Editor's note: Ben Gray is a freelance photojournalist who was a staff photographer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 18 years.
Things were starting to heat up in front of CNN Center when one protester got into a shoving match with the police. He was quickly tackled by multiple officers as more surrounded them to keep the crowd away. I dropped to my knees to get a ground-level shot of the protester's face through the legs of the police, thinking I needed to be in position in case an officer put his knee on the man's neck, which thankfully didn't happen.
VIDEO: Former WSB-TV anchor Monica Pearson on protests
As I got back up and started to reassess what was happening, more commotion broke out on the sidewalk in front of CNN where police were using their bikes to keep the protesters back. At that moment, people started to scatter and police started to turn and cover their faces and I felt the burn of pepper spray. My first instinct was to turn and get away, but at the same time I knew it was important to make photos of what was happening.
Something I heard one time while covering an active shooter training session, or maybe some self-defense class, popped into my head. Just because you get sprayed and it hurts, doesn't mean you have to stop. I squinted, breathed as shallowly as I could and moved a little closer while continuing to shoot. Seconds later the scuffle was over and I turned to find water for my eyes and peeled off my KN95 face mask, which seemed to be holding the spray and making it stick in my throat.
That was the first, and probably worst, of four of five doses of pepper spray and tear gas I felt Friday night and it left my arms burning and red, my eyes stinging and my lungs a bit tender. It also gave me the confidence to know how close I could get and how long I could stay there when things heated up again and again.
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