Freelance photojournalist hit with projectiles, arrested while documenting protests in Worcester, Mass.

June 1, 2020

Freelance photojournalist Richard Cummings was arrested and charged with failure to disperse and other charges while documenting a protest against police violence in Worcester, Massachusetts, on June 1, 2020.

Cummings told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he went to the protest that day to photograph from a distance, but added he didn’t stay long before heading for the Main South neighborhood to continue work on a long-term documentary project on the area.

Cummings said that at around 9:30 p.m. he noticed an escalated police presence, with officers from the Worcester Police Department, the Massachusetts State Police and the Clark University Police blocking roads and offloading vans filled with officers in riot gear.

Cummings said he heard the officers screaming, as if “to get pumped up for something.” He added he didn’t understand what was happening, because the protest was elsewhere and he hadn’t seen any escalation there.

The Telegram & Gazette, Worcester’s daily newspaper, reported that a group of people had gathered in the neighborhood after the peaceful protest in downtown had dispersed. A confrontation reportedly ensued with law enforcement after the group staged a “die-in” in a roadway.

According to Cummings, the officers moved in formation down Main Street, chanting, “Move back,” and firing tear gas and projectiles as some individuals threw rocks and shot fireworks toward them. He said several people were arrested, many of whom appeared to not have been the ones throwing objects.

Cummings said he was struck twice by projectiles fired by police during the melee, once on his left shoulder and once on his right elbow. He told the Tracker he was unsure what type of projectiles they were.

Cummings said he then moved to stand next to a police formation near the intersection of Hammond and Main, figuring it was a safer place to photograph. He said he told an officer that he was a freelance photojournalist and that the officer directed him to stand on the sidewalk, which he did, continuing to document the scene.

Another officer, who Cummings said seemed to be in charge at the scene, asked Cummings what he was doing. Cummings said he was told it was all right to be where he was. A recording filmed by Cummings and published by the Telegram & Gazette appears to have captured this interaction.

In the video, an officer can also be heard saying of a protester, “I’m keeping eyes on him. I’d love to hit him with a pepper gun.”

About 15 to 20 minutes later, Cummings said, he was suddenly grabbed by an unknown number of officers, who bent him over a brick wall with his arms behind his back. Cummings said an officer screamed he was going to break Cummings’ arms and called him a homophobic slur.

Cummings told the Tracker that he didn’t resist and pleaded with the officer to not break his camera. While a second officer took his camera, Cummings said, the officer who pinned and screamed at Cummings seized his cellphone.

Both the Worcester Police Department and the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

Cummings said he was then escorted to a police van, where he said he began to have a panic attack, in part due to the impact of exposure to pepper spray or tear gas and in part due to fear of contracting coronavirus in a confined space. He also said the metal handcuffs cut into his wrists.

“It was hell, pretty much for taking pictures on the sidewalk,” Cummings said. “I wasn’t being rude to any cops. I wasn’t yelling at any cops. I went there … I didn’t show any side. I was just documenting it.”

Cummings was one of nearly 20 people arrested that night on charges of disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace and failure to disperse during a riot, the Telegram & Gazette reported.

Cummings told the Tracker that, on his release early the next morning, he noticed that videos on his phone appeared to have been deleted. He said that his phone didn’t have password protection, so its data would have been accessible. Cummings said that he was unable to recover any of the deleted footage.

Cummings’ legal team, who are representing multiple people arrested that night, said the phones of two other individuals had disappeared or been destroyed, the Telegram & Gazette reported.

Cummings pleaded not guilty on Aug. 21, according to the Telegram & Gazette. A Worcester County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson told the Tracker that his next hearing is scheduled for Nov. 28. If convicted on all charges, Cummings faces up to a year in prison and fines totaling up to $800.

The protest was 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 violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have been held across the U.S. since the end of May.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred total incidents of journalists being assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas, or having their equipment damaged while covering demonstrations across the country. Find all of these cases here.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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