the post. Davis told the Tracker that none of the pepper balls made direct contact with him, but landed around him.
Later, when Davis returned to the same area to cover that evening’s protests, federal agents staged at the federal building fired on the crowd. A pepper grenade hit his hand and the iPhone he was using as a camera, he told the Tracker. One of his fingers was bloodied, and he was coated in pepper dust, as Davis documented in a video he tweeted at 10:17 p.m.
Davis said his phone was covered in pepper dust, which became activated when his hands got sweaty. “So that was awful and I had to get medical care because it was really bad,” he said. “It took multiple days to wash off all the pepper dust.”
Given the size of the crowd, Davis doesn’t believe he was targeted as press in that instance. A member of the Portland Press Corps that uses the group’s Twitter handle @45thabsurdist was also affected by the grenade and posted footage of when it hit.
“It was an explosion that covered @hungrybowtie and me with a powder that is fine until it contacted sweat or water which is when it started burning. Stay away from those,” wrote @45thabsurdist in a follow-up tweet, referring to Davis’ Twitter handle.
The Department of Homeland Security, which has coordinated the federal presence in Portland, didn’t respond to a request for comment.