The first few hours seemed peaceful, as far as she could tell.
A 21-year-old SJSU psych major, Breanna Contreras joined the May 29 protest against police brutality shortly after it started. Along with hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand others, she and her 18-year-old sister and their father marched from San Jose City Hall to Highway 101, where the demonstration temporarily blocked traffic.
While marchers engaged in collective civil disobedience of overtaking a roadway, they self-regulated. When a couple protesters hopped on the hoods of idling cars, their peers urged them to disembark. One smashed a car window. Others vandalized a few San Jose police SUVs. By and large, however, Contreras says the demonstration remained peaceful as it began the journey back to downtown.
As the crowd approached a police skirmish line at Seventh and Santa Clara streets, Contreras’ dad urged his daughters to head home with him. “We wanted to stay, though,” Contreras says. “So, he left—it turns out, right before things got ugly.”
At 5:07pm, after about three hours of relative calm, chaos erupted. From where she stood, on a sidewalk where Seventh and Santa Clara streets intersect east of San Jose City Hall, Contreras could see clouds of tear gas swallow a crowd, prompting screams, expletives and pained coughs. Protesters fled.
As Contreras craned her neck to get a glimpse of the commotion, she felt something strike with a resounding thwack on her right temple. She careened back a few steps from the force of the impact but managed to stay standing.
“I just felt an instant of pain in my head,” she recalls, “at the same time I heard the pop of the riot guns. From that, you know, I put two and two together and realized I’d been hit.”
As her sister filmed the skirmish, unaware of what just happened, Contreras stumbled away from the bedlam. A stranger saw the bloody gash and rushed to help, taking the cloth mask from her face to stanch the wound. The stranger pulled her farther down Seventh Street and sat her against a wall, where her sister found her after tending to someone choked by tear gas.
All the while, police continued firing off riot guns. One struck the Good Samaritan in the leg. Another hit a nearby woman in the belly.
The Contreras sisters scrambled up and began walking down the street in search of an ambulance. A paramedic rushed to their aid, cleaning Contreras’ wound, giving her an ice pack to quell the throbbing and advising her to go see a doctor to close the split skin.
Contreras says she heard no verbal warning from SJPD about their intent to use riot guns or physical force. Though the city’s highest-ranking law enforcement officials later said they gave repeated verbal warnings, Contreras says none were audible from where she stood—which wasn’t far from where the tumult erupted.
“It seemed that what happened there was a turning point,” Contreras says. “All that footage you see on the news of fires and fights and all that, those clips the big news channels kept showing, that’s when it all started. But that wasn’t the protest that I saw.”
Thirty-three-year-old San Jose native Jose Ruiz arrived to the protest just as things took a turn for the turbulent. He says he saw a young woman worked up, shouting at cops who seemed ready to fire off riot guns at close range.
“It looked like he was going to shoot her, point-blank,” he recounts. “So, I ran up, put my hands up and said, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’”
That didn’t stop them. The foam-capped metal rounds hammered the woman and Ruiz—one striking his right pinky, hyperextending it to the point that his skin split open.
“They hit that girl in the shoulder,” he says, “and here I am leaking blood everywhere. That’s when I saw protesters start throwing a bunch of bottles at the cops. I start yelling—everyone starts yelling—and just telling them not to f*cking shoot.”
An “older guy” near Ruiz joined in the chorus to cease fire, but officers struck him with a baton. Then, “they dragged another guy and started hitting him,” Ruiz says. “So, I mean, I’ll admit I started using profanities. Everything just blew up. They began poking me with the baton in the rib cage and I fell down.”
The police line began advancing, launching rubber bullets, chemical weapons and beanbag rounds at the fleeing crowd. Ruiz recounts retreating down Santa Clara Street when a couple more rubber projectiles pelted him—one in the leg, one in the back—and a tear gas canister exploded right in front of him. A video uploaded to YouTube catches him moments later staggering toward a tree outside the Clarion Hotel and leaning against it to vomit.
He barely had a chance to collect himself when a dark SUV barreled around a row of cars parked on the left side of Third Street and screeched past screaming protesters—running over a young woman’s legs—until it screeched to a stop at the corner of Santa Clara. Police arrested the driver, reportedly a 19-year-old white man named Cole Rochlitz, who told NBC Bay Area correspondent Damian Trujillo that he raced down the street out of fear for his life. (Trujillo has since deleted a tweet about the incident, but a cached version still shows up in a Google search).
A handful of protesters who almost got hit by the motorist rushed up to the car and began smashing its windows. Cellphone footage captures snippets of the frenetic scene.
Ruiz says he tried to summon cops to help the woman who got run over by the SUV, but the officers retreated after taking the driver into custody.
“I ran to see if that girl was OK,” Ruiz says. “She obviously wasn’t, so I turn back to the cops and I’m like, ‘Dude, she could f*cking die. Go help her please—please help her!’ But they kept aiming, shooting at us and backing away.”
From there, Ruiz says he jogged with the crowd up to Smoke Eaters restaurant, where he linked hands with other protesters on Third Street, faced the cops as a united front and began chanting, over and over, “Don’t shoot.”
“By then, it was already out of hand,” Ruiz says. “There was nothing we could do, so we just continued the protest by forming this group and just letting them know that we were peaceful. I wasn’t there to loot—none of my friends were there to loot, or riot.”
Throughout all the mayhem, he says, his hand felt mostly numb. At some point in the fracas, a guy took off his shirt so he could wrap his hand, stop the bleeding.
For a few days after, Ruiz tried to mend his split pinky at home with super glue. Finally, though, worried about infection, he went to the hospital. “The doctor was horrified,” he says. “Not just because of my pinky, but all the bruising on my bicep, my ribs, my chest. The doctor thought I’d have internal bleeding—thankfully I didn’t. And I saw plenty of other people get hurt much worse, so I guess I’m lucky.”
It’s unclear how many people came away from San Jose’s first few days of protests maimed or battered. Peter Allen, a San Jose Planning Commissioner, has spent the better part of the past two weeks nursing a contusion with a basketball’s circumference from one of the same projectiles known colloquially as rubber bullets.
As was Alex McGregor, who told the City Council on Tuesday that the May 29 march marked the first protest he’d ever attended. “I was shot by one of your projectiles,” he told the council in an impassioned call. “I did not throw anything. I have a plate-sized bruise on the side of my arm that’s still visible 11 days later. There were other people around me who were much younger and much smaller, who were very peaceful with nothing to protect themselves but their cardboard signs.”
Shaunn Cartwright, a legal observer certified by the National Lawyers Guild, took another hit, which happened to be on a bad knee.
Then there’s Derrick Sanderlin.
The 27-year-old activist has become nationally known at this point for what SJPD did to him on the first day of protests. While he was trying to urge officers to calm down, standing between their riot guns and a line of protesters outside of First Methodist Church, cops shot him in the groin with a rubber round, rupturing a testicle. The injury required an hours-long surgery and may leave him unable to have kids.
On May 29 alone, SJPD says it fired 31 pepper balls, 32 tear gas canisters and 400 baton rounds into the crowds. According to Capt. Jason Dwyer, the commander who authorized the so-called less-lethal crowd-control weapons, he had no choice.
The video starts with a cinematic shot of six San Jose cops staring down a dumpster fire. Then, aerial footage of Third and Santa Clara, where hundreds of protesters have overtaken the streets. One pushes a white trash bin, also ablaze, toward a gray SUV.
Cut to Highway 101, where we see a guy smashing a car’s driver-side window with something resembling a wrench. Flash-forward to City Hall. People chuck bottles at a police SUV slowly rolling past unruly crowds.
A few minutes more of dizzying jump cuts show looters pilfering two-by-fours from a construction site, a motorist recklessly barreling past pedestrians, more trash fires. Windows shatter. Rocks fly. Officers drag a punch-drunk colleague out of the fray.
The chilling display evoked the “American carnage” President Trump envisioned during his first year in office, and it unfolded in the heart of the nation’s safest big city.
At least, that’s the message imparted by a five-minute montage screened at a June 4 press conference, where SJPD leaders doubled down on claims that they had no choice but to use tear gas, projectiles and sweeping arrests to quell unruly protests this past week.
“When my boots hit the ground, at Seventh and Santa Clara, I stepped into a war zone,” Special Operations Commander Capt. Dwyer told reporters. “That is not hyperbole, that is not in any way embellishment. I’ve been a cop for 21 years, spent nearly half that time in special operations, and I can tell you I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The veteran lawman issued the first order to deploy noxious chemicals, rubber plugs and metal pellet-filled beanbag rounds at demonstrators May 29, San Jose’s first day of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin. Dwyer said he has no regrets about the decision, saying it was a choice between tear gas and projectiles or “losing the city.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Capt. Dwyer said of that day. “At 5pm on Friday, I made the call immediately. It wasn’t that difficult.”
The irony of SJPD using a highly edited video wasn’t lost on people who watched the presentation. Just days before, Mayor Sam Liccardo and SJPD Chief Eddie Garcia told this news outlet that all should reserve judgment about what happened because some footage doesn’t show what happened leading up to the incidents.
At that point, city officials hadn’t yet acknowledged the extent of the damage inflicted on members of the public. Liccardo—who by then had repeatedly praised the “tremendous restraint” of officers—stood mostly mute during the presser, which unfolded against an SJPD backdrop at the Mission Street police HQ.
The whole script felt overwrought, casting Capt. Dwyer and his men and women in blue as warriors under siege. “The No. 1 goal is to defend ourselves,” he said. “Because if we’re too busy rescuing injured officers, we can’t do the bigger job, which is saving the city—in this case, saving downtown.”
After several more minutes of wartime rhetoric, the commanding officer launched into an anecdote clearly meant to humanize him by reminding viewers that, at the end of the day, he’s also a family man. It began with a rock, which Capt. Dwyer say he picked up after being struck by one on his helmet.
Holding a gray stone up for reporters to see, he said, “I don’t know why, but I put it in my pocket, and I went about my day. I kinda forgot about it.”
The next morning, he recounted, his 5-year-old daughter saw it and, in Dwyer’s telling, asked, “Daddy, is that a new rock? Where did you get that rock?”
“I just said, ‘Daddy found it,’” he said. “And uh, I don’t think a 5-year-old would understand. But you know what this rock represents?”
He pauses, apologizing for “getting emotional” because of being on his 10th straight day of work and sixth day on the line.
“It represents the last thing that any of us wanted,” he continued. “This rock represents the last thing the police department wanted, it represents the last thing I wanted and it represents the last thing the community wanted. But it happened. And when it happens, as public servants, we have a decision, we have a choice. Do we let it happen, and let it get worse? Or do we try to stop it, before it gets out of hand and gets out of control? Do we try to keep, try to maintain order? And we chose the latter.”
The press conference elicited hundreds of angry comments. People posted on Facebook Live about how it smacked of “copaganda” and criticized the mayor for standing idly by as SJPD presented a one-sided narrative. What stood out to many observers who spoke to this news outlet and left comments on the SJPD Facebook page, was how police made no mention of de-escalation. Instead, they defended the response as a necessary reaction to the violence from civilian “agitators.”
By Dwyer’s own admission, however, he arrived at the scene after protests had already spiraled out of control. He framed what followed as an inevitability. In militaristic terms, he described the fire and fury of the crowd and how the bottles, sticks and chunks of asphalt thrown at officers prompted him to escalate to a violent response. He claimed—falsely—that the riot guns were aimed at the ground (a mischaracterization he would repeat to the City Council less than a week later).
Surprisingly, Dwyer divulged how he thought projectiles and tear gas made for better optics. “The force doesn’t look good,” he acknowledged. “It’s never going to look good. It’s ugly. We know it’s ugly. The community doesn’t like it, we don’t like it.”
But he said it’s better than the alternative.
“Then what’s left?” Dwyer asked. “Then we have archaic skirmish lines of police officers with 42-inch hardwood batons. Now you tell me which one is going to look worse: people rubbing their eyes and coughing? Or officers striking individuals with batons, and breaking bones and God knows how many other injuries, including officer-involved injuries. You’re looking at hand-to-hand combat at that point.”
“That is, I think, a scenario that nobody would want.”
Posted by San Jose Police Department on Thursday, June 4, 2020
That’s the last thing David Baca wanted.
Around 5pm, the same time the May 29 escalated into the frenzy played on loop in TV segments and viral video, Baca was recording a skirmish line at Seventh and Santa Clara. From where he stood, it looked like a tall white officer was taking disproportionate aim at the black and brown protesters.
So, he held his cellphone at head height and walked up to the policeman to get a clear shot of his face. Baca says the plan was to get close enough to see his face, get his name and badge number and then walk down the line to record the rest of the officers.
What happened next has by now been seen by millions of people—including by viewers of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
ABC7 news broadcast the overhead view, which shows Baca—hand out and up, recording the whole time—approaching the line. In a flash, a cop, who appeared to sport sergeant insignia, leaps out from behind the line to grab him. San Jose Inside photographer Kyle Martin captured the incident from just feet away.
The officer who jumped from behind the line strikes Baca on his Adam’s apple with an extra-long wooden truncheon. Baca gets knocked backwards by about a foot and disappears under a pile of blue-uniformed bodies. Once on the ground, Baca says he submitted, trying to remain as motionless as possible—even when he felt an excruciating pain on his right knee—so they would ease up.
When they finally backed off, they tried to lift him from the ground, but Baca couldn’t stand. Without reading his Miranda rights, officers accused him of assaulting them and said he’d face up to a year or two in jail for the offense.
Some of the cops, Baca says, refused to help him. But an older officer told him to lean his weight on him as he guided him over to a cop car, where another policeman stood with him for about 40 minutes until the ambulance arrived.
At Valley Med, in a ward reserved for injured arrestees, Baca says doctors told him his kneecap was shattered. It took a five-and-a-half-hour surgery to fix.
Meanwhile, hours passed before Baca’s wife, Lisa Robles, heard about what happened. When she called Baca’s mobile phone, a woman answered, saying she grabbed his phone after he got tackled and recorded as much of it as she could. It wasn’t until hours after the incident, when a paramedic let Baca use his phone while police weren’t looking, that he got to call Robles to tell her what happened.
The hospital released Baca a few days later, discharging him in a wheelchair and a knee brace. He was told it’ll take months to heal. How many medical bills he’s left with is undetermined (his wife started a GoFundMe to start raising enough for hospital and legal bills). But the mental toll has been, without a doubt, the worst part, Baca says.
When his family and all but one of his police and security-guard friends found out, he says they dismissed him as “an idiot,” and that he “should’ve known better.”
From the community room at his downtown apartment, Baca tears up while recounting the fallout. When he was down on the ground, with the weight of so many bodies on top of him, Baca says he braced himself for the worst.
“I’m just glad to be alive,” he says, his voice choked with emotion. “I could have died.”