A ubiquitous phrase to describe the protests in Portland is that they were “mostly peaceful.” Except when they weren’t. While there was much to question and condemn about the handling of the response, it’s hard to ignore that the less-than-peaceful folks were less than peaceful. Were they supposed to let the courthouse be bombed and breached, burned down or seized?
For the moment, the rioters have been held back from their preferred course of conduct by other protesters who want to make sure that it appears the riots are over now that the feds have backed off in favor of Portland police and this was all a product of the introduction of federal agents into the mix. Hopefully, this will hold, even if the violence began on July 4th, before there were the feds were sent to defend the courthouse.
But there was collateral damage, both to peaceful protesters who individually did nothing to deserve a beating, broken bones, a concussion or the loss of an eye, as well as reporters. Video journalist Trip Jennings was one of the casualties, and his injuries were hardly trivial.
“I got hit right in the eye,” Jennings told CNN, saying he suspects it was a pepper ball. “I remember seeing the lens of my gas mask shatter and then closing my eye and just blood inside of my mask.”
“I blinked and I blinked and got some of the blood out of my eye and there was pepper spray and I think pepper powder all over me,” the 37-year-old added.
“That moment of impact is really just burned in my memory. That vision of shards in my gas mask exploding. And then my face and body on fire from the pepper balls. I mean you can’t forget that,” he said.
Even less-lethal munitions can cause severe and permanent damage. Sure, a pepper ball beats a bullet, but it’s still painful. When it strikes a face, an eye, it can be devastating. But once the not-so-mosty-peaceful protesters seize the moment, what did Jennings expect? Was he, like the protesters near to the violence, surprised to find that the same violence that had occurred nightly happened again? That the same response that had occurred nightly happened again?
He expected his journalist privilege to protect him.
After waiting for a stop in the firing, Jennings stood up and put his arms above his head so the law enforcement could see his camera and realize that he was a journalist. He started to walk away, he said, following the dispersal order.
“I was surprised. I was there to do my job,” he added. “I’ve done my job like this in a lot of different places and a lot of different protests by different countries, a lot of different places in the United States. And normally when you make it clear that you have a job to do, to document the protest and you’re doing that, there’s a degree of safety, and that was just not present on (Sunday) night.”
Was Jennings shot, and shot in the face, by agents who knew he was a journalist? Police have made this a very real possibility by their outrageous handling of reporters during various protests over the past few months. Some reporters have been beaten and arrested, even shot, when there was no question the cops knew who they were and why they were there. To the extent this taints all law enforcement with the outrageous misconduct of some, tough nuggies.
But that doesn’t mean it happened this time, to this journalist. When there are thousands of people present, some violent rioters and some there to cheer them on, back them up or just watch so they can tell their grandchildren they were part of the great Portland uprising of 2020, the action isn’t easily parsed like a one-on-one cop versus criminal scenario.
Last week, a judge in Portland barred federal law enforcement officers from arresting or using physical force against journalists covering the protests if they’re not suspected of committing a crime.
The Justice Department called the order “unworkable in light of the split-second judgments that federal law enforcement officers have to make while protecting federal property and themselves during dynamic, chaotic situations.”
The TRO was bizarre, restraining law enforcement from doing what the law prohibits under any circumstance. But the idea that ordering a hundred feds looking at a thousand protesters interspersed with a hundred rioters was going to somehow fix anything was kooky. They weren’t wearing team shirts, with red for the people the feds should shoot and blue for the people they shouldn’t.
And then there is the problem with munitions being munitions, shooting at and into a crowd means they’re going to hit people who may not have been the intended target, but crowds move and pepper balls, once fired, proceed along their trajectory without regard to whose face is in their path.
This isn’t to say it was right, or that Jennings did anything to deserve to be struck or didn’t do what he could to avoid it, except that he was there. Go to a scene that you know will be chaotic and expect chaos. That could explain why Jennings was wearing a gas mask, which, co-incidentally, might have obscured his bona fides as a video journalist. Maybe flourescent vests saying PRESS might have made things different, although a pepper ball fired at a mass could still strike a journalist because pepper balls can’t read.
That anyone, including journalists, were harmed who didn’t do anything to compel it is awful. It shouldn’t have happened. The best way to keep it from happening would have been to either not attend a protest you know will turn into a violent riot, evoking a violent response, and put one’s protest efforts toward more peaceful endeavors. A reporter, however, doesn’t always have that option if he’s covering the riot.