A Virginia public radio reporter was pepper sprayed and knocked to the ground by police officers while covering protests in Richmond on May 31, 2020. The journalist had identified himself as a member of the press before the assault, he told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
The protests were held in response to a video showing a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25. Floyd was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Protests against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have been held across the United States since the end of May.
On the evening of May 31, VPM News reporter Roberto Roldan and photographer Crixell Matthews were covering protests that moved from the site of the Robert E. Lee Memorial toward the Virginia State Capitol building in downtown Richmond. A line of police officers formed behind protesters on East Broad Street. At around 9 p.m., after an 8 p.m. curfew had gone into effect, the line of officers fired tear gas into the crowd, Roldan told the Tracker.
Though they were not directly hit, Roldan and Matthews coughed and experienced sinus drip from the effects of the gas, said Roldan, who typically covers Richmond City Hall.
Roldan helped Brian Palmer, a Richmond-based photographer covering the protests, rinse pepper spray out of his eyes, Palmer told the Tracker. When Palmer said he was feeling better, Roldan and Matthews decided to move on from what had become a “chaotic situation,” Roldan told the Tracker.
Then the two journalists turned off East Broad Street and walked around the corner to East Marshall Street to take cover. While walking on East Marshall they encountered a line of police officers who were blocking the street and not allowing anyone to advance, Roldan said.
Seeking to leave the area, Roldan, who was wearing a reflective vest and his press badge around his neck, approached the line of police officers with his press badge in his hand and verbally identified himself as a member of the press, he told the Tracker.
”As soon as I said ‘I’m with the press,’ an officer on the police line who had a tank of pepper spray in his hand released the pepper spray at us,” Roldan said. Roldan was hit across his face and hands, though protective glasses shielded his eyes, the journalist said.
Matthews told the Tracker that she was behind Roldan when the pepper spray was fired and hit with residual spray. “The spray mostly hit my arms with some of it hitting my face,” Matthews said.
Disoriented from the pepper spray, Roldan stopped and bent over at the waist in front of the line of officers. As he looked up, he said he saw a large police officer run toward him. The officer “shoulder-tackled” him to the ground, Roldan said.
Matthews helped Roldan off the ground and the two of them approached the police line again. This time they were permitted to pass. Roldan said he tried to explain to an officer on the other side of the line what had happened. The officer asked to see Roldan’s press badge, and then offered no response, Roldan said.
As they continued down East Marshall Street, Roldan and Matthews saw an officer who they recognized as the person who had shoved Roldan to the ground, the reporter said. Roldan said the officer refused to stop or respond when Roldan asked for his badge number. Roldan noted the numbers on the back of the officer’s helmet. He then posted to Twitter about the incident.
The two journalists then asked a VPM News editor who lived nearby to pick them up and drive them home. While in the car, Roldan said he received a telephone call from Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney who had seen his tweet. The mayor apologized for what had happened and said he would call for an investigation, Roldan said.
The following day, Stoney confirmed he had spoken with Roldan and had ordered the investigation, according to news reports. The mayor also tweeted, “There is NO reason this should have happened to a member of the press. No reason. It is absolutely unacceptable, and we are investigating the matter.”
In a press conference on June 1, Police Chief Will Smith said the incident had been “completely accidental” and that the officer “was actually running, and sadly is not as agile as we would like. We weren’t throwing [Roldan] to the ground to effect arrest. It was really in a very tense moment and we were trying to affect other things.” Roldan told VPM news that while he doesn’t know what the officer was thinking, “the tackle felt intentional.”
“My skin was definitely burning for a while after leaving the scene and getting back home,” Matthews told the Tracker.
While her camera equipment was not damaged, there were “residual chemicals on at least the lens hood that I hadn't thought to wipe down,” Matthews said. “I realized it after those chemicals were reactivated by my sweat a few days later during a separate event when I had it sitting on my arm.”
The Richmond Police Department did not respond to the Tracker’s requests for comment.
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.