A photojournalist said police fired what appeared to be pepper balls at him “dozens of times” on Sept. 5, 2020, while he covered protests in Rochester, New York.
Protests in the city focused on the March 2020 asphyxiation death of Daniel Prude by Rochester police. Details surrounding Prude’s death, ruled a homicide, came to light after police body camera footage was released by his family on Sept. 2 after a public records request. Calls for justice in Rochester joined national protests for Black Lives Matter and against police brutality following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting assaults, arrests and other incidents involving journalists covering protests across the country.
Sept. 5 was the fourth straight night of protests and was the most shocking he had ever covered, Zach Roberts, a photographer for Nurphoto agency, told the Tracker.
“They [police] brought out dogs, LRADs and BearCats,” he said, referring to long-range acoustic devices and a type of armored vehicle.
Earlier that day, New York State Attorney General Letitia James moved Prude’s death investigation to a grand jury. By that evening, around 1,500 people had gathered, starting with a rally at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Dr. Samuel McCree Way — where Prude was restrained by police.
Roberts arrived at the rally around 6 p.m. and encountered a peaceful gathering, he said. The group marched along Jefferson Avenue and headed for a route stopping at various points around the city, including the City Hall building in downtown Rochester.
Tensions between police and protesters intensified, Roberts said, and he found himself hit multiple times by pepper balls fired by police.
“I probably got shot dozens of times,” Roberts told the Tracker. He said his messenger bag took the brunt of the impact.
“They’re supposed to shoot them [pepper balls] at inanimate objects...they’re not designed to be shot at people.”
Roberts said police could see he was a member of the press, as he was wearing multiple press badges and two large cameras around his neck.
Later that night Roberts followed protesters as they ended up near the Gannett building next to the Monroe County Supreme Court building.
There was a standoff between police and protesters, Roberts said, and he was positioned off to the side. “I was standing alone when I got shot [again] doing nothing, I was far away enough,” Roberts said.
A Twitter user posted a video of the standoff and wrote that “a photojournalist was shot with impact munitions.” The thread also shows the injury to Roberts’ arm.
Roberts said he was stunned and injured, and returned home after the incident. The whole night was “just chaos, just [police] bringing purposeful terror,” he said
The Rochester Police Department didn’t respond to a request for comment on the incident.