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October 8, 2020 – The Portland Police Bureau (PPB) and federal agents used disproportionate and excessive force against both protestors and medics at the Portland, Oregon protests in July, according to a new investigation published today by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).  The report finds that law enforcement’s deployment of crowd-control weapons and obstruction of medical care at the protests resulted in severe injuries and psychological trauma to both medics and protestors. This excessive use of force escalated tensions at demonstrations and impeded the right to peaceful assembly and expression.

“Now they seem to just want to hurt us”: Dangerous Use of Crowd-Control Weapons against Protestors and Medics in Portland, Oregon is informed by 20 interviews with health professionals, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, and other volunteers who regularly worked as medics at the Portland protests. PHR clinicians also conducted targeted medical exams of seven of these medics (four in person, three remotely) and four protestors (two in person, two remotely) who had sustained clinically significant injuries from PPB and/or federal agents’ use of force. A team of investigators from PHR conducted research and observed demonstrations in Portland from July 24 to 31 and continued the investigation remotely in the ensuing weeks.

PHR’s report documents clinically significant face, head, neck, and chest injuries among volunteer medics and protestors from kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs) that federal agents and local police launched. Yet, over the time period of documented injuries, official paramedics with the city of Portland and Multnomah County did not provide care to injured protestors at the protest site, and ambulances did not come to the protest site for most injuries reported. Civil society groups stepped in to fill this gap and provided medical assistance and transport to injured protestors. These medics, in turn, were attacked and injured while caring for protestors.

For example, one clearly marked medic described the PPB throwing a flash grenade at her while she was attending to an injured patient, despite her being some 30 feet away from a group of protestors. On a few occasions, law enforcement destroyed volunteer medics’ supplies. In some cases, medics reported that law enforcement attacks appeared to be specifically targeting medics with tear gas canisters and KIPs, such as rubber bullets.

“Portland residents demonstrating for racial justice were met with an onslaught of tear gas and rubber bullets. As our report shows, the volunteer medics who attended to the injured were also subjected to excessive, indiscriminate, and dangerous force from both local and national law enforcement,” said Donna McKay, PHR executive director, who co-led this investigation.  “Under international human rights law, officials are obligated to ensure effective access to medical care and transport for the injured at protests. The City of Portland, as well as the county, state, and national governments, utterly failed to protect medics and protestors.”

The PHR report documents reckless and unlawful use of crowd-control weapons by PPB and federal agents. These include: use of batons on people not engaged in violent behavior; use of chemical irritants without sufficient toxicological information made available for treatment by medical responders; irritant-containing projectiles fired at individuals, including at the head and neck; and kinetic impact projectiles fired at the head. The use of crowd-control weapons against those only passively resisting dispersal was also reported to cause mental pain and suffering to demonstrators, resulting in potential psychological trauma. The incidents documented represent unlawful use of these weapons and may constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

Following the arrival of federal forces to Portland on July 1, Portland medics and health professionals reported treating an increasing number of serious injuries among protestors from kinetic impact projectiles like rubber bullets.

“Our medical examinations of injured medics and protestors corroborated a wide range of severe injuries from crowd-control weapons: burns from flash grenades; bone fractures and lacerated scalps, faces, necks, and feet from tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. Portland medics also reported treating trauma-induced seizures and traumatic brain injuries caused by these dangerous weapons,” said Michele Heisler, MD, MPH, PHR medical director, professor of internal medicine and public health at University of Michigan, and a co-investigator for this report. “The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials specify that when law enforcement officials resort to force in the context of protests, they ‘shall ensure that medical assistance shall be rendered to any injured or affected person at the earliest possible moment.’ Government officials are obligated to ensure effective access to medical care and transport for protestors injured by law enforcement’s use of force. But time and time again, medics and demonstrators at the Portland protests in July did not receive timely emergency medical transport and treatment that their serious injuries warranted. That volunteer medics stepped in to try to fill these gaps in care was impressive – but then these medics themselves were subjected to attacks and the obstruction of medical care.”

To date, neither local nor federal law enforcement officials who have seriously injured medical personnel or protestors through their excessive use of force have been held accountable.

“The City of Portland needs to adopt systemic and wide-ranging reforms to ensure public safety and protect the right to peacefully protest,” said Kathryn Hampton, PHR senior asylum officer and report co-author. “The mayor’s tear gas ban is a good first step, though it only addresses one type of crowd-control weapon – CS gas – that has been used against protestors. Authorities should also ban kinetic impact projectiles, which have proven to cause significant injury, for crowd-control purposes. The city should also create a safe zone for medical care at the Portland protests, facilitate an independent review process for reports of excessive force, and hold perpetrators accountable.”

PHR’s report makes detailed recommendations for the U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Oregon Attorney General’s office, the City of Portland, and the Multnomah County EMS and Portland Fire Department.

“Federal forces’ misuse of crowd-control weapons flagrantly violates international human rights standards,” said Donna McKay, PHR executive director. “We call on the Trump administration to fundamentally overhaul its protest policing practices and use of crowd-control weapons against demonstrators, and for Congress to exercise oversight to ensure those changes. And we call on local and national officials alike to meaningfully address and ultimately reconstruct the systems that perpetuate structural racism and the police killings of Black people in the United States, which drove Portland residents to protest in the first place.”

In September, PHR published “Shot in the Head,” a visual investigation which showed how U.S. law enforcement shot at least 115 people in the head or neck with kinetic impact projectiles during the first two months of the George Floyd protests. At least 14 head injuries were caused by rubber bullets and other KIPs by the end of July in the city of Portland.

For the past 34 years, PHR medical experts have researched the health and human rights consequences of crowd-control weapons around the world. In 2016, PHR and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations published a report (“Lethal in Disguise”) documenting the misuse and abuse of crowd-control weapons, the detrimental health effects that these weapons can have, and the impact of their use on freedom of assembly and expression. In 2017, PHR researchers published a systematic review in the British Medical Journal Open, finding that kinetic impact projectiles “have caused significant morbidity and mortality during the past 27 years, much of it from penetrative injuries and head, neck and torso trauma.”  For decades, PHR has also documented attacks on health care systems and personnel, advocating to hold perpetrators to account.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.