Saturday, September 12, 2020

Alfred Station woman shares first-hand account of Rochester protests

From an email:
I'm submitting to you a personal, firsthand account of my experience during one of the recent racial justice marches in Rochester. I live in Alfred Station and some friends and I felt the urgent need to participate in and support the calls for justice for Daniel Prude and for systemic changes in the Rochester Police Department.
This account is transcribed from my personal journal. It was written several hours after the protest disbanded. The only things redacted are sensitive personal information. The only things added are a correction to a quotation and the insertion of "(my dog)" after I mention her name.
I'm submitting this to you because it is of regional and national importance. Because I want people to hear what really happens on the ground; to look at a group of protestors being shot at and remember that we're people. We are not a mob. We are not terrorists. We are fighting for change and justice that has long been refused, taken back, and ignored. Almost universally with state sanctioned violence.
I submit this for publication not only for it to go into the historical record but as a window that people might look through and see the truth. To counterbalance the narrative being put out by those in positions of power. To unequivocally state that this happened to me and is happening to thousands of protestors not just in Rochester but across the country.
Amie Acton
Alfred Station, NY
Personal account of the Justice for Daniel Prude march in Rochester, NY on 9/2 by Amie Acton
·         An unedited recounting, save for the exclusion of sensitive information, the correction of quote by Assata Shakur in first paragraph, the insertion of “(my dog)” on the final page
·         Includes endnotes, one of a memory shared by Rebekah, the other of a photo of Angela
It’s 3:35 am and I decided to write things down before bed. I feel sweaty and gross. My throat is sore, probably from a combination of chanting and gas. The emergency numbers written on my arm are faded from sweat but still very visible. They catch my eye when I move my hand. 
The beginning of the protest had a feeling of a college gathering or a block party. Songs, poetry, speeches. We took cleansing breaths as a group. We chanted back words by Assata Shakur: it’s our duty to fight for our freedom. It’s our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains. It was very powerful. And we began to march. Chanting things like “who shuts shit down, we shut shit down”, “say his name, Daniel Prude”, “no justice, no peace, fuck these racist ass police”. We also sing “whose side are you on, my people whose side are you on”. It felt nice to sing. 
We reached city hall where there were more speeches and protester’s demands were made. No public official in sight. We got out our umbrellas because we saw figures on the roof. We feared it was cops with chemical weapons. Apparently, one was a photographer who took a great shot of the group. My yellow umbrella is visible in it. Not sure if there actually were police there. We were followed by a drone for much of the event. I found it creepy and dehumanizing, like out of some dystopian book. Then I think hey, that’s what we’re living in, right? We continued walking, eventually closing our umbrellas and removing our goggles. The ones I borrowed from Dad worked really well but since they had been used for sandblasting they were occluded in too many places for my comfort. 
Whenever I have a nightmare it invariably involves me not being able to fully see.
After 10pm the assembly was declared unlawful. I’m not sure why. If they’d let us march the planned route there would’ve been no problems. We realized shit was getting real. We put on our goggles and put up our umbrellas. Angela was my buddy and we stood next to each other. The pepper balls were quick to come. Some reports mention flash bangs as well but I wasn’t in a position to tell.
There were three Black women next to us with no protection. One was cowering between her friends, terrified. This was their first protest ever. I asked her if she had PTSD, which was fairly clear but I didn’t want to assume. Yes, she did. The shots were making her jump and hide her head. We told them to stand behind us and we’d keep the gas from them. Then, another heavy volley came and suddenly I lose Angela and the women we were protecting and am swept away by the crowd to at least a block away. I’m disoriented by this. I guess I assumed that getting swept up by a crowd was a figure of speech, not an actual thing. The Black women are long gone by this point, I’m not even entirely sure where I am. Angela is nowhere to be found. I pray the women found safety and were able to get away.
I found other members of our group and checked in with them. They hadn’t seen Angela. I walked back through the crowd to find her, feeling like I failed the buddy system. I got closer to the front line when another cloud of gas roared in front of me. I retreated. I didn’t worry about losing my remaining group members; I had a bright yellow umbrella that was easy to spot in a crowd. 
I’m losing energy recounting this; my eyes are heavy. 
At one point, maybe the next volley, we lost OJ and E. They retreated further back than we did. I tried to go for Angela again but didn’t make it as far. I felt a shift and didn’t want to get caught in something. At one point the police started to advance on the front line. Sometime around this we lost OJ. He cut out on a side street when the police were coming closer. He managed to get to safety. But we knew where he was. We had heard nothing from Angela. I tried again to get Angela but there was more gas. At one point we were retreating and people start running. I’m on the street and am afraid of someone plowing through us like in Charlottesville. I cut out to the sidewalk. Eventually I meet up with Andy, Rebekah, and E. Rebekah is texting Angela to find out what’s happening and is getting visibly agitated. She’d gotten a shot of gas in her eyes earlier.*
So we stand back several blocks, scanning the area for Angela’s helmet and umbrella. Rebekah and I had to pee and saw a bar was open, had tents out front, and glorious drag queens welcoming people in to get more supplies, use a bathroom, and catch their breath. The Spirit Room was the name, I believe. They had cases of water and snacks. Masks, medical supplies everywhere. It was the first time we were able to exhale.  
I’m wishing I could write this down faster, I’m so exhausted. 
We got some supplies, peed, and went out the back because there were police cars blocking us in. Andy was talking with OJ about circuitous routes to get back to our meeting place. Finally, we get a text from Angela! She’s trying to find us and tells us she got knocked over by police. I go out front, open my umbrella, and hold it up as a beacon for her.  I chat with some other protesters who warn me to avoid a location where Trumpers are counter protesting. Finally, I see Angela. She has tears shimmering in her eyes and without even thinking I embrace her, grateful and relieved. She tells me she was caught in the front lines, lost her umbrella, was hit with more gas, got shot in the foot with a rubber bullet, and charged at and subsequently mowed down by police. It sounded like he body slammed her. She instinctively curled up in the fetal position to protect herself. She said she played dead in case cops were looking to hit again. Eventually she was able to get up and get far enough away to check her phone and update us.
There’s a picture on the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle website of her on all fours, trying to gather herself and stand. She looks stunned and disoriented. The fog of gas is envelops the background. She looks like a war refugee.**
The group reunites and takes an extremely circuitous route back to our meet point. We end up walking several miles. Andy has taken charge of this. He’s more familiar with the city and wasn’t as traumatized. I told him he was a good mama bear.  
My eyes are going out of focus as I write. 
We finally get back and reunite with OJ. We chat for half an hour or so, updating each other, taking long swigs of water, grabbing a snack, and processing what happened. E needs to get going so we pile into the car and drive home. Andy heads back to his car as his home is in a different direction.
He’s going to be super tired.  
We chatted on and off on the way home. At one point the windshield was really fogged up despite Angela’s attempt to wipe it clear. She pulls on the shoulder on 86 to better wipe it down, and, after a quick conversation with OJ, realizes she’s turned on the rear defrost instead of the front. It’s a new car, she’s still learning. The windshield cleared in seconds and we all chuckled at this small bit of ordinary. 
I was dropped off at home a little after 2:00am. My car is still at the parking lot in Carnegie but I’ll worry about that tomorrow. Mom brings Kali (my dog) down and envelops me in a hug. She and Dad were watching live streams of the protest and she had been very scared. I relayed much of the event to her before she left. I almost went to bed after that but realized I should write this down while it’s still fresh.
I’m probably leaving some details out but my eyes keep closing and getting blurry.  
I’ll process this more tomorrow. I’m grateful to have made it through and will reflect further after a long sleep. Thus concludes my primary source recounting of this protest.
I hope I can make it upstairs.
*Rebekah shared a snippet of her experience of getting gassed: 
I believed we were far enough back from the police line to be safe. I was very wrong. The police fired tear gas and it moved like a wave closer to us. At first it didn’t seem too bad. A little stinging. Then I started coughing. I couldn’t breathe and my lungs hurt. I almost threw up from coughing alone. Then it hit my eyes. My vision went from fine to blurry in a matter of seconds. Soon, I could barely open my eyes. Andy had to pull me backwards by my backpack away from the tear gas as I’m yelling “I can’t see” over and over. He proceeds to answer “I’ve got you”. I’m finally able to turn around and some unknown woman washes out my eyes with water. My helmet flies off as I tilt my head to either side just hoping to get it out. After a few seconds I can see her and know I will be okay. My mask is soaked and everything hurts but I know there are people willing to help. She hands us a spray bottle filled with pink milk and disappeared into the crowds.