WPTA journalist hit with tear gas canister while covering Indiana protest

May 29, 2020

Karli VanCleave, a journalist with WPTA ABC 21, was struck by a tear gas canister fired by police while she was covering protests in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on May 29, 2020.

Protests in Fort Wayne began as demonstrations erupted across the country, sparked by a video of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, during an arrest in Minnesota on May 25. Floyd was pronounced dead at a hospital.

VanCleave covered the protests in downtown Fort Wayne for several hours. In the evening, as protesters gathered in the street, she said police formed a barricade to keep them from the courthouse lawn. The tension between protesters and police went on for several hours, VanCleave said, and police used tear gas several times.

VanCleave was part of a group of five journalists with WPTA covering the protests. They had been standing near the police, who were aware the journalists were there, she said. VanCleave and her colleagues were wearing bright red shirts and jackets with the station’s logo. She was carrying equipment, including a camera marked with ABC 21’s letters.

As protesters and police faced off, without a warning, police began shooting canisters off in every direction, VanCleave said. She began to run and lost the rest of her team.

She saw one of the canisters, billowing smoke and looking “like a firework,” coming straight toward her face. VanCleave said she turned to duck, and the canister hit her in the back. She couldn’t breathe and had to hunch over. She was also carrying a large camera and a microphone, which made it “impossible” to run, she said.

VanCleave’s coworker, Kayla Crandall, posted on Twitter that VanCleave had been struck with a canister while covering the protest.

The blow from the canister left VanCleave feeling sore the next day. Being close to the tear gas was worse, she said, because she couldn’t breathe or see and her skin felt as though it was burning everywhere.

VanCleave did not report the incident to police. Though the news organization has been in touch with police about other issues from the protests, she did not believe her experience had been reported.

Sergeant Brian Walker, the regional public information officer for the Indiana State Police, said in an email that he had looked into the claim, but there was nothing to comment on and confirmed there was no documentation of it.

VanCleave said police did not give warnings before using tear gas. For both protesters and the press, it was not clear what people were supposed to do to avoid exposure. “We would inch closer and closer so we could get the best shots, and still thinking that we were OK for a little bit to not get tear-gassed,” VanCleave said. “But then it would just happen out of nowhere, it seemed like almost every time.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting damage of equipment and multiple journalists arrested or struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas while covering related protests across the country. Find these cases here.

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

Related Incidents

Indianapolis Star journalist pepper sprayed, threatened, shot with projectile

May 29, 2020
Indianapolis Star photojournalist Kelly Wilkinson was tear gassed, pepper sprayed, threatened and shot with a pepper ball on May 29, 2020, while documenting the first night of protests in Indianapolis, Indiana.The protests were sparked by a video showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a local hospital. Protests against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives …

Journalist hit with pepper ball, sprayed with chemical irritant while covering protest in Omaha

November 22, 2020
Journalist Ross Mosier was hit with a pepper ball and an unidentified crowd-control spray used by police officers while covering a protest in Omaha, Nebraska, on Nov. 22, 2020.On the night of Nov. 22, protesters had gathered outside the central headquarters of the Omaha Police Department in downtown Omaha. The demonstrators were protesting against the Nov. 19 killing of a Nebraska man, Kenneth Jones, by a police officer, and demanding that authorities release body cam footage of the incident.Mosier is …

Journalist shoved, threatened by armed individual at pro-police rally in Portland

November 19, 2020
Videographer Garrison Davis was shoved by armed pro-police demonstrators, including one who bumped the journalist’s smartphone with a rifle butt while he covered a Nov. 19, 2020, rally in downtown Portland, Oregon, the journalist tweeted and told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.Protests had been held In Portland on almost a nightly basis since late May in response to police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The …

Photojournalist’s camera damaged during arrest in Portland

November 5, 2020
Freelance photojournalist Clementson Supriyadi was assaulted and arrested by Oregon State Police while covering a protest in Portland, Oregon, on Nov. 5, 2020.In Portland, protests had been held on almost a nightly basis since late May in response to police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the May 25 death of George Floyd. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting assaults, arrests and other incidents involving journalists covering protests across the country.At around 8 p.m., …
More related incidents