San Jose musician shot in the eye while playing music during protests
Joseph Cañas, 25, was hit in the eye with a rubber bullet during a protest May 29 by a San Jose Police Officer. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Armed with his Ibanez guitar and a harmonica around his neck, Joseph Cañas happily strummed protest songs on May 29, boosting morale and lifting spirits amid a chorus of Black Lives Matter chants.

The 25-year-old was one of hundreds of demonstrators marching on the first day of weeklong protests in San Jose over the police killing of George Floyd. Cañas played tunes like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” as they marched for miles across downtown, blocked Highway 101 for nearly an hour and headed back toward San Jose City Hall.

Then it happened. Officers began shooting, and Cañas’ music was abruptly cut off by the sounds of rubber bullets crashing into the crowd. The musician was struck in the face, nearly blinding him. An ABC 7 news helicopter captured him collapsing in the center of Santa Clara Street.

“When everybody was running, something inside just made me stay, and just a couple seconds after that, I took a rubber bullet to the face,” Cañas said. “I knew I was being peaceful. Some part of me was like, ‘What are they going to do? Shoot a guy playing guitar?’”

That’s exactly what San Jose police did.

A San Jose police officer shot Joseph Cañas in the face with a rubber round during a protest near City Hall May 29. Photo by Freddie Rupprecht.

Cañas was hit on his left orbital bone, leaving him with a black eye, blurry vision and slight scarring. He now has trouble adjusting to brightness, issues with depth perception and questionable peripheral vision, but considers himself lucky that he wasn’t blinded, crediting his sunglasses for preventing more damage.

Other protesters, civilians and journalists across the country weren’t as lucky, suffering from fractured orbital bones, removed eyeballs and blindness from rubber bullets during the last few weeks of unrest. San Jose lawmakers, including Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmember Raul Peralez, this week plan to introduce a ban on rubber bullets in crowds.

“It was pretty traumatic, but it was just something inside me that just told me to stay and keep playing like I had been all day,” Cañas said, adding that he’s lost sleep since the incident and often feels anxious when crowds become restless or loud. “I knew the risks, and I would put myself in front 100 more times if it meant that we’re gonna keep fighting (police brutality) and we’re going to win.”

Photo courtesy of Joseph Cañas.

Now that his eye is back to 90 percent functional, Cañas is spending his days listening to local government leaders, including Police Chief Eddie Garcia, who recently doubled down on the authorization of rubber bullets and tear gas, saying “agitators” first initiated violence by throwing frozen water bottles and full beer cans at police – Cañas said he didn’t see that.

“(Garcia) said if the crowd got out of control, then innocent people would be hurt. But innocent people got hurt anyway – by them,” Cañas said. “That to me was ridiculous and not good leadership. I think good leaders are supposed to admit when they make mistakes.”

Capt. Jason Dwyer, commander of special operations, said in a news conference last week that authorizing the “use of force” wasn’t a difficult decision after his boots first entered the “war zone” that Friday.

Cañas said it’s ultimately the police’s job to protect and serve, not retaliate against protesters angry about systemic racism.

“I knew I was there because I felt very strongly about these issues and that’s right where I needed to be, and it only fueled the fire even more,” Cañas said. “I’ve never seen San Jose more unified. People out here love each other, care for each other and feed each other. Look what we’ve done in two weeks.”

Eleven days after rubber rounds and tear gas took over the streets of downtown, lawmakers confirmed plans to introduce a ban on rubber bullets, after Peralez unintentionally leaked their conversation during a Zoom meeting, the same day dozens of residents aired their grievances against the officer’s actions.

“Both the mayor and myself are not convinced that this is a useful or effective tool to utilize in crowded areas, when we’re just trying to disperse crowds,” Peralez told San José Spotlight late Tuesday. “It also happened to cause an extensive amount of collateral damage on innocent protesters, and in my mind and the mayor’s, obviously that’s just not acceptable.

While the ban is promising, Cañas said he’ll continue to provide a soundtrack for protests because change doesn’t stop with just one policy reform.

As one of hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work due to the COVID-19 lockdowns the past three months, he said he’ll keep attending protests daily – along with tunes by the Grateful Dead, Bill Withers and The Beatles – until the country addresses its systems of racism.

“Honestly, it feels like it’s the divine timing that when the world finally had a break from working, we can now have all this time to have a revolution of sorts,” Cañas said. “It’s become our duty because we’re not working and we’re not distracted by these forces that keep us divided and keep us turning our head from issues.”

Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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