The Portland police arrested three journalists who were covering protests in North Portland on Tuesday night.
Journalists Cory Elia and Lesley McLam are both volunteer reporters and podcast hosts at KBOO. Justin Yau is a freelance journalist and journalism student who has covered protests in Hong Kong, with work appearing in Reuters, Daily Mail, and Spectee, a Tokyo based news agency.
In video captured by Elia before his arrest, he walks past an officer and comments that he recognized him from a previous night. That officer is seen swinging at Elia and knocking his phone out of his hands.
A few minutes later, Elia was standing in front of a line of police filming when he again said he recognized an officer from previous protests. Less than a minute later a group of officers lunged at him, threw him to the ground, and arrested him.
“I guess that pissed him off,” said Elia, standing in front of the Multnomah County Justice Center Wednesday morning, minutes after his release. “He instantly went for me. Him and three other officers.”
Elia was charged with two counts of assaulting a police officer – a felony - two counts of interfering with a police officer, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct – all misdemeanors. He was released on bail Wednesday morning.
Yau said the police escalated much faster than normal Tuesday night and, for the first time he could remember over the past month, they declared the gathering a riot.
Wearing a helmet with “PRESS” in large, white lettering, carrying a camera, and with press credentials around his neck, Yau said he was following PPB directions while still recording when two officers came up from his side and tackled him.
“I was filming a lady in front of the police skirmish line being arrested,” Yau said. “They had charged forward and I was attempting to film the arrest while moving back according to PPB instructions.”
Yau was charged with felony riot and interfering with a peace officer, a misdemeanor.
He said the protesters were behaving no different than on most other nights, chanting, marching, and the occasional water bottle being thrown at police officers. Although no reporters on the ground corroborated it, PPB said rocks and cans were also thrown.
PPB did not respond to a request for comment on the journalists’ arrests.
A spokesperson for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office said they had rejected McLam’s case for criminal prosecution after reviewing the available police reports. In a statement, the DA’s office said it had not taken legal action against Elia or Yau and was still collecting evidence.
Portland police are holding Yau’s and Elia’s phones and cameras as evidence until a detective can clear it for release.
In a letter to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler posted on Facebook excoriating the Portland Police Bureau and questioning their version of the events, Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek said PPB had created an unsafe situation and public health hazard when they used tear gas to disperse the demonstration and called it “an utter inability to exercise restraint.”
“I continue to be disturbed that journalists and independent reporters are being targeted,” Kotek wrote. “These actions undermine our democracy.”
In a response, Wheeler said he appreciated Kotek’s input.
“We look forward to providing her a briefing so that she has the benefit of the same information our team – the Sheriff, County Chair, Chief, Mayor, District Attorney, and District Attorney-elect – is operating with.” Wheeler wrote.
On Tuesday, the ACLU of Oregon asked a federal court to issue a temporary restraining order against the City of Portland and Portland law enforcement on behalf of the Portland Mercury, 12 independent journalists and two ACLU of Oregon legal observers who have been targeted and attacked by the police.