“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.
His privilege could not protect him, he says
Jennings says he started covering the Portland protests as a freelance journalist when they began earlier this spring. After taking a break, he said he returned to the scene last week and saw that tensions had visibly escalated after President Trump deployed federal agents to the city in early July.
Even with the suffocating tear gas in the air, the veteran journalist, whose work has been featured on National Geographic, PBS and other outlets, continued his work at Sunday’s protest.
With a gas mask on his face and camera in hand, Jennings said he shot video and pictures of protesters demanding racial justice and an end to an influx of federal agents in their city.
But just after midnight, unidentified law enforcement officers ordered the protesters to disperse from the federal courthouse, using more impact ammunition — which Jennings said included rubber bullets, beanbags and pepper balls, and tear gas — than he said he’d ever seen in the city before.
People started running in all directions, falling over each other, according to Jennings, who said he took cover behind a car.
Video obtained by CNN of Sunday’s protest shows a woman screaming as she’s hit by rubber rounds. Another video shows law enforcement officials grabbing protesters and throwing them to the ground.
Protesters launched mortar-style fireworks over the fence around the courthouse, according to a statement by the Portland Police Bureau. Around 1 a.m., someone started a fire inside the fenced area that was quickly put out.
It is unclear whether the law enforcement officials in the videos were federal or local, but the PPB told CNN that none of its officers were the ones seen in the videos. And Monday, the PPB said its agency was not involved in dispersing the crowds.
The Department of Homeland Security and the US Marshals Service did not respond Monday to requests from comment from CNN. After CNN forwarded the video to US Customs and Border Protection on Monday for comment, spokesperson Stephanie Malin responded, “We’re not going to be able to analyze every video of the response in Portland that comes to us and positively or negatively identify if they include our personnel.”
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.
“But as soon as I turned around just a little bit, they shot me in the face,” Jennings said. He said he believes he was shot with a pepper ball. The Department of Homeland Security did not return CNN’s request for comment regarding Jennings’ injury.
“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.”
This fear is felt every day by people of color
Although his eye is continuing to hemorrhage, he can still see. But Jennings said his injury is proof that it’s not just those who are violent or provoke law enforcement that are being targeted during the protests, and not even his privilege could protect him.
When he was shot in the eye, Jennings said all kinds of thoughts ran through his mind. Thoughts like — “Was this the moment that changes the rest of my life?” “Am I blind in my left eye?” or “Is this process going to be years long?”
But he said he realizes that while his “white privilege” couldn’t protect him in this instance, this type of fear is felt every day by people of color.
“It’s a choice for me to go to a protest. it’s a choice for me to go to the one part of Portland that is erupting and in this kind of state-sponsored violence,” Jennings said. “When I’m at a protest … I could go blind, be shot in the head without a helmet on and potentially die. But that’s what people of color are worried about and are facing every day when they go to the bank or go to the store.”
“This is the moment that we need to really deeply listen and change things.”
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.”