Protesters gathered on Jefferson Avenue to protest the death of Daniel Prude after he was restrained by Rochester police.
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Who were the people assembled in Rochester Saturday night?
Why did they decide to attend?
What did they see and experience that night?
We reached out to voices in the crowd to get their experiences.
Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart attended Saturday’s protest at the invitation of Beatriz LeBron, Commissioner of the Rochester City School District, and Council member Mary Lupien. She joined the protest on Jefferson Avenue, and she hadn’t decided if she’d march with the protesters.
In the beginning, people were singing, chanting and speaking, she said.
“When we were on Jefferson Avenue, I noticed that there were tons of people with homemade defensive equipment,” she said. Among them were shields fashioned from Rubbermaid lids. They were practicing how to be in formation and how to protect each other.”
“I got very alarmed,” she said. “I thought ‘these are kids and it’s like they are marching out to war.’”
It was then that she decided to march with the protesters. “I needed to be there,” she said. “I needed to bear witness and support them.”
The plan was for elected officials to be in front, along with some pastors and elders from churches, she said. She had brought no protective equipment with her, other than a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
As the march proceeded to City Hall, she saw a diverse group of protesters, skewed toward young adults. “I was astonished there were no police anywhere,” she said — not on Jefferson Avenue or along the route of the marchers. And there were no problems at all.
When the group turned the corner to Exchange Street in front of the Blue Cross Arena, Barnhart found herself face-to-face with a wall of heavily armed police officers. State troopers and various vehicles were behind them.
“It was an astonishing display of force,” she said. The elected officials removed their face masks so the police could see civilian elected officials in front of them.
“We wanted them to know ‘we’re not the enemy. We’re here to oversee and to monitor. Please do not attack.'”
The police declared the gathering illegal. From protesters, she saw one plastic bottle thrown at the police officer, then others. She saw a small firework thrown at them.
With that, the police opened fire and almost immediately she felt a stinging, burning sensation on her head. She felt confused. Someone yelled ‘get behind my shield.’ Lupien and Gruber guided her away from the area.
“It was terrifying,” she said. “I felt like I was in a war zone. I was so scared for everyone.”
She was engulfed with a burning chemical that made her cough and sneeze. She heard booms and shots. “I didn’t know who was doing what,” she said.
A friend picked them up from the area. “We were coughing and wheezing the entire way home,” she said. Her hair was drenched and a substance was on her jeans.
Rachel Barnhart (Photo: immagine Photography)
Barnhart woke up with welts on her leg and torso and has a large lump behind her ear. It hurts when she moves her head and she can’t lie down. She did not seek medical attention.
Looking back, she reflected at her naivete. “I don’t know what I was thinking, going there and thinking we would somehow make a difference,” she said. “We were staring down an army that didn’t care what we thought.”
She is most concerned at the projectiles that are being fired indiscriminately.
“Someone is going to get killed at one of these protests if this continues,” she said. “Someone could lose an eye.”
More: Assistant principal after getting pepper sprayed at Rochester protests: ‘F— the police!’
Rochester City Council member Mitch Gruber also started the evening at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Dr. Samuel McCree Way. People were singing and Daniel Prude’s family was with the crowd. “It was a beautiful show of solidarity,” he said.
The group headed down Jefferson Avenue to Main Street, singing and chanting.
When the group arrived on Exchange, barricades were set up and he saw “lots and lots and lots of heavily armed members of the Rochester Police Department.”
The moment the crowd arrived on the street, the police announced that the gathering was unlawful, he said. “It happened over and over and over again,” he said.
Mitch Gruber is chief programs officer at Foodlink, and an at-large candidate for Rochester City Council (Photo: Provided photo)
He stood up front alongside Lupien and Barnhart. “Our goal was to maintain peace,” he said.
The next thing he knew, he was struck in the thigh and shoulder with projectiles. “At that point it was chaos,” he said.
Looking back at the evening, he felt sad and frustrated.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the response from the Rochester Police Department is completely disproportionate to whatever is coming from the protesters,” he said.
He has been asking for the Rochester Police Department to share how it plans to deal with thousands of protesters, the majority of whom are peaceful. He is certain that the items they have been deploying are not meant to be fired at people’s heads and shoulders.
He wants to see police focus on de-escalation. “It’s been three days. Every day it’s been escalated. I’m going to keep trying,” he said.
Michael Patterson, another city councilman, also was in the front of the crowd on Exchange Street.
When he heard the order to disperse, he disagreed. When the police advanced, he didn’t retreat.
“Since I disagreed, I stood my ground,” he said. “I had an opportunity to move and I chose not to move.”
He was put in handcuffs and put in the back of a prisoner transport truck. When the truck was full, he was transported to the Public Safety Building. He was given his personal items and let go.
He believes that charges should be dropped for anyone arrested for unlawful assembly.
“I still disagree with the order to disperse,” he said.
Miriam Zinter (Photo: Debra Wallace/Debra Wallace Photography)
Protesting injustice has been a part of Miriam Zinter’s life since she was a child. Her parents, both African American, were supporters of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, and her mother marched on Washington.
Zinter, 56, of Brighton, considers working for social justice to be an integral part of her Catholic faith — as much a part of her faith as going to Mass and confession. She studies and meditates on Dr. King’s principals of nonviolence. Among them: “You respond to violence with love.”
She attended Saturday’s protest with her daughter and goddaughter, both 22 years old. Because she knew there had been violence on Friday night, she prepared for the protest by gathering bike helmets and shatterproof goggles, and packed a backpack with ice packs, gauze bandages, saline and Neosporin. The only time she had done this kind of preparation for a protest in the past was when she attended the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C.
“We are going to protest the injustice of what happened to Mr. Prude,” she told her daughter and goddaughter. “We are not going to fight the police or start any trouble.” They agreed to leave if any violence started.
When she got to Jefferson Avenue, she dropped off a case of water. People were enjoying pizza and snacks. A DJ was playing inspirational music. Local activist Shirley Thompson was passing out slips of paper encouraging people to maintain a nonviolent attitude, and to alert an elder about any violence.
The sound system wasn’t good, so it was hard to hear the speakers, she said. Melanie Funchess. director of community engagement at Mental Health Association, pointed out people on hand for mental health support. They also alerted people to medics.
“They stressed over and over again to not be violent,” she said. “Over and over they said this is peaceful. We’re marching for Daniel Prude.”
When the marching started, she moved her car closer to the Public Safety Building, and then reconnected with her daughter and goddaughter.
“All I had to do was look for the drone,” she said. A drone that most people presumed to belong to the Rochester Police Department hovered over the crowd. The women marched to City Hall, where the organizers presented a list of demands. Zinter didn’t agree with all of the demands, and doesn’t believe in group think, she said.
As the group made its way toward the Public Safety Building, the women marched in the middle of the pack. They stayed toward the outside, near the sidewalk. Everyone near them was singing the song “What Side Are You On” as they arrived at Exchange Street.
Suddenly someone yelled, “umbrellas up.” People huddled under umbrellas to avoid direct hits from canisters thrown into the crowd. Some protesters picked them up and threw them away from the group.
At that point, she decided to leave. “We’re not in riot gear,” she said. “We’re not there to riot. We’re not there to cause trouble.”
Instead, she said they were there to help bring attention to a man in a mental health crisis needing help in Rochester and getting killed instead. The system broke down, she said. The police officers didn’t see the humanity in their brother.
“What part of your soul does laughing at someone in distress come from?,” she said, referring to the video of Daniel Prude. “I can’t even fathom it.”
Shammel Turnbore, 31, of Rochester, is a member of the Community Justice Initiative, a social justice group formed after George Floyd’s death. He has taken part in several demonstrations over the past few months.
When he joined the group on Jefferson Avenue, he saw a gathering with a wide range of ages.
“Everybody was under the same mindset,” he said. “We’re marching to show justice for Daniel Prude.”
As the group marched, he was toward the back. People were chanting “no justice, no peace” and singing songs. “It was a very large crowd — peaceful,” he said.
As they headed down Exchange Street, they were met with several barricades that created a dead end for protesters. He heard the repeated announcement that it was an unlawful gathering and that protesters should disperse.
The crowd became agitated. “They were just doing a peaceful demonstration,” he said. They wanted to keep marching and exercise their First Amendment rights.
“I’m not sure what sparked it first,” he said. There were pepper balls, canisters and sound waves. “It happened very fast and escalated very quickly.”
He got hit on the leg, and had pepper spray in his throat and eyes. “It was a cloud,” he said. “It was unavoidable.”
His eyes were red and it was hard to breathe. He had to go far away find relief. He saw people falling on the ground, coughing, crying and wheezing, as others tried to help them out.
He was surprised to see the police holding police dogs. “I’ve never seen that at a protest,” he said. “It definitely had a vibe of the ’60s for sure.”
There were three police dogs on site during a downtown demonstration. (Photo: JAMIE GERMANO/ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE)
He was stunned by the police response, noting there was no looting or property damage.
“That wasn’t the agenda of the crowd,” he said. “Many people are making it seem that way. Look at all the businesses they passed. The mentality was simply to march.”
His throat was scratchy on Sunday morning, and he decided not to return that night.
“We just want some type of action,” Turnbore said. He said he’s disappointed at the lack of transparency from Mayor Lovely Warren and Rochester Police Department Chief La’Ron Singletary.
“That video (of Daniel Prude) was very disturbing,” he said. “It’s hard to justify. I think that’s what got people very upset.”
People are not out for destruction, he said. They’ve just seen the “pass the buck” approach too many times. “We just want justice,” he said. “We see this happen too often.”
Jesse Barksdale was not at the protest.
He was in bed in his house in the 19th Ward shortly after 1 a.m. when his phone started ringing and buzzing. People were alerting him of a fire at his business on State Street. J Ribs, or the State Street Stop N Go, is a combination convenience store, U-Haul dealer and take-out barbecue joint. A sign out front proudly states that it is a Black-owned business.
He rushed to the store and arrived before the fire department. Two of his U-Haul trucks were on fire. He rushed into the store in search of a fire extinguisher.
“I’m realizing I’m not the fire department,” he said. “I can’t put out the fire. I didn’t know what to do.”
He said the fire department was busy that night and quickly put out the fire and took off. In addition to the two trucks that were set afire, another vehicle had been damaged by the flames. He estimates the damage to be over $100,000.
He did not reopen on Sunday. He was resting after being up all night, and he has to figure out how to clean up the debris left from the fire.
“I don’t want people to feel like this is the end of Jesse,” he said. He vowed to reopen Monday.
From bystanders at the scene and from police officers, he heard rumors that a white guy from out of town set the blaze. But he doesn’t know for sure. “Who’s to say it wasn’t Black Lives Matter people?”
“It’s a loss of income,” he said. “It’s really unfortunate. I just don’t understand. All I do is try to treat the community nice.”
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