What one USA TODAY reporter saw during George Floyd protests — until he was temporarily blinded by pepper spray

Tyler J. Davis, USA TODAY

MINNEAPOLIS — Hours of peaceful protests of the death of George Floyd in downtown Minneapolis on Thursday evening gave way to clashes between police and demonstrators, leading to a number of people being hit with chemical irritants.

I, a USA TODAY Network reporter, was one of them. 

After speaking that afternoon with civil rights leaders and local black clergymen and minority business owners in looted stretches of St. Paul, I felt a nervous pride about being a reporter of color documenting what was sure to be a historic, intense, emotional night for Minneapolis, a city I lived in briefly as a boy.

By 5 p.m., I was at the Hennepin County Government Center, in the heart of downtown. Several hundred people carrying cardboard signs and milk (a sign of what was to come as it counteracts tear gas better than water), had gathered for speeches and a march through the roadways. Hennepin County sheriff's deputies and Minneapolis police officers watched as insults, but no objects, were hurled their way.

About 1,000 people spent the next three hours walking more than 15 city blocks, stopping cars on numbered streets and chanting "I can't breathe" and "no justice, no peace; prosecute the police." They'd return to the government center for a round of megaphone messages about past instances of police violence against people of color before taking to the street again.

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After marching and coming back to the office building twice, the group set out for the final time about 8:20 p.m., vowing to "shut s*** down." 

Protesters were walking westward on South Fourth Street, toward Hennepin Avenue, when they stopped at about 8:45 p.m. to confront police who'd set-up metal barricades outside a parking lot on the south side of the road. Dozens of marchers turned south on Hennepin and kept walking, but the vast majority stood in front of police, across the street from the AC Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. 

I worked my way up to the front of the crowd and heard protesters yelling at officers and throwing eggs and water bottles in their direction. The roughly two dozen officers stood in a line, armed with long brown batons, projectile launchers and chemical-spray canisters. 

Once protesters began touching the barricades, officers in the parking lot began to retreat while spraying liquid or gas at the group, causing a group of about 50 people right in front of the police to run. Within moments, about 8:50 p.m., multiple Minneapolis Police Department squad cars — three or four of them marked, one not — rode into South Fourth Street and separated the crowd. A dozen officers arrived on bikes as well.

Panic set in among the protesters as people ran in several directions. 

Almost as soon as they got out of their cars, officers sprayed canisters in every direction telling people to move toward the north sidewalk or keep moving west. The crowd became angrier, telling officers the nonlethal weapons were unnecessary and excessive. Behind the barricades, flash-bang devices were thrown into the avenue along with smoke grenades.

Two young women to my left were sprayed outside of the Gay 90's bar on the corner of Hennepin and Fourth as chants of "George Floyd!" and "Say his name" continued in the background.

I pulled out my camera to record the incident while being sure not to walk toward officers or have any other items in my hand. The officer redirected his chemical spray from the fleeing duo toward me.

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He laid on the trigger for a few seconds as I told him I was a member of the media. With my right arm and part of my face covered in the spray, I began to walk back toward the crowd, but was pushed toward Hennepin Avenue. It was about 8:55 p.m., the 1,000-person mass that congregated at the government office was down to about half that or fewer.

I thought I was OK — maybe just grazed by the irritant. But after roughly three minutes my eyes and face began burning intensely and I walked north along Hennepin away from the scene. I could hardly see. 

Screams around me warned that police were moving down Hennepin Avenue, following protesters. I could not witness any officers along the street, but saw large billows of smoke in the road that caused people, who were running away from Hennepin and Fourth, to stop and cough. The smoke stretched for more than a block.

By the time I'd traveled another block north, my eyes refused to open and my face and arm felt as if they were dipped in a deep-fryer. My nose ran profusely and a peppery sensation tickled my nose and throat.

Four or five people, noticing I was in pain, poured milk and water on me to quell the effects of the spray. I eventually left the area and returned to my hotel with the help of two other USA TODAY Network journalists, feeling the burning in my right eye for the better part of an hour. Ten hours later, my right arm still feels as if a sunburn is subsiding.

The march began with speakers telling protesters to avoid damaging or looting property, but be disruptive. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to stick around to see for myself how it ended. 

Follow the Register on Facebook and Twitter for more news. Tyler Davis can be contacted at tjdavis@dmreg.com or on Twitter @TDavisDMR.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: George Floyd protests leave USA TODAY reporter hit with chemical spray