Freelance photojournalist Zach Roberts was targeted with a chemical irritant while documenting a protest at Pennsylvania State University in State College on Oct. 24, 2022.
Uncensored America, a recognized student organization, had arranged a “politically provocative comedy night” with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and comedian and “professional troll” Alex Stein. The Proud Boys are a far-right extremist group, designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose members self-identify as Western chauvinists and are known to instigate street brawls. The show’s title, “Stand Back & Stand By,” echoed the directive then-President Donald Trump gave to members of the Proud Boys during a 2020 presidential debate.
The Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity, which is not a recognized student group, organized a protest to begin at 6 p.m. in opposition to the event, according to the university paper, The Daily Collegian.
Roberts told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he had registered to attend the event but never received additional information about how to enter the venue and was only able to cover the student-led demonstration outside.
Shortly before 7 p.m., protesters surrounded about five or six apparent right-wingers and attempted to force them to leave, Roberts said. In footage of the incident, the men all appear to be wearing dark jackets, khakis, face coverings or balaclavas.
“One guy pulled out a can of bear mace and started threatening people with it,” Roberts said. “I moved closer — like an idiot — to where it was happening.”
Roberts said that law enforcement was notified by a protester that someone was threatening people with the pepper spray, but no immediate action was taken.
Less than a minute later, a second man grabbed the canister and sprayed those standing near them, including Roberts, who was wearing a press badge.
“He knew that half the people around him were press, we all had cameras out,” Roberts said. “There’s no way he sprayed Ford [Fischer], with that big video camera and a tripod, and not known that he’s a member of the media.”
The Tracker documented the assault of documentarian Ford Fischer here.
Roberts said that his glasses protected his eyes and he quickly removed everything that was struck by the spray in order to rinse off the chemical irritant. Despite his efforts, his arms burned throughout the evening.
“I had to stop talking at times and focus on the pain,” Roberts said. “There were certain moments where it was too painful to pick up my cameras. I could literally see blisters forming where the bear mace hit me.”
According to The Washington Post, students had petitioned the university ahead of the event to cancel it. In a statement released on Oct. 11, the administration initially said it would allow the event to take place on the basis of upholding freedom of speech. Citing escalating violence, the university ultimately canceled the event less than an hour before its scheduled start time, notifying students through the university’s alert system at 7:19 p.m., according to VICE News.
When reached for comment, the university directed the Tracker to various statements released before and after the event was canceled.
“Tonight, Stein and McInnes will celebrate a victory for being canceled, when in actuality, they contributed to the very violence that compromised their ability to speak,” Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi said in a statement. “Tonight, counter-protestors also will celebrate a victory that they forced the University to cancel this event, when in actuality they have furthered the visibility of the very cause they oppose.”
A statement released by the event organizers, Uncensored America, the following day condemned the violence.