The City of Eugene settled a federal civil rights case on Thursday regarding a May protest where police officers threw an explosive gas canister at a Eugene Weekly journalist, and later shot pepper balls at him.
EW reporter Henry Houston was doing his job covering May 29th protest, when Eugene police officers driving military style vehicles, and dressed in riot gear, began dispersing people. This came after Eugene City Manager Sarah Medary issued a city-wide curfew with little notice.
Despite repeatedly identifying himself as a reporter, officers deployed munitions at Houston and other journalists.
Cooper Brinson, a Civil Liberties Defense Center attorney representing Houston, said Medary’s curfew was “draconian” and served as a catalyst for EPD’s actions.
“The indifference towards journalists that night by EPD was truly astounding; they made no effort to determine who was a journalist, or who might be exempt from the curfew, and when that found out that Mr. Houston was a journalist...they just didn’t care,” Brinson said.
In addition to monetary compensation, Houston had requested “concrete proposals” that would increase transparency in police and city decision-making around protests, changes in policy policy in interactions with journalists, disciplinary actions against officers, and ending the use of military vehicles at protests.
The city declined, and Houston settled for an undisclosed amount of money, which he told KLCC was bittersweet.
“I was hoping to see at least some sort of changing in policing. You know, because whether you’re a journalist or a protester I don’t think anyone should be tear gassed, I don’t think anyone should go through any kind of so called crowd control munitions,” Houston said.
Houston said he was willing to accept less money if the city would commit to changing policies, but it wouldn’t budge. He plans on donating a portion of his settlement to CAHOOTs and other journalists facing government intimidation. He added he hopes this will serve as a wake up call for the city.
"I was fortunate to pursue some sort of justice becuase there's ongoing clashing with journalists and police in Portland everyday since the Black Lives Matter protests, and at the end of the day I hope this settlement forces the city of Eugene to really, revaluate its policing policies," Houston said.
“To me,” said Marianne Dugan, a senior staff attorney with CLDC, “that they wouldn’t take the opportunity to make even sort of a token gesture such as ‘in the future we’ll do our best to not intentionally assault reporters during protests’...is kind of startling.”
Dugan said the city could have issued a press release for public relations purposes, but they didn’t. “They’ve been making noises about making policy changes, but they haven’t come up with any that they’re willing to discuss,” she said.
In an email to KLCC the city stated “We are pleased to have quickly reached a mutually agreeable resolution to this matter.”
Meanwhile, the Civil Liberties Defence Center has filed a second federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Eugene and the police department. This time, they’re representing residents who allege the city, including Medary and EPD, violated the rights of protesters during summer protests.
“We have our doubts as to whether we’ll see any substantive change is going to changem,” Dugan said. “The lawsuit we’re hoping will help push that dialogue and push the discussion of making some changes, even though the Houston case by itself did not create any policy change.”
The lawsuit involves individuals who say they were attempting to return home and had tear gas, pepper balls, and impact munitions fired upon them by officers. No officers have been identified in either case.
“In regards to whether this kind of lawsuit will be a deterrent, or curb the behavior of the police, we're only going to know the answer to that question as history develops,” Brinson said. “Right now I’m not optimistic that the police is taking accountability seriously.”
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