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Police pepper spray, shove journalist covering anti-police brutality demonstrations in Brooklyn

May 30, 2020

Freelance journalist Nick Pinto was pushed to the ground by a New York City Police officer after clearly identifying himself as a member of the press during a chaotic night of protests in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on May 30, 2020.

The protests were part of the many demonstrations held across the country after the May 26 video release of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd during an arrest the previous day. Floyd, a black man, was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

Pinto, who was covering the protests for New York outlet Gothamist, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the Saturday evening protest in the Flatbush neighborhood was “the most mayhem I've seen on the streets of New York City ever.”

By the time Pinto arrived in the late afternoon, tensions between the protesters and police in riot gear were at a fever pitch. The two sides were facing off in the street, Pinto said, when the New York Police Department pushed the crowd north up Bedford Avenue. Some protesters were throwing objects at the officers, including plastic and glass bottles, but also more dangerous projectiles, Pinto said.

“I saw fire extinguishers, bricks, chunks of concrete the size of footballs; I saw a cop take a giant chunk of brick and concrete in the neck and go down and I feel certain that that cop is not OK,” Pinto told the Tracker. “The police would respond by pepper-spraying indiscriminately, charging into the crowd with bats, busting people up, making some really hard arrests, dragging them back while the crowd chants ‘shame!’ And then they would reset and do it all again. This lasted for eight hours.”

When the crowd came across any police vehicles that had been left unattended, they would vandalize them and set them on fire, Pinto said. Other anti-police partisans climbed on the roof of gas stations to throw objects at officers in an environment that Pinto compared to “urban combat.”

When the moving conflict reached the intersection of Bedford and Church avenues, the police broke up the crowd into smaller groups that the officers pursued. During this time, Pinto was hit in the back of the neck by pepper spray, which he said felt like a “very strong Tiger Balm.” Later, Pinto would inadvertently touch the back of his neck and then his eyes, resulting in a much more painful burning sensation.

The journalist, who was wearing a press pass around his neck, told the Tracker that he was not specifically targeted by the pepper spray, but soon had a more direct encounter with an officer. Pinto was on the sidewalk on Church Avenue moving away from the line of police officers who repeatedly told him to move. He said he displayed his credentials and identified himself as a member of the media.

“I was not moving fast enough for their satisfaction. And it was a challenge to their authority,” Pinto said. One officer “locked eyes on me, came at me, pushed me, knocked me to the ground. It tore open my pants and bloodied both my knees.”

“I got back up, and I was like, ‘Hey, I'm press, I'm doing my job. I understand you're doing your job, but, just respect what I'm doing,’” Pinto continued. The officer replied, “‘No, you have to respect what I'm doing.’ And I asked for his badge number and he gave it to me. I asked for his name and he gave it to me. But I was rattled enough that I was unable to read the name that I wrote—my hand was shaking.”

Pinto was not detained or charged with any crime. In a separate incident the night of June 4 in Brooklyn, Pinto said he was shoved to the ground by officers during a scrum with protesters. Pinto told the Tracker that he is unsure whether he’ll file a complaint with the NYPD about the officer’s behavior on May 30 or about the incident a few nights later.

“I'm trying to decide whether I particularly feel like talking to the police about the police,” he said. “But I may yet do so.”

The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment about the incident.

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.

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

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