Hope Byrd, a New Orleans photographer, says she was assaulted by a police officer who threw her to the ground and into a barricade while she was covering a protest in the city on June 3, 2020.
Protests that began in Minnesota on May 26 spread across the country, sparked by a video showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest the day before. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
Byrd, who was on assignment for Antigravity Magazine, was left with bruises and cuts. She temporarily lost some of the use of her left arm after she was physically assaulted by a New Orleans Police Department officer, she told the Committee to Protect Journalists in a phone interview.
The New Orleans protest began in Duncan Plaza, a small park in the city center, on the night of June 3. At 7 p.m., between 1,000 and 2,000 protesters began marching east to Crescent City Connection, a bridge that spans the Mississippi River. At that point, it was peaceful, Byrd told CPJ. The police were anticipating the group, and had followed the marchers from the plaza to the on-ramp to the bridge, Byrd said.
But at around 9:30 p.m. protesters were underneath the bridge and getting restless. A police barricade prevented them from crossing the bridge. The protest organizers selected two or three people to try and cross the police line and begin negotiations with police, Byrd said.
“They wanted to be escorted past the bridge, to the other side,” Byrd said. “It seems like a simple gesture, but the SWAT team was not having it.”
Shortly before 10 p.m., the confrontation began. Byrd said the police line was breached, and the police started pushing into the crowd. She doesn’t know how or why the line was breached, but protesters were able to get on the other side of the police line. In response, police started firing tear gas.
“I was pushed through [the line]; I don’t know and don’t really remember how I got through,” Byrd said. “I was quickly grabbed and thrown on the ground, which is when I produced my media pass and made it very clear that I was media to an officer. That didn’t seem to help.”
“Between the first and second grab of the officer I produced my already visible media badge. I held it in my hand and put it toward his face, but it didn’t matter,” Byrd said. “I didn’t expect it to, but I felt the need to produce that. That’s when he threw me on the ground, back into the barricade, and into the crowd and into the tear gas.”
Byrd says her press credentials were visible around her neck the whole time. She was also wearing a hat with the word “Antigravity” on it, the name of the magazine she was shooting for.
After examining photos and videos from the altercation, Byrd believes the police officer who assaulted her was the captain of a New Orleans Police Department squad. Byrd said she also witnessed the same officer put a male protester in a chokehold. She did not see the names or badge numbers of any police officers, including the one who assaulted her, she said.
“The police at the line, some were talking, some weren’t,” Byrd said. “The officers I addressed, I asked them where their body cam was. I asked them to produce their name and their badge number. To my knowledge and in the photos I have, there’s no identifying anything.”
After she ended up on the other side of the police line and back with the protesters, Byrd put her goggles on as her visibility was affected by tear gas. Other photographers were wearing gas masks, but Byrd did not have one. As she was shooting, she heard rubber balls being shot by police. Although they initially denied it, the New Orleans Police Department confirmed that they used rubber balls against protesters during the city’s protests.
At around 10:40 p.m., the protest organizers began their retreat and Byrd left the scene.
When asked if she thought she was targeted for being a member of the media, Byrd said both yes and no.
“The fact that [the police officer] responded with more violence after I said I was media, by making it clear I was media, by showing the credentials [suggests yes],” she said. “Most of the damage was from the second and third throw. At the same time, we see that he’s choke holding other protesters.”
Gary S. Scheets, a senior public information officer for the New Orleans Police Department, told CPJ it could not comment on Byrd’s allegations without a police report. Byrd did not file a police report, but she did contact the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor. Byrd said she tried to use the complaint form online, but the link to upload evidence is broken.