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Portland Protests Set Up Clash Between Police and Journalists

Portland Protests Set Up Clash Between Police and Journalists

Portland protests against police brutality continue in the city’s Northeast precinct. The beam of a police officer’s flashlight swept across a group of 15 people standing on the sidewalk in downtown Portland, Oregon, recording and taking photos of the nightly protests that have roiled the city for three months.

Most in the recent group wore helmets, reflective vests or shirts emblazoned with the word “PRESS” and had media badges dangling from their necks. But some were demonstrators, taking cover behind reporters despite orders to go home or face arrest.

“Hey,” an officer yelled at his colleagues as they cleared streets and arrested people who weren’t leaving. “Half this group is not press. … Purple mask isn’t press. Bicyclist not press. … If they are not press, take them into custody.”

For nearly 100 days, reporters have been covering protests that often turn violent in Oregon’s largest city, and in the chaos, some journalists have been injured or arrested despite press freedoms laid out in the First Amendment. The clash also led to a lawsuit against federal authorities sent in to help local police in July.

Reporters — whether they’re from major media outlets, freelancers or self-proclaimed “citizen journalists” — say they are doing their job and law enforcement is hindering that work. Police say protesters have masqueraded as journalists and then set fires or thrown fireworks, making it a struggle to figure out who is a real reporter during the pandemonium.

In July, the ACLU of Oregon sued Portland police and federal agents on behalf of a group of legal observers and journalists. A freelance photographer covering the protests for The Associated Press submitted an affidavit saying he was beaten with batons, sprayed with chemical irritants and hit with rubber bullets.

A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction exempting journalists and legal observers from orders to disperse after authorities declare a riot. But an appeals court later suspended it.

Police report that people with “press markings” have thrown commercial-grade fireworks, rocks and bottles at officers over the past two months and mingled with people in the crowd. In mid-August, police said an officer was seriously injured after a person with “press” on their clothing threw a 9-pound rock.

Police declined requests for an interview. In a June video, Lt. Tina Jones said Portland police “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 and altercation.”

While many reporters clearly identify themselves, officials have discussed if more can be done.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon suggested redefining a journalist as “someone who is authorized by the ACLU,” saying the organization “could maintain a list of who they are giving vests to and give them appropriate guidance and instructions. That way we might be able to solve the problem of somebody just putting ‘press’ on their helmet or their shirt.”

Media experts say it’s broader than that.

“Who is a journalist and who isn’t a journalist? Well, here is my definition: You are a journalist if you are committing journalism — if you are there at the scene of the news to collect information and present it to an audience in journalistic form,” said Patricia Gallagher Newberry, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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