At least two Portland-based reporters came out of a weekend of covering protests against police brutality with new injuries.
Oregonian journalist Beth Nakamura recounted being slammed by a baton from behind by police late Friday evening. The next night, Portland Tribune reporter Zane Sparling said he was shoved into a wall by a police officer and hit in the heel by a crowd control munition.
In both incidents, the reporters say they identified themselves to police as press. Nakamura said she had her hands up, her press ID in her left hand and her camera in her right. Sparling can be heard in a video he posted telling the police “media” as he’s pushed into the wall. In both incidents, the reporters were told by police, in what the journalists described as profanity-laced responses, that their press credentials did not matter.
The incidents were not the first accounts of police officers behaving violently toward people on the street during the protests. But they were the first police actions toward journalists to be publicly questioned by the mayor since the uprising began.
In a Monday afternoon tweet, Portland's Mayor Ted Wheeler called Nakamura's account of being attacked "extremely concerning."
“Journalists need to be able to cover the protests safely,” Wheeler said, retweeting her description of the assault. “I know [the Portland Police Bureau] works hard to protect the rights of our press, but there are alarming incidents that need to be addressed.”
Two members of the Portland City Council have similarly expressed concerns over the treatment of the press at the hands of the city’s police force. In a statement, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said she believed journalists’ rights had been violated and called on Wheeler and new police Chief Chuck Lovell to intervene. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she found the violence “particularly troubling” and would be meeting with Lovell to discuss further.
Wheeler said all incidents involving journalists should be brought to the attention of his spokesperson, Tim Becker.
A petition circulated by a group of Portland-based reporters is asking the mayor's office to do more than take in complaints, though.
Noting violence directed toward reporters has escalated in recent weeks, the petition asks Wheeler to stop the police bureau he oversees from assaulting journalists and warns of a “chilling effect on coverage and debate about PPB’s use of force” if the violence continues.
The petition notes these “heavy-handed tactics” displayed over the weekend on reporters from local media outlets have also been used on independent reporters, who are often the ones sticking around late into the night as police clear protesters from downtown.
Some have questioned why it took so long for Wheeler to weigh in on these reports of Portland police responding violently to people recording the protests, as some of the independent journalists had made their own accounts of assault public in weeks prior.
“It’s telling now that this involves an Oregonian reporter and Portland [Tribune] reporter that suddenly the mayor seems really concerned about investigating,” said Rachel Alexander, president of the regional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Because prior to this, mostly what we documented was happening with freelance reporters.”
Last Tuesday, Alexander sent a letter to the mayor and Lovell detailing concerns about Portland police using force on journalists. In the most dramatic account brought up in the letter, a Portland police officer is accused of "doing sword type stabs" and pepper-spraying freelancer Donovan Farley after he tried to film an arrest. Alexander said the media advocacy group has yet to receive a personal response from either of the city leaders.
Alexander said she’s concerned not just for the rights of people such as Farley, who identify as reporters, but anyone out on the streets with a camera phone.
“I really want people to be mindful that this is a right that everyone has,” she said. “The press don’t get special protections, and there should be this amount of concern when anyone’s getting treated this way for filming law enforcement.”
The letter notes that, while holding a press pass doesn’t give journalists special rights, documenting protests and the police response is a task “of vital public interest.”
“That includes documenting confrontations between protesters and police, and actions taken to disperse crowds,” the letter reads.
It's not clear Portland Police Bureau leaders agree with that, however. On Sunday evening, the police released a video in which their lead spokesperson said all crowd members had to follow orders to disperse, even journalists.
“We continue to work with our media partners about the importance of following the lawful orders given by the sound truck, officers, and social media, so they can stay safe and avoid arrest or altercation,” said police spokesperson Lt. Tina Jones. “The unlawful orders apply to everyone, without exception.”
The bureau was excoriated online by Twitter users, who accused police of trampling on journalists’ First Amendment rights. Others have pointed out that the moments when the police begin dispersing protesters tend to be the tensest, and, therefore the most worthy of being documented.
It appears the bureau is within its rights to force journalists to leave once they order the crowd to disperse. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, journalists can be arrested for disobeying an order to disperse, and the committee recommends reporters "promptly comply" with such orders. Other watchdog groups have emphasized that members of the media are subject to the same rules as protesters, meaning they can be charged with a crime for failure to disperse.
But civil rights organizations have questioned the bureau’s use of these orders to disperse, which some view as being used too liberally against protesters. Kelly Simon, interim legal director for the Oregon’s chapter of the ACLU, said she’s noticed a trend where largely peaceful gatherings against police violence are ended prematurely by police who declare it an unlawful assembly and force protesters to disperse.
“It is clear that PPB’s use of dispersal orders and declarations of unlawful assembly are both arbitrary and very deeply troubling, especially when PPB and city leaders have repeatedly agreed the protests have remained overwhelmingly peaceful,” said Simon. “I find it legally suspect what we’re seeing out of PPB right now.”
Kyu Ho Youm, who holds the Jonathan Marshall First Amendment Chair at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, said while it’s probably not illegal to clear out journalists along with the protesters, that’s not necessarily how it should be.
“They should be given some kind of special consideration by police officers,” Youm said. “Otherwise, what’s the point of having freedom of press?”
“If they are treated as demonstrators, that’s a terrible mistake on the part of police.”
According to Sergio Olmos, a freelance reporter who has documented the protests each night since they began, that’s exactly what’s happened. The tension between reporters and police has escalated, and press passes, he said, appear to have lost their significance.
“We used to be neutral bystanders,” he said. “Now, we’re the same as protesters to them.”