San Jose mayor, police leaders sued over police response during George Floyd protests
Protesters clashed with San Jose police during the third day of protests Sunday over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man. Photo by Luke Johnson.

    Ten months after thousands of protesters poured onto San Jose streets to protest the police killing of George Floyd, a coalition of civil rights groups are suing the city and its leaders for injuries caused by police.

    The lawsuit, filed by the Silicon Valley/San Jose NAACP, nonprofit San Jose Peace and Justice Center and 14 individuals injured in the protests, was filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California It names San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, City Manager David Sykes, former Police Chief Eddie Garcia and a few San Jose Police officers as defendants, including Jared Yeun.

    The lawsuit has called into question how the city handled the protests, whether force by the police was justified and the legality of the city’s curfew, which the attorneys said violated the protesters’ First Amendment rights.

    One of those plaintiffs, San Jose resident Michael Acosta, lived a few blocks away from where the protest began. He joined the protests and a short time later began to hear explosions, and something struck him “violently” in the face. His vision began to fade.

    Acosta lost his left eye, and now uses a prosthetic.

    Just blocks away, Rev. Jeff Moore, the president of the local NAACP, arrived on the scene to join protesters, fearing that the protest would soon turn violent. Former Chief Garcia promised Moore a chat at City Hall before the protests spiraled out of control.

    Garcia never came.

    Instead, a tearful Moore said he and protesters were met with a police force that he’d “never seen this aggressive.” Police dragged some of the protesters surrounding him to the ground, and Moore was caught in the middle.

    “The most embarrassing part of this whole moment is how our City Council and how our mayor has responded to those kids,” Moore said about the protestors. He said he still has side effects from the tear gas deployed by police that day.

    “It’s been a travesty for the leadership for this city not to step out and do more for those injured, arrested wrongly or defending themselves from the aggressiveness of the police,” he added.

    The lawsuit comes after the department faced widespread criticism for its handling of the protests in downtown San Jose.

    The department has begun to soften its practices, including introducing “less lethal” weapons and expanding a pilot program to allow mental health professionals to respond to crisis calls instead of just police officers. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo endorsed such measures last year but stopped short of giving into demands from activists to defund the police, favoring reform instead, garnering criticism from activists looking for funds to be redirected to other avenues such as mental health.

    Local activists, like Raj Jayadev of Silicon Valley De-Bug, want Liccardo to stop prioritizing public funds for police.

    “In the place of police, what the city could be doing is investing in solutions that get to the root of the issue—social services, housing,” Jayadev said. “Rather than just filling the bank of the police department.”

    Liccardo’s spokesperson Rachel Davis, the SJPD and city manager’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit. Davis did however respond to the SJPD’s use of rubber bullets.

    “I think it is imperative to point out that the mayor proposed to ban the use of rubber bullets in crowded settings,” Davis said in a statement. “The council heard the ban at the Sept. 16 council meeting, where the mayor was the lone vote to ban rubber bullets, while the rest of the council voted to not ban them.”

    Davis said the mayor proposed reforms to build public confidence in the police, including moving investigations of police misconduct to an independent agency and changing the process to discipline police.

    The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area will represent the plaintiffs in court.

    Attorneys representing the victims are asking for plaintiffs in the lawsuit to be compensated and for significant reforms in San Jose police tactics and training. One of the attorneys Thursday said it would be a “pretty straightforward” case to bring up as a class-action suit since so many people had been injured. The attorneys are also alleging that even after police fired projectiles in the crowd, none of them offered medical help to those injured.

    “Demonstrators were met by the city of San Jose with brutal and racially-targeted oppression,” said Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, an attorney for the LCCRSF.

    Attorneys are also looking to fight a citywide curfew imposed the night of the protests, alleging that the curfew violated the protesters’ First Amendment rights and led to a number of false arrests.

    Local teacher Tomara Hall, who is leading a campaign to remove SJPD presence from the San Jose Unified School District, said she’s hopeful the lawsuit will hold SJPD accountable, but is less optimistic that reforming the department from within will help.

    “This is something that really needs to be defunded and dismantled, piece by piece and replaced with more community oversight commissions,” Hall said.

    Though Acosta doesn’t have his left eye anymore, he said he doesn’t regret his decision to stand with Black Lives Matter. His remaining vision is different, and he doesn’t always recognize himself when he stares into the mirror. It’s hard for him to see in low contrast.

    “The world seems darker sometimes, narrower, harder to focus,” Acosta said.

    Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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