On March 23, seven Rochester police officers surrounded, mocked and placed a mesh “spit hood” over Daniel Prude’s head. Prude, a Black man who was nude at the scene, was having a mental health crisis on the wintery evening in the Upstate New York City and needed help, his brother Joe said. The officers told Prude to “calm down” and “relax,” as they pushed a knee into his back and neck, suffocating him until he was brain dead. The Monroe Country Office of the Medical Examiner ruled Prude’s death a homicide by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”
Following Prude’s death, his family and local community group Free the People (FTP) Roc struggled to obtain body camera footage via a public records request from the city and its police department. The footage, released six months later on September 2, quickly sparked outrage and grief within Rochester and across the country.
“That was a lynching,” Joe Prude told The Appeal. “That was cold-blooded murder.… My brother was a loving individual. He was a likeable guy and a damn good brother. He made people laugh. He brought joy to people. He didn’t deserve what happened to him.”
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The Rochester community, already activated by the current Black Lives Matter rebellion, organized a press conference and a series of protests. “A naked, defenseless man was lynched,” a FTP Roc organizer said at the conference. “We immediately ask for defunding and then a disbanding of the Rochester police department. They have committed murder and they must be held accountable.”
Rochester Police Department did not immediately return Truthout’s request for comment.
FTP Roc organizers are calling for the immediate firing and prosecution of involved officers, the resignation of mayor Lovely Warren, the passing of “Daniel’s Law” which prohibits officers from responding to mental health calls, the dropping of charges against all demonstrators arrested since May 30, 2020, and the defunding and eventual disbanding of the Rochester Police department.
Stanley Martin, Project Director and Statewide Organizer with Center for Community Alternatives and civil rights organizer with Free the People Roc, tells Truthout, “Organizers in the city of Rochester believe Mayor Lovely Warren played a role in [Prude’s] murder by excessively funding the police instead of mental health resources that could have saved his life. Organizers also take issue with Mayor Warren and the police chief’s failure to inform the public of what occurred, and subsequent failure to take action to hold the officers accountable.”
Mayor Lovely Warren and Rochester City Council halved the 2020 police recruitment class in an amended city budget for the upcoming fiscal year, but critics said the change did not go far enough.
Warren and the council also approved a new, 16 million-dollar police station in a low-income, predominantly Black neighborhood, “in spite of strong community opposition,” according to Martin. The plan displaced people residing in 10 properties. On September 11, two city council members introduced legislation to repeal the plan.
“This budget was approved amidst large community outcry for defunding of the police and investing in mental health services, education, youth & recreation programs,” Martin said. “Over the last 20 years, the RPD budget has doubled, and they’ve become more militarized in their responses to calls for help, including mental health assistance, homelessness, substance use crises.”
Mayor Warren’s office did not immediately respond to Truthout’s request for comment.
The Center for Community Alternatives, a leader in community-based alternatives to incarceration and policy advocacy to reduce reliance on incarceration based in Rochester, Syracuse and New York City, claims that systems of criminalization and incarceration target Black and brown communities and low-income people and exacerbate rather than address harm. (The United States has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world yet ranks 128th in the Global Peace Ranking.) Martin explains, “Through our services, organizing and advocacy, we envision and work to build a world where all communities have the resources they need to thrive and where harm is addressed in restorative ways.”
Such abolitionist ideas entered the wider public imagination following the burning of the third police precinct in Minneapolis after police murdered George Floyd, and amid uprisings against other police-perpetrated murders, such as those of Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade.
An estimated several thousand have taken to the streets of Rochester since protests began on September 2, a large feat for a small city of around 200,000.
On September 8, Rochester police chief La’ron D. Singletary and the some commanding officers suddenly announced their retirement, which some activists saw as a small first step toward the achieving their goals. Others were more skeptical, arguing that retirement protects them from civil liability and allows them to retain a full pension. The seven officers involved in Prude’s murder have not been fired and are on paid leave.
“I’ve witnessed RPD launch tear gas cannisters at protesters, which resulted in people’s noses being broken and heads split open,” Martin said. “I’ve also witnessed people have seizures and lose their vision from being shot by pepper balls at close range.” Some protesters have defended themselves with fireworks, water bottles and shield-umbrella walls.
Yet, at times, demonstrators brought joy to the environment, according to local journalist Adria R. Walker: “The vibe right now is similar to what I imagine East Ave fest. Big block party energy. There’s music, dancing. The only difference is that people are carrying shields, helmets, and other protective equipment.”
Food Not Bombs Rochester provided food and water for crowds, Rochester street medics treated injuries, and others provided ASL services. People painted “resign” in the street. At least a dozen people stripped naked and placed a bag over their heads outside of city hall.
On September 9, the U.S. Department of Justice filed federal charges against two demonstrators, one for allegedly using fireworks and another for an alleged altercation with police during his arrest, an alarming development that mirrors increasing federal involvement in other protests across the country.
It is unclear whether repression will slow the movement in Rochester, but organizers seem determined to press on.
“Daniel Prude’s murder and subsequent cover-up is a result of systemic failures of our city, and the criminalization of Black people with mental illness,” Martin said. “Through organizing, education, agitation and legislative advocacy, organizers hope to get the demands met.”