Police in Rochester, New York fired pepper bullets and pushed back demonstrators with riot shields Thursday night amid protests demanding justice for Daniel Prude, a Black man killed by asphyxiation when officers put a "spit hood" over his head in March of this year after responding to a call that he was having a mental health emergency.
"This was one of the more violent things I've seen in my years in journalism," Zach D. Roberts, a photojournalist who covered the protests live, tweeted late Thursday.
Rochester Police just retook the fence in space with a full court charge with about a hundred officers using rubber bullets. And pepper bullets. This was one of the more violent things I've seen in my years in journalism. Almost every single person here is affected I got hit too. pic.twitter.com/y4zqUhEMpB— Zach D Roberts (@zdroberts) September 4, 2020
Protesters took to the streets in the city following the release Wednesday of video footage showing police putting the spit hood over Prude's head and pinning his naked body to the ground when they responded to the call earlier this year.
Seven police officers involved in the incident were suspended with pay Thursday, following outrage and news coverage of the footage. Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren announced the officers' suspension during a news conference, saying she took the action "against the advice of counsel," noting the police union could respond by suing the city. Warren added that Prude had been failed "by our police department, our mental healthcare system, our society... and by me."
People were sitting, singing, chanting, and eating pizza.
At around 10:30 p.m., the dozen or so police officers who had been monitoring the demonstrators from behind a barricade were joined by around 20 reinforcements in riot gear.
The officers suddenly surged toward the barricade and began firing an irritant into the crowd. It was unclear what led them to do so.
Coverage of the protests and police response lit up social media, with journalists and citizens shocked at the use of police force, including pepper-spraying a broadcast reporter.
September 4, 2020
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I don’t think I ever could have expected to be fired on with chemical itinerant while covering a small, unequivocally peaceful protest.— Sarah Maslin Nir (@SarahMaslinNir) September 4, 2020
In America. https://t.co/8eQdZPus2d
There's a sad, almost inevitable cycle about how many of these deaths of unarmed Black men happen in the places with the worst police departments—who then make everything worse by responding poorly and aggressively to the ensuing protests. https://t.co/mMb9aM3C5x— Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) September 4, 2020
This reporter got hit with pepper spray in Rochester just before he went on the air at 11:00.— Michael Benny (@MichaelBenny) September 4, 2020
Demonstrators have tried to kick down barriers around police headquarters. #DanielPrude #RochesterNY pic.twitter.com/P12Q04TziS
"It's clear that City Council's request for a respectful, de-escalated interaction with protesters went unheeded," City Council member Mitch Gruber wrote in a text message to the local Democrat and Chronicle. "[Rochester Police Department] initiated unnecessarily aggressive behavior toward peaceful protesters." According to the newspaper's coverage of events:
The crowd on Thursday chanted "Black Lives Matter" and "What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now." Most wore face masks, while carrying signs and listening to the beating of a drum in front of the barricaded headquarters of the Rochester Police Department.
Officers began firing pepper balls shortly before 10:30 pm. An hour later, officers emerged in line formation from the building, shooting dozens of pepper balls, standing where the barricade once stood, as crowds retreated.
Amnesty International earlier on Thursday condemned the use of the "spit hood" by police and joined calls for an investigation into events leading up to Prude's death.
"Spit hoods can cause extreme distress and restricted breathing," Justin Mazzola, the deputy director of research at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. "They are especially dangerous when someone is already in crisis as Daniel Prude appeared to be. This is just one of a number of cases of people being suffocated by police and illustrates the need for systemic police reform."
Mazzola continued: "There must be a thorough investigation into Daniel Prude's death, as part of a wide-ranging reform of policing practices. Daniel Prude and his family have a right to justice."