This article was originally published on our sister publication The Portland Mercury's blog Blogtown, where you can find ongoing coverage of Portland's protests related to the killing of George Floyd. —Eds.
If you’ve been to jail before, you might not be surprised by anything I have to say, other than this: I get it now.
I get it so much more clearly than I did, and I’ll keep using this knowledge moving forward. Look, I’m not the first, second, third, or even the fourth journalist to be arrested in Portland, Oregon, for doing our work. I haven’t experienced targeted violence the way several of my colleagues have. I’m not the only queer journalist out there. About all I am is the tallest journalist in Portland, and I was arrested in the early morning of July 17 for doing my job: reporting on protests against police violence.
I arrived at the Southeast Portland Police Precinct on July 16 to document the city's 50th night of protests. The first reported instance of federal agents arresting protesters and taking them away in unmarked vans took place the night before—but at the time, they weren’t identified as officers. Since Proud Boys and other extremist groups had been terrorizing Portland for three straight summers, there was a real fear at the time that protesters were being kidnapped. I chose the precinct because there were fewer journalists on Portland’s east side than there were covering protests downtown. And I figured I was less likely to get kidnapped.
I was on the scene for about two hours when police had, for the second time, pushed protesters away from the precinct and into a residential stretch of East Burnside. At that point, even as protesters complied with orders to walk away, and for reasons still unknown to me, police officers ran at them—a technique called bull-rushing.
It was dark. Somehow I collided with what felt like a police officer. I was shoved into another person also wearing hard armor, who in turn shoved me again. I lost my balance and fell. This is where I should count my privileges: I am white and statistically at lower risk for racist violence than many of my peers. I wore protective gear that spared me from worse injuries, paid for with my money and support from readers like you. I’ve had deescalation training. Portland Police were then and now under a restraining order that should have stopped officers from doing what they did. I had the words “freelance journalist”—along with the logos of several outlets I’ve written for—printed on my chest.
I yelled “Media!” while I ran, and even screamed the word as they twisted my wrist behind my back to take away my phone. People from across the street saw I was wearing a press pass. I tried making it easier for the officer to zip tie me, and was told to stop resisting. Bystanders asked my name before police did. Officers told me what I was being charged with, but only because other spectators asked. I yelled that I was a journalist—again because bystanders asked. Despite all this, I was still taken away by the police.
That's when I left my body and let the next nine hours happen.
Back at the Southeast Precinct, an officer cut my backpack off, my zip ties, and then my press pass. I noticed he slashed the sign I was wearing on my chest that read “Freelance Journalist.” Even though I had been knocked down, another officer commented on my protective gear, seemingly confused as to why I might need it. Officers transported another protester and myself to the downtown Justice Center, a site of major demonstrations since the first night. The streets were remarkably quiet as we drove underground into the garage.
Social distancing measures were virtually nonexistent throughout our processing—except when we were around detectives and office staff. We were allowed to identify our possessions. I was allowed to keep my coat. We were taken upstairs, documented, and questioned.
Here’s where I made a mistake: I didn’t immediately use my right to an attorney or remain silent. Do not make my mistake. Just because you don’t have an attorney doesn’t mean you have to say anything. But I assumed, as a journalist who has done nothing wrong, I had nothing to fear. Through their questions, I came to realize that the officers questioning me didn’t understand, or didn’t want to understand, how freelance journalism works. Despite their attempts to provoke me or question my credibility, I feared they were trying to charge me with providing a false statement to an officer. They asked a lot of questions about my press pass, which was bigger than a typical one.
A few things about my press pass: In normal times, I use press passes for concerts or covering arts related performances—not for not getting shot at by cops or federal agents. I felt they were trying to provoke, intimidate, and belittle me when they asked why an arts writer was reporting on protests. It felt like both officers wanted to be the bad cop but forgot to decide beforehand. I'm a call center worker who grew up bullied and closeted, and with precious little self-respect. In short, I am not easy to provoke.
I got my official mugshot. I got fingerprinted. I got my belt, shoelaces, and hoodie drawstrings confiscated. I'm then taken to a side room where an officer watched me remove my athletic cup—which I wear so I’m not maimed by pepper balls, flying batons, or tear gas canisters. My fellow arrestees and I waited for hours. We made calls, and some of us were successful. The guy who remembered the National Lawyers Guild number later told me he was put in a solitary cell for saying the number aloud. Another prisoner was threatened with similar solitary treatment for simply looking at an officer. Although I followed the instructions to make a free call from the jail, my partner still had to pay to accept my call after 6 am.
We watched shitty sports TV for several hours. I don’t know how long we were there before I saw a clock, near an area where I probably wasn’t supposed to look. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep. I focused on the good times and not letting my peers down any further. When we were released, five at a time, we all wiped ink off our hands onto the same white towel, and in the bathroom we all used the same hotel freebie-sized soap. The last person in my group questioned if, on a Friday, he should waive his right to be seen before a judge in 48 hours. An officer told him he could stay in jail until Monday, or get out now and receive a September court date to face charges that would "probably get dropped." My five-member group audibly gasped.
During my stay, prisoners who spoke of previous arrests inspired me to stay strong. Remembering the stories of other arrested protesters kept me strong. Remembering that other journalists made it out alive kept me strong. Remembering stories I’ve overheard at protests, funny memes, and music from artists who’ve dealt with police brutality—these and more kept me strong. I’ve been around straight people who hate me, so I know how to keep calm.
Since my temporary incarceration, rightwing grifters and hacks have shared my and other prisoners’ cop-provided information in a bid to harass or intimidate us. Since then, I've experienced anti-semitic and sexual harassment. I’ve also experienced everything from community support and resources to bizarre trauma responses that I’m still processing. Now I am more prone to anger in non-crisis situations, I feel clinically paranoid about being followed in my off time, I'm claustrophobic around large groups with no clear path, and I'm struggling at my day job and in my personal relationships—but I am not going to stop reporting. I'm now advocating harder than ever for myself, starting with the reminder that I did nothing wrong. I was arrested for doing my job.
In the weeks following my arrest, cops are trying harder than ever to limit the constitutional rights of journalists trying document the violence they see during nightly protests. The police want to limit who is allowed to report, where they can be, and what their credentials are. This cannot be allowed to continue. I believe in the rights laid out by the First Amendment, and I believe they are distinct rights for a reason.
Despite the way I personally feel about what’s happening, my job is to report my hometown’s protests with as few of my biases as humanly possible. Arresting me felt like an attempt to ruin my objectivity, or to discredit freelancers like me. I will not allow it to happen.