‘They came toward us firing pepper spray and rubber bullets’

A peaceful protest had been going on all day at the 5th Precinct, with speakers addressing a crowd of about 300 to 400 people. I was standing with a group of about 20 journalists, including Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske, clearly separate from the protesters on the opposite side of the street from the precinct.

We saw the Minneapolis police come out of their compound and confront one young woman, using pepper spray to get her to back up. A few minutes later, just after curfew around 8:30 p.m., the Minnesota State Patrol formed a line about half a block down the road. The patrol told the crowd they were in violation of the local curfew and must disperse, and soon after started firing tear gas.

Minnesota State Patrol officers spray journalists with pepper spray and fire rubber bullets, despite their exemption from the curfew on Saturday.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

As they advanced, the group of journalists moved against the wall to allow the police line to pass. Instead, they came toward us firing pepper spray and rubber bullets. Molly yelled, “We’re reporters!” “Wait! Where do we go?” Most of us had on helmets, gas masks and flak jackets, mine marked with large letters, “TV,” in addition to press credentials around my neck.

Journalists flee Minnesota State Patrol officers wielding pepper spray and firing rubber bullets.

Journalists flee Minnesota State Patrol officers wielding pepper spray and firing rubber bullets.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

We were piled on top of one another against the wall, trying to protect our faces, but an officer came so close I could feel the full force of the pepper spray go into my left ear and eye. Unable to see, I followed along the wall with the other journalists then reached another wall, about 4 feet high, which I couldn’t get over. A patrol officer told me I had to get out of there, then lifted me up onto the wall and I fell to the other side. After making it about a block, I was helped by local residents who later took me to the hospital.

I’ve been covering conflict both nationally and internationally for many years, so I know the dangers involved in these situations, especially when you get between riot police and protesters, but I wasn’t expecting them to attack us directly. Molly was hit twice with rubber bullets. Another photographer had a bloody face.

Carolyn Cole suffered damage to her left cornea.

Carolyn Cole suffered damage to her left cornea.

(Los Angeles Times)

I’m very fortunate that this is the first time in 25 years at the L.A. Times that I’ve been injured. My left cornea has been damaged by the pepper spray, but I’m hoping it will heal quickly so I can get back to work. I believe in the important role journalists, and specifically photojournalists, play in informing society. That role is as important now as ever. What I went through is nothing compared with the continual abuse people of color face on a daily basis.