Freelance photojournalist Maranie Staab has been covering Portland’s political conflicts since July 2020. So when a street brawl broke out between political adversaries on Aug. 22, it was like muscle memory: Staab began documenting.
She was among about two dozen journalists and livestreamers covering a fight that began when anti-fascist protesters arrived at a Proud Boys’ rally in an empty Kmart parking lot.
Some participants didn’t want to be on camera.
As the skirmish spread to the sidewalk and Northeast 122nd Avenue, video shows at least three people in the leftist crowd assaulted Staab. An anti-fascist protester dressed in identity-concealing “black bloc” clothing threw Staab’s cellphone to the ground and smashed it with their foot. Someone then yanked her to the pavement by her camera strap and sprayed her with either bear mace or pepper spray as she stood up.
Staab’s camera and phone were damaged as a result.
The attack on Staab is only the latest incident of anonymous, purportedly anti-fascist crowds in Portland attacking observers trying to document their actions. In May, for example, a participant in a daytime police brutality protest tackled WW contributor Justin Yau, clawed at his face, and broke his glasses. Extreme right-wing groups like the Proud Boys and their allies have also attacked Portland reporters.
Journalists are often reluctant to report intimidation because they don’t want to insert themselves into a story or overshadow the harm that befalls the subjects they cover. However, the assault on Staab gained national attention after a colleague of hers posted video of the incident on Twitter.
Staab, 34, has had her work appear in national publications like The Atlantic, The Washington Post and Vice. She spoke to WW about the incident and what it says about the safety of press covering Portland’s conflicts. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
WW: Can you describe what happened on Aug. 22 after you were maced?
Maranie Staab: My colleagues were there and they got me out of there. They tended to me and I’m very grateful for that.
There’s a lot of things messed up about what happened, but there were no less than 25 other photographers there. There were people livestreaming. I was literally singled out.
Do you have a theory for why you were singled out?
A lot of press get flak from black bloc about filming and photographing. To me, I don’t care who you are: If we’re on a public street and a newsworthy event is occurring, you’re not going to tell me what I can and cannot film.
I am one of a handful of photographers and journalists that have been out on the street more nights than not over the last year. So I’m not the only one, but I’m known. It is not the first time that people have taken issue with me being out there.
I should say that I’ve had quite a few people from that community reach out and say, ‘That wasn’t acceptable, we don’t condone that.’ In the same breath, there are plenty of people online defending the actions of that person, and some suggesting that I should have received worse.
Were you injured?
I’m pretty durable. Physically, I’m OK. I was a little banged up but, like I said, I’m pretty tough.
I got hit with a paint balloon in the head. I still do have purple paint on my back that I can’t get off. It was like a triple whammy: It was the ground, it was the mace, the paint balloon. They ruined my favorite hat! [laughs] Everybody knows me because of that hat.
The anonymity aspect of it is cowardly. If you want to do this, (a) don’t attack me from behind, (b) don’t do it anonymously and then run off.
Do you think gender played a role in your assault?
I don’t know for certain. I do my best not to play that card. But I was called a slut, and a “cota,” which I was later told is a dog. So I’ll leave it to somebody else to interpret that, because that’s some pretty misogynistic language.
Are you glad the incident was filmed and posted online?
The short answer is yes, I’m very happy it was recorded, because that’s our job.
I’m somebody that, for the last year, has been pretty vocal about threats against the press. I was assaulted by federal agents. I was assaulted by the Portland police numerous times while I was a member of the press—clearly marked. I have been threatened and assaulted by people on the right, and now this happened.
In an effort to be fair across the board, it needs to be discussed. We have a right to be out there. I believe in the importance of documenting what is happening. If we start allowing anyone to control what can and cannot be recorded in a public space, where does that leave us?
The next day, Mayor Ted Wheeler stated that the people who chose to engage in violence are the only ones who were harmed. What are your thoughts on that?
At best, that’s disappointing. What happened was not just in the parking lot; it was out in the street. And I know people in the gas stations there were alarmed and fearful. And a member of the press—myself—was assaulted, and it would be shocking if he didn’t know about it.
Is there an argument to make to appeal to those who don’t want the press to film their actions at protests?
I want people to know that I’m not interested in involving the police, and I am open to dialogue.
What I would say is, those same individuals are the same ones that want us to document the police and the “right,” but they want to dictate when and where and if or how they can be documented, and that’s just not how it works.
Put it this way: The person that assaulted me and the people that support it—they’re not particularly interested in the protections of the First Amendment, so I don’t think going that route would help.
But freedom of assembly and freedom of the press are both protected by the First Amendment.
The hypocrisy is palpable. I also don’t think assaulting people is anti-fascist behavior. And trying to control and dictate what can be done is not anti-fascist. If you are someone who is truly invested in anti-fascism, and your priority is going after me, I question your commitment to anti-fascism.