Two Wisconsin reporters caught in tear gas, pepper spray while reporting on Madison protests

May 30, 2020

Two Wisconsin reporters were caught up in tear gas clouds and pepper-sprayed by police while reporting on protests against police violence in Madison, Wisconsin, on May 30, 2020.

The protests were held in response to a video showing a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25. Floyd was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Protests against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have been held across the United States since the end of May.

Reporting for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Molly Beck and Lawrence Andrea were stationed near State Street, a central business district area, from around 6 p.m. until midnight. Beck estimates that tear gas was deployed by police six or seven times during that period, she told the Committee to Protect Journalists in a phone interview.

Tweets posted by Beck and Andrea that evening documented the use of both tear gas and pepper spray. Andrea tweeted videos around 10 p.m. that showed tear gas being deployed. Nearly two hours later, Andrea tweeted, “We are getting pepper sprayed.” At 1:20 a.m., Beck noted, “I can still taste it an hour later.”

Beck doesn’t believe that she and Andrea were targeted for being journalists. Instead, they were caught up in tightly packed crowds of protesters who were tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed.

“When the spraying started, we were hit with it, and then we started running away,” said Beck. “[The police] were walking down the line spraying and it got on us, in our mouth and eyes. It wasn’t point-blank in our face or anything like that.”

Beck told CPJ that she believes that the tear gas was deployed by Wisconsin State Patrol officers, while the pepper spray was deployed by Madison police. She added that the tear gas could have been deployed by a mix of state and city police.

Beck had press credentials hanging around her neck, but they were likely not visible to police.

“I would doubt that they saw that and immediately identified me as press,” she said.

Beck told CPJ that the pair stopped reporting after they were pepper-sprayed.

A Madison Police Department incident report published on May 31 about protests the previous day outlines the actions of some of the crowd, including damage to property and vehicles and attacks on police officers. The report states that “chemical agents were utilized [by Madison police] as officers attempted to move the crowd from the area.”

Joel DeSpain, public information officer for the Madison Police Department, told CPJ in an email that pepper spray is a “chemical agent” used by the Madison Police Department.

The Wisconsin State Police did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred total incidents of journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or had their equipment damaged while covering protests across the country related to the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Find all of these cases here.

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

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