Three journalists hit with crowd-control munitions while covering protests in Portland

July 20, 2020

Three journalists said they were hit with crowd-control munitions by federal law enforcement officers while covering protests in Portland, Oregon during the early morning hours of July 20, 2020.

Independent videographer Mason Lake said federal officers hit him nine times with pepper balls, including three times in the head. Cory Elia and Lesley McLam, co-hosts of a KBOO podcast who also work with news site Village Portland, said federal agents threw tear gas canisters toward them at least an hour later. All three said they were clearly identifiable as members of the press.

The Portland-based journalists were filming one of the many protests that broke out in response to police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man. A viral video showed a white police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck during an arrest in Minneapolis. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.

The Portland protests, held nightly since late May, had grown more intense as the presence of federal law enforcement increased in early July.

Around 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. on July 20, Lake was filming from the front lines of a protest near Southwest Salmon Street and Southwest Third Avenue downtown, where the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse is located, he told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Video posted by Lake on Twitter shows federal agents stationed in front of the courthouse advancing on the protestors and shooting munitions. As flashbangs and tear gas canisters go off, a smoking canister can be seen flying back toward the officers.

Lake said that federal officers hit him nine times with pepper balls, which are projectiles roughly the size of paintballs that discharge an irritant when they hit a person. He was wearing a gas mask to protect himself from the pepper and tear gas, with the word “press” clearly displayed on his helmet and vest.

“I felt three at my legs, and then three in my chest, and three in my face and visor,” Lake told the Tracker. “They targeted right for my face.”

Lake said the pepper balls interfered with his ability to document the protest. “That pepper stuff fades in and becomes a chemical burn, so I ended up leaving,” he said. “They’re paintballs filled with pepper. When they hit you, it’s like cutting onions times 10.”

Later that morning, at around 4:40 a.m., Elia and McLam were filming protesters at the same intersection when they were also hit by tear gas, they told the Tracker.

A livestream of the demonstration that McLam posted on Twitter shows a standoff between protesters and federal agents. Several tear gas canisters land near her and Elia, who is also filming, while some protesters are fired at while trying to kick the canisters back toward the officers. McLam can be heard yelling out that she is a member of the press who is exercising her constitutional rights in documenting the protest.

Federal agents also fired munitions that “flew past our heads,” Elia told the Tracker. “We were stuck on the corner and munitions were flying all around us, preventing our exiting the area.”

Elia and McLam, who wore press badges and marked themselves “press” on their clothing, said they were targeted despite yelling out at the officers that they were journalists.

While a number of federal agencies had officers in Portland in July, it wasn’t clear to Lake which agency the officers were from. McLam said she believes Border Patrol agents were present at the demonstration she covered because of the uniform patches she photographed. The Department of Homeland Security, which coordinated the federal presence in Portland, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists being assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd-control ammunition or tear gas, or having their equipment damaged while covering protests across the country. Find these incidents here.

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

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