'System is broken': Black community expresses anger, fatigue after officers cleared in Daniel Prude's death

Tracy Schuhmacher
·6 min read

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – After news that a grand jury announced no criminal charges would be brought against the Rochester officers whose restraint of Daniel Prude may have caused his death, members of the city's Black community expressed grief, anger and fatigue, along with a determination to set a new path forward.

As they did throughout fall 2020, people in Rochester took to the streets Tuesday evening, including more than 100 people who gathered at Jefferson Avenue and Samuel McCree Way, where Prude had encountered the police. No arrests and no apparent physical clashes with law enforcement were reported.

Protesters expressed frustration with the Rochester Police Department and the grand jury's decision not to charge any officers in Prude's death, which comes on the heels of similar findings in the high-profile cases of Jacob Blake and Breonna Taylor. The Kenosha, Wisconsin, officer who shot Blake was not charged. One Louisville, Kentucky, officer was indicted on counts of wantonly endangering Taylor's neighbors, but no officers were charged with killing Taylor herself.

Video: Daniel Prude timeline of events

The full timeline: Daniel Prude died in March 2020 in Rochester, New York. How? What's happened since?

"I'm not surprised," N. Bryan Massey said. "This is another loss for the Black community – it hits harder when it's coming from home." Massey is founder of Educated THUG, an organization launched in Rochester to get young men out of gang culture and use their skills for social and economic change.

"This whole situation is just another reason not to trust the police," Massey said. "We must look inward for our comfort and be sure to come up with a positive plan for action to address this verdict."

Prude's death last year set off nights of protest in Rochester after activists contended that police should not have been the primary responders to what was a mental health episode.

On March 23, 2020, police received a call of a man acting erratically in southwest Rochester and breaking windows. Police found Prude, who had been taken to a hospital hours earlier but not admitted, wandering the streets naked. Prude was restrained by three officers and lost oxygen to his brain while being pinned to the ground.

National civil rights attorney Ben Crump expressed "deep" disappointment that no officers would face charges and criticized the police response that ended in Prude's death. He called for a more compassionate approach to what he called a "mental health crisis."

"This tragedy could have been avoided if officers had been properly trained but also used basic human decency and common sense to treat Mr. Prude with compassion and get him the medical attention he deserved," a statement on Crump's Twitter account read.

“Mental health crises require mental health expertise, not violence at the hands of the police," read a statement from the New York American Civil Liberties Union. "It’s time for a complete transformation of community safety, beginning with removing the RPD from the role of first responders in mental health crises and putting trained mental health professionals in charge.”

Meanwhile, another key trial in the national discussion on police violence is just weeks away. Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis officer charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd last summer, is scheduled to stand trial alone March 8.

Daniel Prude grand jury: Rochester, New York, police officers will not face charges in March 2020 death

In Rochester, calls for a new system

Serena Viktor is a Rochester resident, mother and Free The People Roc affiliate. Her initial reaction to the news was anxiety for the Prude family.

"Our community needs RPD abolished," Viktor said. "They are a source of perpetual harm and an extension of a system that legally lynches Black people and maced 9-year-old Black children. We as a community are in pain."

Serena's 8-year-old son accompanies her to many demonstrations. Her message for him now is to continue the fight.

"It's tragic that I have to have a heavy-handed conversation with an 8-year-old," Viktor said. "I will tell my son that what happened to Daniel Prude is a grievance for our entire community. As an activist family, we will do our part to move the needle of justice in favor of Black people."

In announcing the grand jury findings, New York Attorney General Letitia James also called for changes in grand jury laws as well as police reforms, including improved training for officers.

Those are not enough, said Danielle Ponder, a local musician, activist and lawyer in the county Public Defender's Office. She was a frequent presence at protests surrounding Daniel Prude's death, adding her voice in songs and speeches.

“I don’t think that what she proposed is going to get us anywhere," Ponder said. “We need a different system of public safety. The policing system is broken.”

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Danielle Ponder sang at a celebration of Daniel Prude's life on Jefferson Ave. in Rochester on Sept. 10, 2020. Prude's family traveled from Chicago to attend. Ponder is a recording artist, activist and attorney for the Monroe County Public Defender's office.
Danielle Ponder sang at a celebration of Daniel Prude's life on Jefferson Ave. in Rochester on Sept. 10, 2020. Prude's family traveled from Chicago to attend. Ponder is a recording artist, activist and attorney for the Monroe County Public Defender's office.

James is one of a long line of prosecutors to express regret that a man died and nobody would be held accountable, she said. “One of these prosecutors has to say 'This system is broken and it’s beyond repair,'" she said, likening the situation to Groundhog Day.

"The only way we’re going to make anything happen is to defund the police. At the end of the day we have to create a new system for public safety," Ponder said. Noting that Rochester is the city where Fredrick Douglass envisioned a world that slaves would be freed and where Susan B. Anthony could envision women having the right to vote, she believed the city is capable of envisioning a new public safety system.

"I think that in order for Daniel Prude to not die in vain, the city owes it to him to completely transform policing," she said.

The Rev. Myra Brown, the activist pastor of Spiritus Christi Church, has received national attention for her anti-racism efforts and her role in calming protests last summer. If the policing blueprint is not changed in Rochester, she said, there will be more Daniel Prudes.

"If we cannot get justice for Daniel Prude then Black communities are not safe," Brown said. "The grand jury decided it was more important to protect white officers who work from a slave patrol blueprint of 1819 in this city than to offer public safety to its Black citizens.

"We’ve never had public safety for the whole of the Black and brown community," she said. "We need to stop telling ourselves that that’s what we have.”

Brown says she has found clarity on how the city should move on from "racialized mess" and plans to advocate for a new system of public safety.

"There’s absolutely no way we have to live another day like this except for fear," she said.

She said she gets her strength from the knowledge that the country's policing system is not God's work.

“I know that this is not God’s doing," Brown said. "But God can help us out of it.”

Follow Tracy Schuhmacher and Robert Bell on Twitter: @RahChaChow and @byrobbell

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Protests in Rochester; Black community reacts to Daniel Prude decision