U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Public radio reporters shot with pepper balls while covering Louisville protests

Incident Details

Date of Incident
May 31, 2020


Was the journalist targeted?
May 31, 2020

Ryland Barton, the statehouse bureau chief for WFPL, was struck with pepper balls while covering protests in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 31, 2020.

The protests were sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the March 13 death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear had deployed the National Guard to the city a day earlier, and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer instituted a citywide curfew, to begin at 9 p.m., ahead of the May 31 protests, according to NPR affiliate WFPL. It was the first time the National Guard had patrolled the streets in Louisville since 1975.

Just after 7:30 p.m. Barton tweeted that police had surrounded three-fourths of Jefferson Square Park, setting up a perimeter from which officers shot tear gas at protesters. Barton tweeted that there were also flash-bang grenades and pepper balls deployed at the park. The crowd-control devices were deployed from the southwest corner of Liberty and Sixth streets as police moved forward, forcing protesters through the fog, according to WFPL.

In one tweet, Barton said he had been struck with pepper balls and gassed, and he described how police mocked him when he and his public radio colleague Jess Clark put their hands up.

Barton “was struck in the leg with at least one pepper ball. We were crossing a street blockaded by a line of police in riot gear and they fired pepper balls at us,” his colleague Clark, education reporter for WFPL, told the U.S. Press Freedom tracker in an email. Barton couldn’t be reached for comment.

“We were alone, not in a group... and I was carrying a boom mic — so it seems unlikely they didn't realize we were press,” Clark said.

Just after 10 p.m., an hour past curfew, Barton tweeted a picture that he said showed officers shooting crowd-control munitions. He also tweeted a video showing officers shooting pepper balls in the direction of the journalists, noting that both times the firing seemed to be without cause:

Over the course of the night, dozens were arrested according to a police spokesperson.

The Louisville Metro Police Department didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd-control ammunition or tear gas or who had their equipment damaged in the course of reporting. Find all incidents related to Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality protests here.

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