PORTLAND, Ore. – 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.
Suzette Smith, a freelance journalist who has covered the protests, recorded the Aug. 29 encounter between police and reporters. “Blue mask,” an officer could be heard saying in the video Smith tweeted. Her mask was blue, and she held up her press badge. At least five people around her were detained, including someone else in a blue mask.
Smith, who was arts editor of the Portland Mercury alternative newspaper but was laid off during COVID-19 pandemic, said it was the first time she has seen officers approach a crowd of journalists and arrest people around her. But protesters will stay behind reporters to try to blend in, she said.
“Certainly that’s annoying as a press person when there is somebody behind you yelling,” Smith said. “I have definitely asked them not to yell in my ear or to stand so close.”