Law enforcement tear gasses, throws flash-bangs at high school journalist covering Portland BLM protests

Eddy Binford-Ross, 17, wears a bulletproof vest while covering the Portland Black Lives Matter protests for her high school newspaper, the Clypian. (Photo courtesy of Binford-Ross.)

OREGON — Before going out to cover the Portland protests against police brutality and systemic racism, Eddy Binford-Ross puts on swim goggles, a pink helmet with “press” written on all four sides, a bulletproof vest, and reflective tape spelling out “press” going down her leg. The 17-year-old wears this to show law enforcement officers she is a journalist covering the protests.

But it doesn’t seem to matter to them. Binford-Ross says law enforcement officers threw flash-bangs and tear gas at her without visual or auditory warnings three times from July 17-20.

The Portland Police Bureau declined to comment.

“I expected some sort of confrontation, but it was much more aggressive than I was prepared for,” Binford-Ross said.

She has been going out every night since July 17 to cover the protests as editor-in-chief of South Salem High School’s student newspaper, Clypian. She was attending the protests legally, and was on the sidewalk clearly identified as press, but police threw the concussive devices at her without warning, temporarily deafening and blinding her.

“It’s very concerning to me that they seem to be targeting the press and, at the very least, disregarding the distinction between who is a member of the press and who is a protester,” Binford-Ross said. “Sometimes, when I identify myself as a journalist, they’ll say ‘okay I’ll leave you alone,’ but normally it doesn’t seem to phase them.”

She could see and hear again within a minute, but Binford-Ross’s mom, Warren Binford, who attends the protests with her, told her to run away while she collected the munitions as evidence. But Eddy collected herself and continued to report.

Binford-Ross holds some of the munition canisters the federal officers threw at her and the protesters. These canisters now sit on the Binfords’ kitchen table. (Photo courtesy of Binford-Ross)

“Being a journalist is sometimes a dangerous profession, and our role as her parents is to help support her in her profession and to develop safety routines,” Binford, a Willamette University law professor, said.

I expected some sort of confrontation, but it was much more aggressive than I was prepared for

Portland has had daily protests since May 28. In July, these protests made national news because the Trump administration deployed Department of Homeland Security agents into the city, saying it was to protect federal courthouses. But these agents have reportedly been detaining protestors and using tear gas and flash-bangs to disperse crowds. Portland city officials, including Mayor Ted Wheeler, voted to ban the police bureau from working with federal officers to intentionally harm or arrest journalists, according to The Oregonian. On July 23, Wheeler was among those tear gassed by federal agents.

A federal court said agents cannot attack journalists, following an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, which Binford-Ross contributed to.

Student journalists across the country have been detained, tear gassed and maced by police while covering Black Lives Matter protests. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there have been more than 500 reported aggressions against the press at these protests.

Binford-Ross reported law enforcement are now giving warnings before firing tear gas and crowd-control munitions.

Targeting journalists

Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center, said Binford-Ross did the right thing by trying to identify herself as a journalist, but that it has “become a double-edged sword” because police seem to be targeting journalists.

Hiestand said that while journalists do not enjoy more First Amendment rights than the average person, police typically understand that journalists are there to observe and report. 

“It’s weird that we’re having this conversation in America, to ask why it’s wrong to point guns and tear gas at the press,” Hiestand said. “Everything about it is wrong. It’s absolutely averse to the values our society embraces.”

While Portland Police declined to comment, a spokesperson, Lt. Tina Jones pointed out in a video on Twitter that once the police deem criminal activity is happening, they have the right to make everyone, including journalists, leave.

“The unlawful orders apply to everyone without exception,” Jones said in the video. “When a civil disturbance, unlawful assembly, or riot are declared, it’s because criminal activity is occurring and that the area is not safe for anyone.”

Hiestand said that while this is technically true, police seem to be provoking violence at peaceful protests — Binford-Ross and her mom agreed. Binford-Ross said law enforcement officers “indiscriminately” threw flash-bangs and tear gas at protestors.

“They have a problem with accountability and having people there to record and observe what’s happening,” Hiestand said. “When police have a problem with that, we have to ask ourselves why. It is wrong to go after young people when they’re first experiencing democracy, and they’re giving them this jaded view.”

Eddy’s tips for covering protests

Binford-Ross has some tips for student journalists to protect themselves while they’re covering protests against police violence:

  • Always identify yourself as a member of the press
  • Stand on the sidelines away from the crowds
  • Use swim or scuba goggles to protect your eyes from tear gas
  • Wear a towel soaked in milk or water as a mask to prevent yourself from inhaling tear gas
  • Bring saline to wash out your eyes after police tear gas you

“Know that capturing the story is important, but it isn’t as important as your safety,” Binford-Ross said.

Visit SPLC’s guide to covering protests for more tips.

‘She’s a machine’

Binford is nervous for her daughter after seeing her get tear gassed, stunned, and have guns pointed at her. But Eddy gears up and continues to report. Binford says “she’s a machine.”

“Being a calm reporter comes naturally to her,” Binford said. “She really has a gift for journalism. So we’re going to do what we can to help her get out there and keep reporting.”

Know that capturing the story is important, but it isn’t as important as your safety

Hiestand said student journalists covering these protests are getting “a world turned upside down” rather than an education on democracy.

“I hate for Eddy and her generation to have to take this on,” Hiestand said. “But for those of us who are dumbfounded, who can’t even believe what’s going on, it’s people like Eddy providing a shimmer of hope that there are going to be people out there who are going to put things back together.”

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our weekly email newsletter.