Journalist caught in chemical irritants and threatened with arrest while covering Rochester protests

September 4, 2020

Freelancer Vanessa J. Cheeks was caught in crowd-control agents and threatened with arrest while covering protests in Rochester, New York, on Sept. 4, 2020.

For the third straight night, demonstrators had marched in protest of the death of Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man who died by asphyxiation while in the custody of Rochester police in March; details surrounding his death came to light only after police body camera footage was released on Sept. 2. The protest was just one of many held across the nation throughout the summer in protest of police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In a phone interview with the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, Cheeks, who also works as a news producer for WROC-TV, the city’s CBS affiliate station, said that when she’d arrived near the Court Street Bridge on the evening of Sept. 4., the situation between protesters and law enforcement was tense. At 10:53 p.m. the journalist tweeted a video in which the Rochester Police Department could be heard declaring the gathering “an unlawful assembly” and ordering the crowd to disperse. Two minutes later, she posted, “Pepper balls man.”

Cheeks told the Tracker she “definitely got the pepper in my face and threw up a couple of times.”

As the demonstrators moved away from the bridge and headed east toward MLK Park, Cheeks said members of the media took to a nearby building’s terrace to cover the scene. At 12:18 a.m., she tweeted, “Things escalated. We got tear gassed.” Cheeks told the Tracker that she believed that the police did not take into account the members of the media in the crowd while targeting their less-lethal munitions.

She said she saw police shooting pepper balls up to the terrace as reporters were ducking behind trees to avoid them. “You can absolutely tell, we are not protesters,” she said, adding, “We were not up there with protesters.”

She said that as she ran from the area to avoid the tear gas and pepper ball fire, she encountered WROC photographer Patrick Riley and the station’s security guard. She said that the group watched a line of police officers walking past the park and identifying individuals they wanted to disperse.

At 12:45 a.m., Cheeks tweeted that she heard an officer state, “Individual in white shirt, backpack. Move or you’ll be subject to arrest.” She said she fit that description and was baffled that the officer couldn’t tell that she was a member of the press. Cheeks had a press badge around her neck and says Riley was clearly identifiable as press. She said she held up her press badge to identify herself and that the officer did not act on the threat.

The Rochester Police Department did not respond to an emailed request for comment as of press time.

Two Democrat and Chronicle photographers were also hit by less-lethal munitions on Sept. 4. Find all incidents in Rochester, New York, here.

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

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

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