Photojournalist says he was targeted with pepper balls while covering a protest in Rochester

September 3, 2020

Photojournalist Zach Roberts was hit multiple times with pepper balls and another crowd-control irritant fired by law enforcement as he covered a protest against police brutality in Rochester, New York, on Sept. 3, 2020.

Demonstrators took to the streets in Rochester to demand justice for Daniel Prude, a Black man who died in March after Rochester law enforcement pinned him to the ground and he lost consciousness. Prude, who had a history of mental illness and was naked and in distress at the time, died in hospital a week later. Law enforcement body camera footage released months later, on Sept. 2, sparked protests against police handling of the incident.

A day after the footage was released, demonstrators had gathered outside the Rochester Public Safety Building. Roberts said he was covering the gathering when police — standing behind a metal fence at the building — began firing a crowd-control irritant into the protest.

According to the New York Times it was unclear what prompted the law enforcement action. “Unfortunately, I was nailed with that pretty quickly,” Roberts told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. “It was like indiscriminate, it was basically like they were spray-painting a wall,” he said.

When protesters tried to move the metal fence, officers fired the irritant again, according to the Times account.

Roberts, who was photographing for the international agency NurPhoto, based in Italy, said he had not expected any violence and was not wearing protective gear. That night he tweeted that “this was one of the more violent things I've seen in my years in journalism.”

According to Roberts, officers began pushing people away from the public safety building and chasing after them as they fled. “They did it in such a chaotic way, no direction, no warning,” said Roberts. “I asked multiple times, where do you want us to go and there was nothing, no response from police officers,” he told the Tracker.

Roberts said that in the chaos, police rushed at the crowd, firing pepper balls as they pushed people across the street, into a parking lot and then onto an overpass. “That’s when the shocking amount of violence occurred,” Roberts said.

Roberts said that as he took photos of protesters, he was wearing press credentials, yelling “press” to identify himself to police and carrying two cameras that he felt made him clearly identifiable as a journalist. He said he was hit in the back at one point as officers yelled at him to move away. “There is basically no way that they didn’t know that I was a journalist,” he said.

According to Roberts one of his cameras was hit with pepper pellets but not damaged. “I assume they were aiming for me, I mean, maybe they were aiming for the cameras, I don’t know which one is better.”

Roberts said he did not seek medical care for pain and bruises and suffered no long-term health issues. He said he also did not file a complaint against Rochester police.

The captain of the Rochester Police Department responded to a Tracker query, saying that the department is “going to start an internal review of the incident.”

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

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