Adam Cairns, a staff photographer for the daily Columbus Dispatch, was hit with a projectile while covering protests in Columbus, Ohio, on May 31, 2020.
The protests were held in response to a video showing a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25. Floyd was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Protests against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have been held across the U.S. since the end of May.
On the night of May 31, Cairns and his colleague Dean Narciso left the Dispatch office and walked half a block to the intersection of Broad and High streets adjacent to the Ohio state capitol building where protesters had gathered. At around 9:45 p.m., shortly before a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect, Cairns observed a large police presence moving into formation in the middle of the intersection, he told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. As the officers lined up, he said he saw something that resembled a water bottle thrown at the police. Immediately, and without warning, according to Cairns, police began shooting projectiles and pepper spray to disperse the crowd.
Cairns and Narciso were standing at a distance from the group of protesters who had congregated. They turned to leave the scene. At that moment, Cairns told the Tracker, he was struck on the back of his right ear and cheek by what appeared to be a wooden bullet, knocking his safety glasses off his head. Narciso was not hit, according to Cairns. The men returned to the Dispatch office and Cairns said he did not resume photographing the protests until the following night. The projectile left a welt on his cheek for several hours and a scratch on his ear, he said. His equipment was not damaged.
In a photograph taken by Cairns shortly before he turned away and was hit, a police officer can be seen aiming in his direction.
In an editorial for the paper, Dispatch Editor Alan D. Miller wrote of the photograph, “It’s unclear whether it was that officer’s bullet that grazed Cairns’ ear and cheek… It’s unclear whether the officer who fired at Cairns was targeting a journalist. But there was no mistaking Cairns for a protester, given the camera equipment and press credentials he was carrying.”
Cairns told the Tracker “it’s really hard to say” whether he was targeted by law enforcement. “As I look back on it, there was nobody else in the area other than me with cameras pointed at them,” he said.
The Columbus Division of Police did not immediately respond to phone and emailed requests for comment.
In his editorial, Miller wrote that when asked in a press conference two days later about police treatment of journalists covering the protests, Columbus Police Chief Thomas Quinlan responded, “There’s no malice involved, there’s no intent. ... We ask the public to have some patience and please comply, and we’ll work it out afterward. Please don’t stand there and argue; move along and comply and we’ll fix this after.”
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or had their equipment damaged while covering Black Lives Matter protests across the country. Find these incidents here.