Local civil rights groups and individuals are suing the city of San Jose and its leaders for injuries and violence by police during 2020 George Floyd protests last May.
On Thursday, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of San Jose-Silicon Valley, the nonprofit San Jose Peace and Justice Center and a dozen individuals injured from the protests filed a class action lawsuit in federal court naming Mayor Sam Liccardo, City Manager David Sykes, former SJPD Chief Eddie Garcia and other officers as defendants.
The lawsuit alleges that the demonstrators and observers were “brutalized” by San Jose police and met with “racially targeted repression” during the late-May demonstrations.
Their goal for the lawsuit: financial compensation for all those injured and “significant reforms of the way that San Jose police are trained and directed to police protests,” lead attorney Rachel Lederman said.
The case is filed as a class action “on behalf of all those who were subjected to police violence, including the use of tear gas and other chemical weapons, explosive grenades, impact munitions, and batons; and all those who were arrested for violating the curfew,” according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.
One of the plaintiffs is San Jose resident Michael Acosta, who said he lost his left eye from a rubber bullet fired by police on May 29. At the time, he was photographing the protest, which was a block from his home.
“I never could have imagined that I would be shot in the face and end up losing my eye,” Acosta said. “Over nine months later on, I’m still trying to adapt, to acclimate ... the world seems darker, sometimes narrower, harder to focus.”
Acosta suffered one of the more serious injuries at the protest, but many others, including unhoused advocate Shaun Cartwright, San Jose State University alumna Cindy Cuellar and others had serious bruises, burns and injuries as a result of projectiles shot by police, according to the lawsuit.
California Assemblyman Alex Lee (D-San Jose) is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit because of the injuries and difficulty breathing he suffered because police deployed a chemical agent believed to be tear gas, lawyers said.
“This display of force was an egregious disregard of San Jose residents’ rights to freely express their disapproval of violent and discriminatory policing,” said Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “The city must reconcile with the harm its police have caused, interrupt its culture of white supremacy, and end the legacy of violence.”
Lederman said at least two people were shot in the eye, four in the groin and several others on their body, but it’s very difficult to know how many in total were injured.
She said she has talked to 20 people who were injured and there is another lawsuit against the city with eight different plaintiffs who were also injured.
“I’m sure numerous other people sustained minor injuries, who we haven’t even heard from,” Lederman said. “It’s clear that the city of San Jose’s estimate in which they state that only a very small number of protesters were hurt ... is completely inaccurate.”
She said she believes it is inaccurate because the number of injuries reported by the city is based off of emergency medical response, but she said most people didn’t receive any medical assistance.
Even Acosta, who was shot in front of “a huge line” of police did not receive assistance from officers and had his friend drive him to the hospital, Lederman noted.
“Every one of our plaintiffs was aided by other demonstrators and not by the police,” Lederman said.
Following the protests, the City Council discussed various reforms, most notably a ban on rubber bullets that failed 11-1. The only vote in favor of banning projectiles was San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.
The council voted to publicly post police body-camera footage and voted to put Measure G, which was passed by voters in November to give the city's independent police auditor more authority, on the ballot.
But plaintiffs in this case said the city’s response was inadequate and “embarrassing.”
“It’s been a travesty for the leadership of this city, not to step out and do more for those who were injured or those who were arrested wrongly for running or for defending themselves from the aggressiveness of the police,” said the Rev. Jethroe Moore II, president of the NAACP of San Jose/Silicon Valley.
Moore seemingly fought back tears at the Thursday virtual news conference when he discussed his experiences at the protest.
He said he saw many young children and adults be “dragged across the ground” and pushed by officers, even when they tried to listen to police orders.
“I started trying to direct and help [protesters],” he recounted. “I said no, let’s kneel, let’s pray. Let’s sit let’s not show any resistance to him. And [police] just got more aggressive and aggressive toward us in the crowd. We couldn’t get up, we couldn’t move back, we couldn’t step back quicker than they were pushing us.”
The San Jose Police Officers’ Association, which represents SJPD’s 1,100-plus sworn staff, released a statement following the announcement of the lawsuit.
“San Jose Police officers did the absolute best job they could under volatile and dangerous conditions,” it read. “While many were there to protest peacefully, that certainly was not the case for everyone. Many of our officers were physically attacked during the protests, we had over 100 officers injured in a 24-hour period, the most in our department's history.”
It continued: “Our officers were put in harm's way day after day without adequate staffing support. The San Jose Police Officers’ Association supports the rights of everyone to protest peacefully and we have submitted proposals to the city to increase police staffing so we can better manage these events.”