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Cleveland George Floyd Protester 1 Of 8 Partially Blinded Across US

A Washington Post investigation found law enforcement hit John Sanders with a bean bag round from the Justice Center in Downtown Cleveland during demonstrations on May 30. [Washington Post]
Map of Northeast Ohio with overlay of John Sanders laying on the ground with his face covered after being hit by a bean bag round.

John Sanders was partially blinded by a police projectile during the George Floyd demonstration in Downtown Cleveland on May 30. It turns out he wasn’t the only one.

The Washington Post reports eight others were, too, on that very same day during protests in other cities across the country. The paper’s investigation into those incidents highlights the risks of so-called “less lethal” munitions used for crowd control. And it casts doubt on the police’s version of events.

Post reporters Meg Kelly, Joyce Sohyun Lee and Jon Swaine began their 15-minute video story with the accounts of the victims, accompanied by some pretty graphic images of their bruised and swollen faces and missing eyes.

“So I squeezed my eye shut, and started yelling, ‘I’m press, I’m press,’” said Linda Tirado, a photojournalist.

“I never thought I would go to a protest and lose my eye,” said student Balin Brake.

“Whatever did just happen is catastrophic,” said Sanders.

“When it hit me, I just noticed the blood just coming out,” said Brandon Saenz.

Russell Strong described the feeling of being hit as “something like a fire had exploded in my face.”

ideastream's Amy Eddings talked with Meg Kelly, a video editor and reporter for the Post. She and her colleagues found at least 20 people suffered traumatic eye injuries during that first week of protests. Not all resulted in partial blindness. But for the ones that did, most took place on May 30. Kelly said they drilled down to find out what happened.

“So, in each of the three cases that we sort of explored in greater depth, including John Sanders in Cleveland, we were able to find substantial amounts of video and photos that seemed to sort of disagree with police accounts, to some level,” she said.

Were those injured assaulting officers or directly threatening them?

“Not that we were able to see from all the evidence that we reviewed,” Kelly said. “One gentleman in Denver was leaving his friend's apartment. He wasn’t even a protester.”

So let’s talk about what happened to John Sanders. Here’s your colleague Jon Swaine from the video.

SWAINE NARRATES: Sanders is walking alone at 5:33 p.m. He is struck in the left eye with a bean bag round. Fired from the direction of the Justice Center officers. Bean bag rounds are small, cloth pouches filled with lead shot fired from a shotgun. The rounds travel at up to 290 feet per second.

SANDERS, IN THE VIDEO: I thought, just based off of the pressure, that someone ran up on me, hit me with a brick or something.

SWAINE: Protestors rush toward Sanders and carry him from the scene.

Meg, was this a stray round or a round that ricocheted? How was he hit?

Police have said that they fired less lethal weapons to prevent breaches of the Justice Center.

If you look at the video, it’s clear that John is walking alone, he’s taking photos, he’s not in any way exhibiting behavior that would make you think he’s attempting to breach the Justice Center.

In surveillance video and photos that were taken by another protester about 19 minutes later in the same location, you can see officers pointing guns that fire pellets and pepper balls through broken windows at the Justice Center. There’s also video from the other side of the Justice Center that shows officers positioning themselves to point guns out of those windows.

And so all of this together in addition to the way he was shot and, sort of, the angle, really suggests he was shot from inside the Justice Center. It wasn’t a stray round. It was a targeted shot, or appeared to be a targeted shot.

The Cleveland Police Department, like several of the other police departments you sought comment from, said they were “investigating.” What issues does your reporting raise about crowd control methods like this?

I think from a wider perspective, I think there are sort of two issues that it raises.

One is a sort of an overall look at these weapons and when and how they’re deployed. And the second is, training for them.

It’s sort of a question like, many police departments don’t have massive training budgets for crowd control. So, you know, if the commanding officer is giving the go-ahead, I think that there are real questions that are raised about how you make those decisions and how those decisions are deployed in the field.

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