Reporter Julio Rosas was hit by a pepper ball fired from a Minneapolis police vehicle as he reported on a protest in the city on May 28, 2020, Rosas told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
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 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 United States since the end of May.
Rosas had arrived at the Minnesota Police Department’s Third Precinct and begun filming in the early afternoon for Townhall, which describes itself as a conservative and commentary news site. He shared videos of protesters outside the police station and people walking through the ransacked aisles of a nearby Target.
As evening drew close, hundreds had gathered near the police station in preparation for a third night of protests, according to news reports. The police had maintained a minimal presence throughout the afternoon, Rosas said, until a convoy of police vehicles drove in next to the Target parking lot.
A video filmed by Rosas shows officers escorting one person apparently under arrest and patting down another. More police officers arrive in an unmarked white van. The officers are seen throwing flash bang grenades and shooting less-lethal ammunition to disperse the crowd. The video shows a water bottle thrown at the officers, who had formed a line in the middle of the street.
Rosas said he followed the police after they began to retreat from the scene. He realized he needed to find a safer place to film after he was almost hit by a tear gas canister that had been thrown back at police, he said.
Rosas laid down on a berm on the side of the road to lower his profile for safety. “I was trying to make myself as small as possible to try and get out of the way while still trying to do my job,” he said.
Rosas stopped filming during a lull in the action, he told the Tracker. Then an officer pointed his pepper ball gun from inside a Minneapolis Police vehicle directly at Rosas.
“I started shaking my head and said, ‘No, no, no, don’t do it, don’t do it,’” Rosas told the Tracker. “And then he shot me in the upper left thigh.”
Rosas said he was wearing a press badge “clearly in front” around his neck and had his phone in his hand when he was shot. He said he wasn’t sure if he was targeted specifically as a journalist. There were some protesters nearby, but he remained apart from them on the berm to avoid getting hit by thrown objects. He did nothing to indicate a threat to the police officer, he said.
Rosas said he believed he was hit by a pepper ball, a projectile similar to a paintball filled with an irritant instead of paint. The projectile left a white powder on his clothing that burned and caused him to cough.
Minnesota Police Department spokesperson John Elder told the Tracker he was unable to comment about this and other incidents involving the press. However, he said that the police department had not used pepper balls in years, instead using “40 mm less lethal foam marking rounds.” He also said, “Every use of force by the MPD is under investigation internally.”
It is not clear if other law enforcement agencies were present on the scene. Video footage appears to show only Minneapolis police officers.
Protesters, journalists and even law enforcement officials have had difficulty at times identifying specific officers during the protests. More than a dozen different agencies joined the law enforcement effort in Minnesota, often wearing similar-looking uniforms obscured in the chaos of tear gas-soaked streets.
Rosas continued to report despite being hit. Later that night, Mayor Jacob Frey ordered the police to evacuate the Third Precinct, which protesters then set on fire.
The following day, Rosas was also hit by a projectile as he filmed Minnesota State Patrol troopers and National Guardsmen confront protesters, he told the Tracker. Getting hit by a likely pepper ball “wasn’t great,” Rosas said, “but it was a whole lot better” than the 40 mm projectile he was shot with the next day.
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 protests across the country. Find these incidents here.