A protester waves an American flag as a fire burns on July 20 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Journalists covering the protests said they were targeted by law enforcement. (Jonathan House)

‘We’re scared shitless out here’: Four reporters on covering the federal response to Portland protests

“This was civic combat, but without live fire.” That’s how freelance photographer John Rudoff described the situation in Portland, Oregon, the Pacific Northwest city where demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter and against police brutality are now in their 13th week. 

Portland’s protests received global attention when they took a violent turn in July as officers from U.S. federal agencies under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) arrived in the city to protect the federal courthouse that had become the focal point of the protests. Violence against journalists escalated with their arrival, according to reporters who spoke with CPJ. On July 29, the Trump administration and Oregon’s governor announced an agreement for federal troops to withdraw from the city.  

Rudoff said he’s been targeted by federal agents while covering protests. “I’ve been shot twice,” he told CPJ, once with a rubber bullet and once with a plastic bullet. 

The DHS did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment. The Portland Police Bureau declined to comment due to pending litigation against its members by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. (The June suit aims to stop Portland police from assaulting journalists, legal observers, and other neutral parties documenting protests; in July the ACLU filed a similar suit against the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service; that suit has since been added to the previous one.)

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker — a partnership between Freedom of the Press Foundation and CPJ— said that it has preliminary data showing that DHS agents allegedly injured at least 30 journalists in the city. Overall, the Tracker is looking into at least 163 reported press freedom incidents in Portland, including serious threats of harm and indiscriminate tear-gassings or pepper sprayings of journalists.

CPJ spoke with four journalists who have been covering protests in Portland since May. The interviews, conducted on the phone, email, and using audio recordings, have been lightly edited for length and clarity. For more testimony on covering Portland, please see CPJ’s interview with The Oregonian photographer Beth Nakamura conducted on Instagram Live.

Karina Brown, reporter for Courthouse News Service

When did your protest coverage start?

On the first night that they began, so May 29. There was a big vigil, and that was the night that the fire was lit at the Justice Center. There were George Floyd protests going on all over the country. We had this internal chat among my colleagues in Courthouse News, and I remember feeling, “Oh, a lot of my colleagues have never covered protests.” It’s something that I understand intuitively. 

What were your main safety concerns before going out to cover the protests?

Before the arrival of federal agents, it was providing for my own basic needs in terms of COVID-19. I made sure I had a mask, water, toilet paper, and my phone battery charged. I prioritized my own bodily needs, rather than preparing for violence. I felt safe at that point. I have never once been made to feel unsafe by other protesters, except by some who aren’t wearing their masks. 

Have you experienced any violence or injuries while covering the Portland protests?

I’ve encountered pepper balls and have had a lot of exposure to tear gas. I’ve experienced bull-rushing, where police form a line across the street and it’s like a sieve or a fish trap. They run and they have their batons out and they’re yelling, “Move! Run!” It’s really scary. They’re legally supposed to let the press stay and remain behind the line. Sometimes they bull-rush for many city blocks. Some people can’t run that fast. While that’s happening, one or two police officers hold huge cans of pepper spray the size of fire extinguishers.

I have video footage of a time that I was recording through the bars of the big steel fence in front of the courthouse. We were just standing there, and there was no one shaking the fence. One of the federal officers came over to me and pulled the pin of the tear gas canister and put it in front of me. 

There’s a sexual harassment component from the federal agents, in my opinion. One time they hit me with a pepper ball. They hit me right in my butt, twice, from 10 feet away. These are trained marksmen. That was not an accident. It just got everywhere, into my face. The chemicals they’re using are something high-grade and seemed to be far stronger than the chemical weapons Portland police used.

There are nights where there will be thousands of people chanting and singing and drumming; it’s quite lovely. In the midst of all that come dozens of tear gas canisters. It’s not directed at me, but it’s pretty bewildering. [Brown wrote about her experience covering the protests for Courthouse News.]

What do you wear to protect yourself?

I got a good pair of goggles, ear plugs, and a military-grade gas mask. The goggles helped a lot with the tear gas. I realized pretty quickly that because it’s hot right now and I was wearing a T-shirt, the tear gas really affects your skin. It feels like this prickly, burning, creeping sensation. It’s important to cover your skin. 

I would love to get a jacket that has “PRESS” across it. I use a standard press ID, it clips to the front on my shirt. It says “PRESS” in big block letters. It didn’t help. There are other times I’m yelling, “I’m press!” and they don’t care. Sometimes they won’t shove you the way they’re shoving other people, but they still corral everyone.

John Rudoff, freelance photographer for Sipa USA, AP, and the Turkish Anadolu Agency

When did you start covering the Portland protests?

I began covering the protests a couple of days after the death of George Floyd. We are the epicenter of the crunchy granola world. On the other hand, we have riot police and police who are extremely tough, very heavily armed, and well-defended by the Portland police union.

What do you wear to protect yourself when going out to cover the protests?

I am pretty familiar with Portland protests and protests in general. The first night I had a helmet, goggles, a gas mask, a heavy shirt and pants, and heavy boots. I take several cameras with me and wear a bicycle helmet to protect my head. The surface of the helmet is covered in large printed stickers that say “PRESS.” The police response was extremely intense, so I’m also wearing a level IIIA flak jacket. That has been my standard. 

Have you experienced physical violence while covering the protests?

I am one of six lead plaintiffs in an ACLU lawsuit. The first two or three weeks of June, I experienced two things. First, I was frequently shoved around by walls of cops who were shoving protesters. That’s a standard police tactic in Portland. Young, fit police officers run at a wall of protesters with batons. I wasn’t significantly injured, and it has happened many times in the past.

Second, and this is a real, genuine problem: Many protesters don’t want their photographs taken. The protesters’ claim is, if you take a picture of Jane Doe throwing a Molotov cocktail and she is identifiable, you are complicit with the cops. This is a position I reject absolutely. I have been approached and threatened and surrounded by six young kids telling me to delete my images. That was a constant refrain from the protesters for the first two or three weeks. However, in the past few weeks, I have been thanked as many as 10 times a night by some protesters. They’re thanking me for telling the world what’s happening. I experienced that in Hong Kong during the protests last year, but on a much larger scale. 

I was shot in the right shoulder with a rubber bullet. It was about one to two inches from my flak jacket and from the press sticker on it. I was also shot in the leg with a plastic “less-lethal” round. That got added into the restraining order. [In July in response to the ACLU suit, a federal court filed a temporary restraining order to stop federal officers from arresting and attacking journalists, adding to an existing order against local officers.] 

How has the recent escalation in police presence changed your approach to covering the protests?

My response was to use a full protective kit, everything we had. Gloves, gas masks, shin guards: This was civic combat, but without live fire. These were extremely violent responses to the protesters. The protesters were not exactly protesters playing pattycakes: They were throwing rocks and starting fires. But the federal officers were armed to the teeth and responded with massive bursts of “less-lethal” munitions and tear gas, far more than Portland police. 

Situational awareness is always complicated. I know the city. Always look for two ways out, always have my back against something solid. I always take a 275 degree scan every few seconds. It’s a matter of practice, but it doesn’t make it any easier. A rubber bullet comes out of nowhere and there’s nothing you do. I’m wearing the word “PRESS” on every surface you can think of. We’re scared shitless out here.

Mathieu Lewis-Rolland, freelance photographer on assignment for Portland Mercury magazine

When did you start covering the Black Lives Matter protests in Portland?

I started documenting the protests after receiving a curfew alert on my phone on May 30, 2020. I saw it was an extremely urgent and unpredictable event that would potentially have historic ramifications on constitutional rights. I felt it my civic duty to document.

I pulled into downtown Portland at 7 p.m. on May 30 and approached SW 3rd  Avenue and Salmon Street. Traffic was stopped at the intersection and I was immediately inundated with tear gas. I stepped out of my car and took this picture [posted below]. It changed my life. Before this I covered local music, festivals, local business editorials, landscapes, and weddings.

(Mathieu Lewis-Rolland)

What do you wear to protect yourself when covering protests? What supplies do you take with you? 

In the early days I wore a shirt and jeans and carried my Nikon D850 with a 70-200mm lens. My outfit and tools have both evolved. After my first encounter of being shot at and targeted with tear gas by police, I had a T-shirt made with “PRESS” printed on the front and back, and the Portland Mercury issued me a media pass for identification. I mounted my smartphone to my camera so that I could livestream and record further incidents as they happen to make sure I caught the evidence on camera. I continued to be targeted, and a few days later federal agents shot me in the back 10 times with “less lethal” heavy plastic lead-filled bullets and CS powder pepper balls. [Lewis-Rolland is also a plaintiff in the ACLU suit due to these incidents.]

I added a helmet wrapped with fluorescent yellow tape that had “PRESS” written in black sharpie. I also added these identifier markings to my backpack. Then there was the incident during the early hours of July 21 where I witnessed federal police aim lethal weapons into the crowd just a few feet from where I was standing. Later that night feds ambushed the crowd from the south side of the courthouse, and as they came around the corner each one of them raised their weapons at me. One of them held aim on me with a “less lethal” shotgun for several seconds as I whipped my free hand in the air and screamed “PRESS!” That morning I made a plea to raise funds on social media. I was able to quickly acquire enough money to purchase a level 3A bullet proof vest, a military grade gas mask and a Kevlar ACH [Advanced Combat Helmet] labeled “PRESS” with reflective lettering on the front and sides.

I now wear a cup for genital protection, earplugs for hearing protection, and a fluorescent yellow vest and wrist bands to further help identify me in the dark or when there is low visibility due to tear gas. I added a gimbal [a device for smooth camera movement] to stabilize my phone’s video recording and wrapped my camera lens and gimbal with reflective yellow tape with the intent to remain visible and make it known that I am not a threat.

How do you make sure you stay safe while on the ground?

I have less consideration for personal safety when I see other people at risk. However, when I am caught in an untenable situation, I try to position myself in well-lit areas. I always stay as close as possible to federal agents and police to make sure they can identify me. Getting lost in smoke and tear gas causes me to feel great anxiety that I will be indiscriminately targeted, as it happens consistently. I leave when I am emotionally exhausted, or if I cannot tolerate any more violence.

Once you’re done with coverage for the day, how do you decompress and make sure you are taking care of your mental health?

I have struggled with self-care while covering the protests. Whiskey helps to calm the nerves while decompressing and editing pictures and video when I get home, but I guess that’s not technically self-care. I also reach out to my night owl friends to rehash the events that are causing me stress. I think it would be great if we had a local media support group. Because yeah, it’s been rough.

Jonathan House, photo editor and photographer for Pamplin Media Group, publisher of Portland Tribune

What’s your physical and mental preparation like for protest coverage these days?

I generally try to wear dark comfortable clothing to avoid sticking out too much. I’ll wear a pair of comfortable shoes because some of these days can be really long on your feet. In terms of personal protective equipment, I don’t own body armor and up until these protests this year, I haven’t thought about bringing a respirator or anything like that. That’s a new addition now due to the amount of tear gas and other gas that’s been deployed in Portland. Now I bring a respirator with me, and I have a more military-grade gas mask that is getting shipped to me. 

I bring a helmet; thankfully I have one because I was shot in the head with a rubber bullet a few weeks ago. I bring water, food, snacks and carry it all in a backpack. I usually bring a quick dry, microfiber rag, gloves, and a Buff [a lightweight scarf that can be pulled up to cover the neck and face]. I may have to look into some light body armor, something that can at least take crowd control munitions.

As far as how I prepare beforehand, it’s kind of a mental game. I try to relax because sometimes you just don’t know what’s going to happen. You could go out and it could be a relatively calm night, there could be a lot of marching and yelling and chanting, but nothing else. Or, it could just take one thing and suddenly the rally will turn more aggressive. You have to mentally prepare for both outcomes because you don’t know what’s going to happen, which can also be kind of stressful.

What do you look out for when you’re reporting, and how do you know when it’s time to leave a protest?

If things get aggressive quickly, I try to make sure I’m not in between protesters and law enforcement. It’s a bad place to be. I also try not to get caught behind protesters, I try to be off to the side when I can, especially if crowd control munitions start to get exchanged. In all these protests, I feel like I’ve got my head on a swivel. I’m constantly looking around. We noticed some techniques during the protests before federal law enforcement got involved. Local police would show up from behind protesters, beside protesters, so one thing that would happen, especially at night and it’s dark, is suddenly you have a whole squad of law enforcement in riot gear marching from a direction that you weren’t paying attention to. 

You’ve covered protests in Portland for nine years. What has been different about the 2020 protests?

This feels like the first time that I was specifically targeted by law enforcement. I’ve been around pepper spray, pepper balls, flashbangs, things of that nature, but generally speaking, it was collateral damage of being in the area when munitions got deployed. This felt, at least with the federal law enforcement agents, that I wasn’t any safer by virtue of the fact that I was press. That’s what really made it different than in the past: It felt a lot more aggressive. 

The federal response was very much blunt force: Here are some warnings and now we’re going to start tear-gassing everything in the area. A couple of weeks ago they came out and started shooting rubber bullets out into the crowd as they were tear-gassing at the same time. It was this hectic, chaotic scene where suddenly things were happening all over the place. You had tear gas coming blocks around the federal courthouse, but you also had them shooting into the park. It didn’t even feel targeted at that point, it was randomly spraying bullets into the park. That’s not a situation that I’ve ever experienced. 

How do you manage to decompress after covering a protest, which can be a high risk, unpredictable event?

This has been extremely difficult for me to do because a lot of these protests are happening late at night and early in the morning. We’re not a large media organization. Even though we’re not going out every night, at the same time we’re trying to keep up with the coverage as much as we can. We also have our “normal” work that we have to get done. It’s hard to decompress even if you’ve got one or two days off from the protest because your sleep cycle is so screwed up. It’s a constant stressor. The past three weeks have definitely been, for me, just personally, some of the most consistently stressful periods of my life. Normally I would decompress by getting outdoors or going for a run, but it’s tough if your sleep schedule has been inverted by the timing of the events, and then also the aggressiveness of the events.

For more information on how to safely report during mass demonstrations, see CPJ’s safety advisory on covering protests in the U.S. over police violence and safety note on covering civil disorder.  

CPJ’s #SafetyInFocus campaign highlights the different kinds of safety threats facing photojournalists, including the risks of covering protests.