Bill O’Driscoll, a reporter for the local public-radio station 90.5 WESA, was struck by a projectile fired by police while covering protests in Pittsburgh on May 30, 2020.
Protests that began in Minneapolis on May 26 had spread across the country, sparked by a video showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest the day before. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
O’Driscoll told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that May 30 was the first big day of protests in Pittsburgh, with demonstrations beginning downtown around 2 p.m. He took over for a colleague covering the protests for WESA at around 5 p.m.
“In a familiar pattern now, the protest had started quite peacefully: Protesters were blocking the streets, marching, chanting, blocking the streets, etc.,” he said. “After a couple of hours, there was an incident where an unoccupied police car was set on fire. A second car was then set on fire in the same area. The protest at that point was called off by the organizers.”
While most of the protesters dispersed, O’Driscoll said up to 200 people remained on downtown streets. He found a splinter group of protesters and followed them as they marched.
When the group turned on to Smithfield Street — which cuts through the middle of downtown — they encountered a police blockade manned by officers clad in riot gear.
“The police had decided at that point to stop the protest, or, in other words, to initiate a confrontation with the remaining protesters,” he said.
O’Driscoll said that around 6:30 p.m. he was standing behind the front line of protesters and was at least 30 to 40 yards away from the police. Officers had begun firing tear gas and crowd-control munitions, though he said he wasn’t sure what type of projectiles they were using.
“I had my back turned — not intentionally, that was just the way I was facing when I knocked out a tweet about what was going on — and I just felt this impact on my left buttocks, and it felt like I’d been hit by a baseball pretty hard at short range,” O’Driscoll said. “Then I realized immediately that it had been something that had been fired, and then I started to run off down the street in the opposite direction until I could figure out what was going on.”
O’Driscoll told the Tracker that he didn’t know if he was targeted. While he said officers couldn’t have seen the press credentials around his neck because of the way he was standing, he was carrying a large, noticeable microphone.
“I had been on that particular scene for a while at that point, and within sight of the police, so it’s also possible that they could have identified me and if they were targeting me they probably would have seen who I was at that point,” he said.
The Pittsburgh police didn’t respond to a request for comment.
At a press conference that evening, Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert said “white males dressed in anarchist attire” had hijacked what had been a peaceful protest. Schubert didn’t discuss police use of crowd-control munitions.
While the projectile left a large bruise, O’Driscoll said it didn’t hamper his ability to work and he covered a subsequent protest as well.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists being assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas, or having their equipment damaged while covering protests across the country related to the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Find all of these cases here.