U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

VOA journalist shot in hand with pepper ball while filming DC protest

Incident Details

Date of Incident
June 22, 2020


Was the journalist targeted?
June 22, 2020

Voice of America journalist Ayen Bior was shot in the finger with a pepper ball while filming a protest in Washington, D.C., on June 22, 2020.

The protest was one of many against racial injustice in the capital and around the country in response to the police killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

At the June 22 demonstration in Lafayette Square, a park adjacent to the White House, a group of protesters attempted to pull down a statue of President Andrew Jackson, prompting the U.S. Park Police to use pepper spray and batons to push protesters back, the Washington Post reported.

Bior told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that police were pushing the protesters away from the statue and toward St. John’s Episcopal Church. She said she decided to stand on the base of a lamp post in order to try to film the clash between police and protesters from a heightened angle.

“By doing that I obviously made myself a target because I stood out,” Bior said. “But I remember thinking, ‘I think that they will know that I am a member of the press.’”

Bior said she positioned herself so that most of her body and her face were protected behind the lamp post while she held out her phone to film. The phone was held out in one hand, and her left pinky finger was exposed, when she suddenly felt a burning sensation on that finger, Bior said.

Bior said she had been hit by a pepper ball, a police crowd-control device, and the pain was so intense she fell to the ground and was nearly in tears. Bior said she initially thought her finger was broken because it was difficult to move, but she treated it by wrapping and icing it and eventually concluded it was not broken.

Bior told the Tracker that she did not know whether she was targeted because she was a journalist, but she said she believed she was shot because she was filming. At other protests she has covered, she said, police typically fire pepper balls toward the ground.

“I knew that they were sending a message to me to stop recording,” she said. “I knew that that was the intent of shooting me and I felt like they risked my vision and risked me losing my eyesight for them to get that message across.”

Bior said she was not sure which law enforcement agency fired the pepper ball that hit her. The Post reported that D.C. Metro Police were at the protest in addition to U.S. Park Police.

Bior was wearing a ballistic helmet and a bulletproof vest at the time she was hit, which she thought would make her stand out from protesters. She said she was also displaying an ID card issued by VOA that clearly says “PRESS.”

The U.S. Park Police did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the D.C. Metro Police Department said the department does not use pepper balls.

The Tracker is documenting arrests, assaults and other obstructions to journalists covering protests across the country.

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