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A year later, protesters injured by police are still trying to heal

Rickia Young, a 29-year-old nurse’s aide, clearly remembers the moment police officers swarmed her car in West Philadelphia last year. She heard one window shatter, then another. Not only was she worried for her own safety, but Young said she feared for her toddler son’s life.

“The cops were banging and yelling, ‘Get the f— out of the car!’” Young recalled. “They were trying to bust all of the windows out. I was yelling, ‘My son’s in the car, stop! Stop!’ Then I felt my face on fire from the mace. From that moment, I was fighting to live.”

She was driving through West Philadelphia early on Oct. 27, 2020, to pick up a family friend who was out among demonstrators protesting the killing of Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man who had been shot by police responding to a 911 call a day earlier. She was attempting to make a U-turn through the rowdy crowd when Philadelphia police officers approached her car, broke the windows, dragged her from the vehicle and beat her. She became separated from her son amid the attack. The city of Philadelphia recently agreed to pay Young a $2 million settlement for the attack in September. Young, whose son is now 3, has also sued the police union over the photo, which she claims was misleading. The lawsuit is pending. However, she said neither the settlement nor the lawsuit can undo what happened.

“I still ache every day,” she said of her injuries. “I can barely play with my son. If I try to run, my back will hurt. I can barely do everyday things. I can’t even hold a baby for a long time because my arm will give out on me. I never thought in a million years that my body would feel so old so soon. It’s really been hard.”

Later, the nation’s largest police labor union,the National Fraternal Order of Police, posted a Facebook photo showing Young’s son in the arms of a female Philadelphia police officer just after the incident. In the post, officials said the officer rescued the lost child from the “complete lawlessness” of the protest, writing, “WE ARE the only thing standing between Order and Anarchy.”

A now-deleted Facebook post from the National Fraternal Order of Police.

Young was never charged with a crime.

Young is among many Americans who say they were severely injured by police in the turbulent months after George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day 2020. Amid what has been called the broadest protests in U.S. history, with thousands of people showing up at hundreds of locations across the country to protest police violence and advocate for Floyd, Wallace, Breonna Taylor and other victims, dozens of demonstrators left marches with broken bones, cuts, bruises and more permanent injuries like blindness.

Many officers arrived at the protests dressed in tactical gear and deployed crowd-control agents like pepper spray and tear gas, as well as “less-lethal” weapons (known as kinetic impact projectiles) like rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds, on the primarily peaceful protesters.

At least 115 protesters across the country were shot with these crowd-control weapons in the neck or head from May 26 to July 27, 2020 according to a report from Physicians for Human Rights.

Hospital stays, lawsuits and calls for police accountability ensued. A year later, many like Young are still struggling to recover, and others fear there’s no healing for them at all.

Young said she suffered torn ligaments in her shoulder, an injury to her back, bruising on her right leg, and lacerations to her face. She was handcuffed and separated from her then 2-year-old son for several hours.

“They treated me like an animal,” said Young, who still lives with her mother.

“He’s got years worth of recovery in front of him.”
Dounya Zayer, 22, said this is certainly true for her. She said she suffered four herniated discs, two pinched nerves, a sprained ligament in her back, and a concussion when a New York City police officer allegedly shoved her violently to the pavement during a protest on May 29 in Brooklyn.

“I catch myself in pain so frequently,” Zayer said. “It was a single moment this man made this decision. He walked away from it, but he ruined my life.”

Zayer said she is still undergoing physical therapy. She said she has stopped driving because she fears being pulled over by police and facing abuse because of the publicity surrounding her injury. The officer Zayer alleged to have smacked her cellphone out of her hand and pushed her, Vincent D’Andraia, was initially arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault. Over a year later, D’Andraia remains on modified duty, an NYPD spokesperson said, and it is unclear what penalties he will face. Zayer testified at a virtual public hearing regarding NYPD misconduct and has filed a lawsuit against the city, as well as the NYPD, D’Andraia and others.

A former gymnast, Zayer said she fears her days of mobility and flexibility are over. Zayer said she quit her job as a teacher because of her injuries and briefly tried working as a nanny to make ends meet, but that proved too painful. Now Zayer remains unemployed and is struggling to live by herself.

Dounya Zayer, 22, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Jeenah Moon for NBC News)

“Living alone is impossible. I have to reach out to people for help with almost everything,” she said. “If I want to set my air conditioner up, if I want to carry my groceries up my stairs, if I want to clean my cat litter. If I stand to do my dishes for more than 15 minutes, I’m in pain.”

Police violence against protesters last year was widely documented, but it’s unclear just how many people endured injuries because not everyone sought medical attention or even reported their attacks. Zayer is one of scores of protesters whose injuries were captured and posted on social media. For others, their severe injuries were all the evidence they had of the violence.

Argelio Giron underwent emergency surgery to remove a ruptured testicle after police shot him in the groin with a rubber bullet during a May 31 protest in Sonoma County, California. On June 4, Martin Gugino, who is in his 70s, suffered a fractured skull and concussion after police in Buffalo, New York, pushed him to the ground at a demonstration. Randy Stewart alleged in a damages claim that a Los Angeles police officer shot him in the back of the head with a rubber bullet, causing a brain hemorrhage, tinnitus, speech and vision trouble, and more.

After the protests died down, those injured by police were left with pain, doctors visits and mounting medical bills. Victims filed lawsuits and sought accountability from the police departments responsible for their injuries.

Giron received $200,000 in a settlement from Santa Rosa, California, according to The Press Democrat. The city of Eugene, Oregon, paid $45,000 to settle a lawsuit from a Eugene Weekly reporter, Henry Houston, who was tear-gassed and shot with pepper balls while covering a protest. In Minneapolis, the City Council approved a $57,900 settlement to Graciela Cisneros, whose eye was injured when an officer fired a projectile at her as she and her partner left a demonstration, The Star Tribune reported.

Five protesters were awarded a total of $1.9 million by Santa Rosa as a result of police-inflicted protest injuries. One plaintiff, Marqus Martinez, is still recovering after being hit with a sting ball grenade in his face on May 31 as he recorded the police on his cellphone. His mouth was split up to his nose; he also suffered a broken jaw and concussion, according to the suit. Video of the incident showed the small blast, and Martinez is heard groaning in pain.

“The explosion blew his face open and knocked all of his teeth in, propelling a couple of them into his mouth,” said Izaak Schwaiger, who represented Martinez and the others in the lawsuit. “He’s got years worth of recovery in front of him.”

It is rare for police to face consequences for such violence. No one was charged in relation to Martinez’s injury. But Sgt. Mike Clark of the Santa Rosa Police Department was suspended without pay for 20 hours after a police investigation found he was the one who fired the grenade launcher that injured Martinez.

Martin Gugino, 75, lays on the ground after he was shoved by two police officers during a protest in Buffalo, N.Y., on June 4, 2020. (Jamie Quinn / Reuters)

Prosecutors charged officers Aaron Torgalski and Robert McCabe with felony assault for Gugino’s injury, but a Buffalo grand jury this year dismissed the charges. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office refiled assault charges against former Officer Joseph Bologna after a judge cleared him of hitting a Temple University student with a baton.

And a Portland, Oregon, grand jury only recently indicted Officer Corey Budworth on an assault charge after he was caught on camera appearing to hit a protester in the head in August 2020.

Crowd-control agents like rubber bullets can be dangerous and sometimes lethal

Crowd-control agents like rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds are meant to be a less lethal approach to policing protests. But experts say they’re still quite dangerous, and in rare cases can be deadly. For example, bean-bag rounds are packed with lead shotgun pellets, according to KFMB. A shot from such a round has been said to deliver “the equivalent of a punch from Mike Tyson.”

“People think that rubber bullets just bounce off people like a Nerf gun, but they don’t,” said Dan Maxwell, a lecturer at the University of New Haven and 25-year police veteran. “They hurt. Eighty percent of people hit with these end up with bruises or abrasions, and occasionally they’ll penetrate.”

It took Abigail Rodas, 23, weeks to eat and talk again after a Los Angeles officer allegedly shot her with a rubber bullet last June during a police violence protest, mangling the lower half of her face. Doctors stitched her mouth back together and inserted a permanent metal plate to repair her fractured jawbone.

“My whole face was swollen. I wasn’t able to talk. I had to adjust with texting or a white board, writing things down for my family,” Rodas said. “I dropped like 12 pounds because I could only have liquids like broths and juices. I couldn’t move my jaw because I had screws in my gums to keep me from opening it too wide.”

The pain and side effects from medications made going to school impossible, so Rodas dropped out. Today, she works various art jobs for a living. She lives with permanent scars on her lips and chin and often suffers painful spasms in her head, she said. Rodas sent a complaint to the Los Angeles Police Department and, more than a year later, the agency sent a response declaring her allegations “unfounded,” her attorney Jorge Gonzales said.

Rodas is one of several plaintiffs named in a class-action lawsuit over the department’s crowd-control tactics. Los Angeles police officials said they could not comment on pending litigation.

Projectiles aren’t the only harmful crowd-control weapons, though.

Chemical weapons like tear gas are banned from being used in international warfare under the 1925 Geneva Protocol, but police departments in the U.S. are allowed to use them as a method of riot control. Tear gas can cause irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, skin and lungs. When used in an enclosed area, these weapons can have long-term effects like eye problems, asthma and even respiratory failure leading to death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 50 plaintiffs are named in a class-action lawsuit claiming Charlotte, North Carolina, police trapped them in a parking garage during a June 2020 protest and tear-gassed them, shot them with projectiles and threw flashbangs, a less-lethal explosive intended to disorient people.

Police maintain that crowd-control agents are essential for quelling rowdy protests. “They are safer. They give us a standoff distance. If you take these tools away from us, we’re defaulted to batons or firearms. There’s nothing in between,” said Lt. Travis Norton, a member of the California Association of Tactical Officers and an officer with California’s Oceanside Police Department.

But critics say the “riot agents” aren’t as harmless as law enforcement agencies let on.

The U.S. began using rubber and plastic bullets for crowd control during Vietnam War protests but stopped using them in protest settings in the 1970s after a fatality, according to the report from Physicians for Human Rights. They later became a staple among local law enforcement agencies in the ’80s after a Supreme Court decision renewed American interest in nonlethal methods.

Dr. Rohini Haar, an emergency physician, medical adviser with Physicians for Human Rights and an adjunct professor at University of California, Berkeley, described these projectiles as “military weapons” commonly used on oppressed groups. Haar said she saw several injuries from crowd-control weapons during the Floyd protests.

“Seeing things like broken bones or someone hit in the eye is not rare,” Harr said, referring to projectiles. “They’re dangerous when fired up close and they’re dangerous from far away. They’re indiscriminate. This is really not what we should be using when policing crowds.”

Policies may change but physical damage is permanent
Rules on using crowd-control agents vary among the nation’s law enforcement agencies.Last June, 13 U.S. senators urged the Congress’ investigative entity, the Government Accountability Office, to investigate misuse of rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds against protesters. Some cities and states are examining how police departments use these weapons. Since last summer, authorities in Denver; Dallas; Austin, Texas; San Jose, California; Los Angeles; and Seattle have issued orders to curb the use of crowd-control agents amid the protests.

Even so, reports show that some officers violated their own department’s rules during the protests. Two Santa Rosa Police Department officers were disciplined for protest control tactics, including Officer Noel Gaytan, who allegedly shot Giron with an unauthorized rubber bullet.

Any policy change comes too late for Shantania Love, 30, who is now permanently blind in one eye because of a projectile. Love, of Sacramento, said she believes she was struck in the eye by a rubber bullet when police began firing at a crowd of protesters at a demonstration on May 29.

“It was probably the worst pain I’ve ever felt. It felt like I got hit in the face with a bowling ball. The entire left side of my head hurt. It was intense,” Love said. Her eye was swollen shut for two days before she went to the hospital. There, doctors told her she’d never be able to see out of her left eye again.

“I just sat there and I cried,” she said. “It was traumatic. I’ve had multiple surgeries and doctors’ appointments. I had lived 29 years being able to see out of both eyes and now this happens.”

Love is still adjusting to the disability a year later: dealing with severe pain and migraines and struggling with daily tasks like preparing meals and walking at home. She says she often bumps into objects due to her skewed depth perception and has only recently begun driving again. She said she was out of work as a medical assistant for 11 months and couldn’t afford to cover her medical bills. What’s worse, she said, playing with her 6- and 8-year-old daughters is harder than ever.

“They’ll try to show something to me, or throw something to me on the left side, and they forget, ‘Mommy can’t see over there,’” she said. The Sacramento Police Department did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News.

The physical pain and financial hardship are only compounded by the psychological stress of enduring police violence, those who were injured say. Love said she suffers from depression and severe panic attacks as a result of her injury.

Rodas, whose jaw was permanently damaged during protests in Los Angeles, is working through her intense depression with a therapist.

“I feel like a lot of me was taken away. My personality changed a lot,” Rodas said. “Mentally and physically, it’s hard to see myself in a different way. I don’t look like myself anymore. I’m like, ‘Who is this?’ The depression has been intense. I had thoughts of ‘they should have just killed me.’”

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