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Portland: While reporting on protests in the city, journalists tear gassed, threatened

June 1, 2020

George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, ignited a sweeping assembly of protesters across the United States — and the globe — a staggering, monthslong outcry for police reform and racial justice. In many moments peaceful, in many others bracingly violent, journalists of all stripes took to documenting these demonstrations. At times, to do the job meant to expose oneself to the effects of riot-control agents, to face harassment from individuals or law enforcement officials, to fear for your safety or have your reporting interrupted.

In Portland, Oregon, the protests have been particularly acute, not only in their duration, but also their intensity. Not coincidentally, the journalists who’ve documented the unfolding events have seemingly faced a heightened level of risk, most notably in their interactions with local and federal law enforcement. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon filed a class-action lawsuit in June “on behalf of journalists and legal observers who were targeted and attacked by the police while documenting protests.” The suit led to an agreement by the Portland Police Bureau in July not to arrest or harm any journalists or legal observers of the protests or impede their work. A judge later expanded the ban to federal officers, who were a heavy presence in the city until Oregon Governor Kate Brown negotiated a phased withdrawal with the Trump administration in late July. While an appeals court later issued a temporary stay on that order, the federal ban was reinstated in early October.

Below is a roundup of incidents involving journalists in Portland getting tear-gassed, threatened or somehow impeded in their work in the city beginning summer of 2020.

A full accounting of incidents in which members of the press have been assaulted, arrested or had their equipment damaged while covering protests across the nation can be found here. To learn more about how the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents and categorizes violations of press freedom, visit pressfreedomtracker.us.

June 2020

June 2, 2020

  • According to a live blog from Portland Mercury, the city’s alt-weekly, that began around 6 p.m. and closed at 12:15 a.m. with the note “Due to the dangerous situation and loss of control exhibited by the Portland Police, we have pulled our reporters off the street for the night. It’s simply too dangerous for them to be out there right now. We’ll continue to monitor the situation and update you tomorrow,” several journalists were struck with tear gas while covering protests, including the Mercury’s two on-the-ground reporters that evening, Alex Zielinski and Blair Stenvick. Both Zielinski and Stenvick confirmed the gassing on their individual Twitter accounts. Their experience that evening was also cited in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Oregon, which stated: “Ms. Zielinski was in the middle of the crowd, while Stenvick was towards the back. Neither was near the fence surrounding the Justice Center. […] The police issued a warning to protesters to stay away from the fence. To underscore the point, officers on the other side of the fence shot tear gas at protesters near the fence. Had officers merely shot gas at protesters closest to the fence, the reporters might not have been injured. However, the police had decided to create a gas trap by shooting tear gas from the rear and sides of the crowd as well. This gas trap, by design, snared not only protesters agitating near the fence, but many other peaceful protesters far from the fence with no desire to get involved. And, of course, it also caught all three reporters, as well as Plaintiff [Kat] Mahoney. Because they had been inundated with tear gas, neither Ms. Zielinski nor Stenvick was able to report on the protests for the rest of the night.” A freelance photojournalist and one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU’s suit, stated in a declaration: “On June 2, I was reporting on the protests when the police used tear gas in the area near me. My throat locked up and I became unable to see. I needed assistance to leave the area and immediately sought medical attention.” The journalist requested anonymity for their safety and privacy.

June 5, 2020

  • A stringer for iHeartRadio was nearly rammed by a red pickup truck that drove through a crowd of protesters around 1:30 a.m. When the stringer, who has asked to remain anonymous, tried to capture the truck’s license plate, police threatened her with crowd-control weapons, according to the ACLU’s class-action lawsuit. Portland-based journalist Robert Evans, a reporter for investigative news site Bellingcat and host of a podcast for iHeartMedia, told the Tracker that the stringer was marked as press, but he didn’t know whether she was targeted for being a journalist because it was dark. “I can’t know if the people who targeted her did so because they thought she was press or because they thought she was a protester, but she felt targeted by the person in the vehicle certainly,” said Evans, who wasn’t with her at the time of the incident. The truck and its driver haven’t been identified.

June 7, 2020

  • Sometime after midnight, photojournalist Alex Milan Tracy was threatened with arrest while filming the arrest of two people after a protest at Chapman Square downtown had been broken up. In a video captured and tweeted by Tracy, he can be heard clearly stating that he is press and that he is retreating from the area. “Despite being a good distance away, the police threatened to arrest me simply for filming them,” Tracy said in a declaration for the ACLU lawsuit that led to the PPB’s agreement not to arrest or harm journalists or legal observers. “I immediately held up my credentials and one of my two cameras clearly stating that I was press as I moved back and complied with their orders.”

June 16, 2020

  • Oregon Public Broadcasting journalists Sergio Olmos and Jonathan Levinson were threatened with arrest while covering police dispersing a protest outside the Multnomah County Justice Center that had been declared an unlawful assembly. They were filming a small group of protesters being herded down a street by police when an officer told them they had to leave the area even if they had press credentials. In a video posted on Twitter by Olmos, when Levinson responds, “We’re moving,” the officer says, “You’ve been given warnings, so if you don’t move faster, you’re gonna go to jail.” Soon after, the police prevented Levinson from recording or reporting on an arrest, according to a declaration he provided for the ACLU lawsuit against the PPB.
  • Tracy was also threatened with arrest while filming the same arrest that Levinson was prevented from covering. In his own declaration for the ACLU lawsuit against the PPB, Tracy said he was threatened by an officer he identified as Ken Le “after a few officers charged ahead out of formation to make arrests” in the early hours of the day. In a video captured and tweeted by Tracy, the officer can be heard saying, “Get out of here now or you’re going to go to jail, you understand? I don’t care if you’re press.” After some additional back-and-forth, Tracy can be heard saying, “Please threaten me one more time. I’m sure the ACLU would love to see this,” before complying and backing away. When asked about the incident, Sergeant Kevin Allen of the PPB told the Tracker that “there is an active civil lawsuit, so I cannot comment on any action involving journalists.”

July 2020

July 18, 2020

  • Federal law enforcement officers fired tear gas and flash-bangs toward independent videojournalist Mason Lake. At around 2:30 a.m., Lake was standing with a group of other journalists he didn’t know at Southwest Madison Street between Southwest Third and Fourth avenues downtown, across from the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse and Multnomah County Justice Center. A video of the incident shows journalists, including Lake, standing and filming while tear gas canisters and flash-bang grenades land on the street. Another video, posted by Lake on Twitter, shows a group of federal officers turning onto Southwest Madison Street from Southwest Third Avenue as protesters hurry away from them. Then, flash-bang grenades go off and tear gas spreads on the street. Lake said he felt targeted by the officers because he was clearly marked as a member of the press, with the word “press” also written on his helmet, and was at the front of the demonstration with no protesters close to him. “They were attacking press pretty openly,” he said.
  • Olmos said he was unlawfully ordered to disperse by police who were breaking up a protest that began at the Justice Center, despite the PPB agreeing in the ACLU lawsuit not to impede journalists from covering demonstrations. At 2:38 a.m., Olmos tweeted that an “officer told me to ‘go home’ another said ‘get the fuck out’, I pointed to my credentials and said ‘press’, the officer said ‘I don’t care.’ But they drove off without saying anything else.”
  • Journalists Griffin Malone and Cory Elia were threatened by a PPB officer while filming an arrest that night. Elia, an editor at Village Portland and host of a KBOO podcast, told the Tracker that he and about a dozen other legal observers and reporters were following a police line from at least 20 feet behind as they dispersed protesters west and north from Southwest Salmon Street and Southwest Third Avenue, a block from the Justice Center. As the officers reached the north side of Pioneer Square, an officer approached the press, raised his pepper spray can and ordered them not to follow or approach. “These threats by him triggered a response from a few people in that group, including myself, to say that we were not a threat to them and just observing,” Elia said. Malone, a freelance journalist, tweeted about the incident at 3:12 a.m., saying, “Officers shove protester who’s trying to leave. Then threatened @TheRealCoryElia, me, and 10+ other legal observers / press for filming.” The accompanying video shows a PPB officer pushing a protester. Someone off camera says, “Don’t hit him, don’t you hit him. Don’t you fucking hit him.” After an officer turns around and says, “Stay off my line,” the person off camera responds, “Yeah, we’ll stay off your line if you don’t fucking hit him.”
  • Shortly after that incident, Malone was separated from the group. As he attempted to catch up, an officer approached him. “I yelled ‘Press!’ and he yelled ‘Nope!’ and then something else, and he just started running at me,” Malone told the Tracker, adding that he ran half a block around a corner to get away. He tweeted about the incident at 3:16 a.m., saying, “Pretty sure this isn’t legal.”

August 2020

Aug. 1, 2020

  • Portland-based independent journalist Garrison Davis was covering the dispersal of a protest from the Penumbra Kelly Building on East Burnside Street after an unlawful assembly was declared. Continuing to film as police pressured the crowd through residential streets, Davis’ camera goes askew as an officer grabs his arm. “As I’m walking on the sidewalk, holding my press pass, an officer grabs my arm. I decide to run,” Davis tweeted at 10:40 p.m. After the camera stabilizes, he can be heard yelling, “Press! Federal injunction!” Shortly after, when the police form a riot line, one of them yells at Davis, “Keep moving!” In a video he tweeted, Davis can be heard citing the temporary restraining order that resulted from the ACLU lawsuit and eventually led to the PPB agreement not to harm or impede journalists.
  • A little later that evening, an officer approached Davis and Evans. “If you get any closer than this, I’m going to pepper-spray you,” the officer can be heard saying in a video that Davis tweeted at 11:12 p.m. He then instructed Davis and Evans not to come up behind the officers as the police line advanced. “They walked up behind us and said if you approach police you’re going to be sprayed,” Davis told the Tracker. Minutes later, Davis and Evans witnessed journalist Jake Johnson get shoved and maced by police.

Aug. 5, 2020

  • Davis and Evans said they were unlawfully ordered by police to disperse following a protest at the East Precinct that was declared an unlawful assembly, despite the PPB agreement. Davis told the Tracker that after the police dispersed the protesters, they “held the line” in a residential street with no sidewalk and told the press to get off the street. In a video tweeted by Evans around 11 p.m., he can be heard referring to the temporary restraining order, saying, “The TRO does not give you the right to disperse us from the street, sir.” In footage that Evans captured a moment earlier, an officer can be heard saying, “It’s not a dispersal because it’s closed.” In the accompanying tweet, Evans says, “Here we see, from a bit earlier, how the police tried to justify their illegal dispersal. They claim it is NOT a dispersal, but a road closure. So they can legally force journalists off. I do not think this would hold up in court. Which is probably why they left.” Davis told the Tracker that a resident told the press and protesters to stay off his lawn, adding that the police were laughing “because they’re telling people to stay on the lawn, but they’re also saying if you go on the lawn you’ll be arrested.”

Aug. 6, 2020

  • Freelance journalist Laura Jedeed, a contributor to Willamette Week and Portland Monthly, said Portland police threatened to arrest her and other journalists while she was covering the same protest as Davis and Evans at the East Precinct. After the police fired tear gas at demonstrators outside the center shortly after midnight, protesters moved a few blocks away, Jedeed told the Tracker. She said that at around 12:40 a.m., the police “pulled up in a riot van and pointed at everybody and said, ‘You’re all under arrest.’” However, nobody was arrested, and the police soon drove away, said Jedeed, who tweeted about the incident.

Aug. 7, 2020

  • The Portland police announced just after midnight on Aug. 6 that they were closing off a quarter-mile stretch of Southeast 106th Avenue, stretching between Southeast Washington Street and Southeast Cherry Blossom Drive, including to members of the press. The announcement, tweeted by the PPB at 12:37 a.m., said, “Any persons including members of the press who violate this order will be subject to arrest.” It cited the City of Portland Code 14C.30.010, “Authority to Restrict Access to Certain Areas.” But the code also states that “in consideration of the law enforcement and emergency services needs involved, provision shall be made for reasonable access to such areas by members of the media for the purpose of news gathering and reporting.” In a video from the area posted by Malone on Twitter at the same time, the announcement could be heard. “Is this legal?” he asks in the tweet.

Aug. 12, 2020

  • Freelance journalist Alissa Azar said she was maced while covering a protest downtown near the Multnomah County Justice Center and the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse. “Just got maced,” Azar posted on Twitter just past midnight. About an hour later, she tweeted that her face still burned from the mace. While Azar wrote that she wasn’t sure who was responsible for the macing, another journalist who goes by the name India H. tweeted that a protester maced them. “It was a protestor who was macing the cops. We got caught in it,” India H. said in the post. Azar didn’t respond to the Tracker’s inquiries for more information on this incident.

Aug. 14, 2020

  • Portland-based freelance journalist Suzette Smith said she was blocked by police from covering a protest, despite the PPB agreement. Smith, a former editor for the Portland Mercury, tweeted around 9:45 p.m.: “Just tried to walk up to the group of protesters and a police officer blocked me from covering, saying ‘M’am, I’m not having this conversation. For the last eight weeks I’ve had press throwing things at me and calling me names. So you will have to go around the block.’” Smith continued to cover the demonstrations throughout the night and into the next morning, documenting protesters as they moved through North Portland and the police declared an unlawful assembly. Around 10:20 p.m., she tweeted, “This press person was just hit with a potato, thrown by protesters,” sharing the image of a broken potato. Half an hour later, she posted a video of police officers telling journalists to “back up” at least five feet as they arrested someone. “With the PPB having just said they’ll observe the TRO, press are allowed to observe this arrest until one officer tells the other to keep them back,” she wrote in the tweet, referring to the temporary restraining order that resulted from the ACLU suit.

Aug. 15, 2020

  • A Portland-area photo and video journalist who works under the name Daniel V. Media filmed police officers pushing journalists covering the protests and telling them to get back. Around 8:40 a.m. the next morning, he posted some of the footage in a tweet that read: “Portland police tell press that talking to officers is illegally engaging them. They shove press for not being on the sidewalk even though they were, they then tell them to ‘be press’ on a different sidewalk. They assaulted legal observers and press following orders all night.” The accompanying clip shows officers pushing journalists on two separate occasions.

Aug. 18, 2020

  • Independent journalist Cata Gaitán was covering a protest at the Multnomah County Building. After protesters threw rocks into the building and started a fire in one of the offices, the Portland police declared a riot and began clearing protesters from the area. Around 11:05 p.m., Gaitán posted footage on Twitter of what she described as “Getting chased by Portland police.” Later that night, she posted a video of police officers threatening to arrest her if she doesn’t get on the sidewalk. An officer can be heard saying to Gaitán, “If you’re in the street again, you will go to jail. Period.” In the accompanying text, she wrote: “A different officer pulls on my left arm as I walk forward, then says: ‘Stay on the sidewalk.’”

Aug. 19, 2020

  • Evans was covering a protest that began near the South Waterfront, where Portland police and what he believed to be Special Response Team officers were dispersing protesters from an ICE facility. In a video Evans posted on Twitter at 11:14 p.m., an announcement can be heard that a riot had been declared and that press would have to leave along with the protesters. After briefly leaving the area, the protesters marched back, and another riot was declared. Evans tweeted audio of the announcement: “Failure to comply with this order may subject you to citation or arrest, and may subject you to the use of tear gas, crowd control agents and/or impact weapons.” In the post, he said that ordering press to disperse is “a violation of the Federal Restraining Order.”

Aug. 22, 2020 - Aug. 23, 2020

  • Brendan Gutenschwager, an independent videographer, was covering afternoon clashes downtown between right-wing groups including the Proud Boys and counterprotesters who support the Black Lives Matter movement. As the confrontation outside the Multnomah County Justice Center turned violent, he documented on Twitter the two sides throwing smoke bombs and spraying each other with mace and pepper spray. “I’ve never had so much mace in my eyes in my life. Rough afternoon in Portland,” Gutenschwager tweeted around 1:45 p.m. “My face burns. I think I prefer the tear gas,” he continued about 40 minutes later, adding in another post that his clothes “got splattered with paint.”
  • Later that evening, Gutenschwager was filming again as BLM protesters converged on the Penumbra Kelly Building in southeast Portland. A little after midnight, police declared a riot and started clearing the area. Around 1 a.m., he posted footage showing his camera going askew as he was briefly knocked down, injuring his hand, during a confrontation between protesters and police. Then, around 1:25 a.m., he tweeted: “Police make another arrest, then run up on press trying to film.” In the accompanying footage, an officer can be seen running at someone in a vest marked “press” and aming a pepper spray canister at him, saying, “Get out of the street.”

September 2020

Sept. 5, 2020

  • Davis was covering law enforcement officers disperse a crowd of protesters that had intended to march to the East Precinct. The police announced that the demonstration wouldn’t be able to proceed, Davis tweeted shortly after 9 p.m., and a riot was soon declared. As police were trying to clear protesters from a street near Ventura Park a couple of hours later, a smoke grenade landed within a group of fellow journalists where Davis was filming. He tweeted a video of the incident around 11:30 p.m., though it’s unclear who threw the grenade or whether the press was being targeted due to the amount of smoke. Davis reported that there was a mix of PPB and Oregon State Troopers dispersing the crowd.

Sept. 6, 2020

  • In the early morning hours, independent journalist Jake Johnson was harassed by police officers and threatened with arrest as he tried to comply with their orders to quickly disperse, having been hampered by a previous injury incurred when an officer shoved him onto the hood of a car. Johnson told the Tracker that protesters were demonstrating in the southwest corner of Ventura Park when police formed a line and told everyone to disperse to the northeast. Johnson stayed to film arrests, but police officers ordered him to quickly leave the area, despite the PPB agreement. “I’m pretty clearly labeled and in a well-lit area,” said Johnson, who wears a neon reflective vest labeled “press” in addition to a helmet labeled “press” on five sides. Footage Johnson posted on Twitter shows police officers ordering him repeatedly to disperse more quickly. “If I catch you, you’re going to jail,” says one officer. In the interview, Johnson called the PPB’s decision to pursue press and protesters through dark sections of the park a “scandalous trap.”

Sept. 23, 2020

  • Davis was covering protests that broke out in Portland after a Kentucky grand jury decided to indict only one officer in the March shooting death of Breonna Taylor for wanton endangerment, while no officers faced charges for the killing itself. After a demonstration outside the Multnomah County Justice Center was declared a riot, both the Portland police and federal agents emerged to disperse the crowds. When PPB officers were getting ready to depart on the side of police vans, they ordered Davis and several other journalists present to disperse as well, despite the PPB agreeing in the ACLU lawsuit not to impede journalists. Around midnight, Davis tweeted a video of PPB officers telling the press to move back 30 feet from their vehicle. “We are on the sidewalk against a building,” Davis said in the accompanying caption. “Do you see 30 feet of room here for us to go?” asks someone off camera. “Then go somewhere else. Use your brain,” an officer says.

Information in this roundup was gathered from published social media and news reports as well as interviews where noted. To read similar incidents from other days of national protests also in this category, go here.

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

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