U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Reporter falls while covering protest after officer removes her walker, camera

Incident Details

Date of Incident
August 23, 2020
Location
Portland, Oregon
Status of Seized Equipment
Returned in full
Search Warrant Obtained
No
Actor who seized equipment
Law enforcement

Assault

Was the journalist targeted?
No
SCREENSHOT

Footage from livestreamer Eric Greatwood shows reporter Heather Van Wilde, bottom left in pink helmet, having fallen after an officer pulled her walker away from her during a protest in Portland, Oregon, in August 2020.

— SCREENSHOT
August 23, 2020

Independent journalist Heather Van Wilde was documenting protests in Portland, Oregon, on Aug. 23, 2020, when a police officer briefly seized her walker and the camera attached to it, resulting in a fall that caused injuries and exposure to tear gas.

Van Wilde, who publishes her journalism on Raindrop Works, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker she was documenting one of the many nightly protests held in the city following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis on May 25.

The Tracker documented assaults, arrests and other incidents involving journalists covering protests in response to police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement across the country.

Law enforcement officers in Portland had 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 the city to agree to a preliminary injunction in July to not arrest, harm or impede the work of journalists or legal observers of the protests.

Van Wilde has fibromyalgia, vertigo and a form of traumatic arthritis, and as a result must use a walker to ensure her safety and mobility, according to a declaration in support of a separate lawsuit against the city and law enforcement officials.

She told the Tracker that she was covering demonstrations outside of the Portland Police Bureau’s North Precinct, and positioned herself at the steps of the Boys & Girls Club nearby in order to position herself and her walker off the sidewalk and out of the way of other press, protesters and police.

According to her declaration, Van Wilde continued to document from that position, with a DSLR camera around her neck and an action camera mounted on her walker using an eight-foot selfie stick until approximately 11:36 p.m., when a crowd of protesters and police ran past.

“I heard the tenor of the crowd change, and when I looked up everyone was running past and three cops were coming in my direction,” Van Wilde told the Tracker. “One of them yelled at me to move. I was wearing my distinctive press gear and I said I was press, which they should have known exempted me from the dispersal order.”

She confirmed to the Tracker that she was wearing a press pass around her neck as well as a bright pink hard hat with ‘PRESS’ printed on the left and right sides, and that she had no doubt the officer was aware that she was a member of the press.

“[The officer] was gesturing sort of a ‘go away’ gesture, which I took to mean that he didn’t care that I was press and still wanted me to go,” Van WIlde said. “Then he grabbed my walker, which was behind a handrail and wasn’t blocking his path or anything.”

As Van Wilde attempted to retrieve her walker so she could continue reporting, she told the Tracker she fell to the ground, breaking the seal on her gas mask and exposing her to the chemical irritants in the air. She found out later that the officer had moved the walker 10 to 15 feet away from her, also causing her camera to fall.

“Upon review of footage from other journalists on the ground that night, it appears that I was the only press member targeted for dispersal,” her declaration states. “Several press members were within arms-reach of police officers, and rarely were they asked to step back, much less told to leave or physically engaged with.”

Van Wilde told the Tracker she received basic aid from street medics at the scene after another journalist helped her stand and helped her retrieve her walker and camera. She went to a hospital three or four days after the incident for ongoing pain in her left shoulder and leg, as well as respiratory issues.

“I’ve definitely been a lot more anxious and fearful being around cops, to the point where, I think, since then I’ve only filmed one protest where there was any kind of law enforcement anticipated. And that one, I stayed so far back from the event that basically my footage was useless,” Van Wilde said. “So I ended up having to pivot everything I do to avoid protest coverage, which is still ongoing.”

The Portland Police Bureau has said it wouldn't comment on incidents involving journalists covering the protests, citing ongoing litigation.

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