DENVER (KDVR) — Seven strangers who suffered significant eye injuries during Denver’s George Floyd protests in May say they believe police projectiles – like the “less lethal” 40mm sponge grenade- may have caused their injuries.
FOX31 Problem Solver Lori Jane Gliha talked to them about their experiences during the protests and in the months since.
Jax Feldmann, 21, was not participating in the downtown Denver protests in May when he was struck in the eye with what is believed to be a police projectile. At the time, he worked as a driver for a meat distribution company and was just leaving a friend’s apartment near Grant Street and East Colfax Avenue.
That’s when he says he saw a group of police officers riding on a truck, traveling the wrong way on Grant.
“I just kind of looked at them, and all of a sudden I was struck in the eye by something and didn’t know exactly what it was at first,” he said. “My first reaction was I just had something in my eye, and then I saw the blood. I looked at my friend and he called the ambulance immediately and told me that it was not good.”
Feldmann said the hardest moment was being sent to the hospital that evening because, in the midst of a pandemic, none of his close family or friends could be there in person to support him.
“The next three weeks were just Hell. I was having migraines every night. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t close my eye. I couldn’t open my eye.”
Nearly six months later, Feldmann says he and his doctors are waiting for his eyeball to shrink down enough or for it to start hurting severely enough for it to be removed.
“It’s pretty horrible. It’s not great. It’s not great at all, but it can’t get much worse. It’s already – I can’t see anything out of it anyways,” he said.
Feldmann said his life is now filled with new, difficult tasks.
“I’m literally circling myself because I have no peripheral vision. I’m constantly searching for stuff. Driving is not fun at all. It’s extremely stressful. It’s made stuff a lot harder.”
Feldmann said he is confused about why he was shot.
“They didn’t say anything before they shot me. They didn’t say anything after they shot me. No cop even came up to me,” he said. “I’m stressed out with everything…My anxiety is through the roof all the time. It’s not a good time.”
Alex Wolfson, 38, was out for a spin on his skateboard the last weekend in May 2020, observing the protests that had exploded in downtown Denver, near his neighborhood. Wolfson, who works in real estate, was not participating in the protest but he was “standing there, soaking in everything that was going on and looking at the people protest” when he was struck “straight in the eye.”
“Police were everywhere,” he told the FOX31 Problem Solvers. “The ones that were closest to me were hanging out in an SUV, hanging out of the windows.”
Wolfson said he was alert and his “head was on a swivel” because there were so many people in the area, but the projectile hit him without warning.
“It went from like, looking at everything to just falling to the ground,” he said.
Wolfson described a moment of panic as he tried to escape the area as quickly as possible. But he knew something was wrong. He couldn’t see out of his eye, and there was blood in his hand, so he approached an officer for help.
“I walked up to him, and I asked if I still had an eye,” he said. “I was so scared. I was terrified. At one point, it kind of like turned into where it was like a kaleidoscope, and I could see a little – out of the corner of my eye, I could see a little vision. But other than that, I was just nervous that I wasn’t ever going to be able to see, and all I did was just go skateboard around town.”
Wolfson said he was upset because he kept thinking about all of the activities he enjoyed that could be in jeopardy.
“Will you be able to do it again? My eye looked pretty gross. I was like, ‘Am I going to look like this for the rest of my life?'” he said.
Fortunately, Wolfson regained his sight thanks to help from an emergency retina specialist.
“I had laser surgery on it,” he said, but he still has “floaters and flashers” that appear in his vision. “It’s like little jellyfish legs swimming in my eye, and then, like, a camera goes off occasionally.”
“I feel like I got lucky.”
Russell Strong, 35, was passionate about protesting and making his voice heard, so he took a handmade poster that said, “No Justice No Peace” to the crowded park demonstration near the state capitol and stood in an area where he could be seen.
“I was in the park maybe a total of 20 minutes,” Strong, who works in the cannabis industry, told the FOX31 Problem Solvers.
When all of a sudden, he felt something explode on his face.
“When I came to, I was being carried by a group of people,” he recalled. “I knew at that moment that I lost my eye. There’s no way you experience that kind of trauma to your eye and your face and think that you’re ever going to see again. There was a part of me that knew right away.”
Strong said a doctor confirmed that fear the following day.
“I’m still coping with that. I’ll be coping with that for a long time. I’m sure,” he said. “I don’t know if I can put into words right now exactly how that felt because there is so much wrapped up in that kind of news.”
Strong, who is also a visual artist, said his life now includes many struggles, including difficulties with spatial recognition and depth perception.
“It’s been unimaginably difficult to lose an eye,” he said. “I’ve lost the ability to complete just simple tasks that we take for granted… I can’t play sports anymore. I can’t catch a ball. I can’t shoot a hoop. I can’t play catch with my niece and nephew anymore…I’ll bump into things. I’ll bump into people that I can’t see on that side.”
Strong said he can’t think of a single aspect of his life that isn’t different or a struggle in some way.
“It’s all an entire new world that I’m having to try to adjust to.”
Strong said he still has questions about the circumstances that caused him to be struck in the eye while he was peacefully protesting.
“I’d hate to think that someone shot me in the face intentionally, but I don’t know,” he said. “Either we’re accepting that they have terrible aim, and it was an accident and they’re not good at using their weapon, or we’re accepting that they are good at their weapon, and they’re aiming at people’s faces.”
Although she still has her eyesight, Meagan Matthews, 23, is still dealing with the aftermath of the eye and facial injuries she suffered in May, during the downtown Denver protest.
“It’s unfortunately affected my feeling of feeling safe going to protests,” she said. “I also am working with my therapist around a lot of trauma that I’ve been experiencing. Mainly around having anxiety around police officers now….it really gives me a visceral response, so we’re working through that too.”
The college student, who works at an eyewear store, said she had been peacefully protesting in May, by providing water, first aid, and food to protesters.
That’s when she looked up and saw an object headed straight for her face, followed by a loud crack.
“I know I had gotten hit really hard with something that had come from the police side of the street, and I know I was bleeding, like, a lot,” she told the FOX31 Problem Solvers.
Matthews said she felt like she had a near-death experience because she didn’t immediately know the extent of her injuries when her sight went dark in one eye.
“I felt extremely devastated and, trying to grapple with the fact that something so vital to my passion might be taken away from me,” the visual artist said.
“I couldn’t see immediately when I got hit, and then, it was so swollen that because of the orbital fracture and everything else around there that it probably was like four days – three or four days – that it was fully swollen shut. And then, after that, they were like, ‘You know, we might have to perform additional surgery,'” she said. “I remember trying not to cry, saying ‘Oh no! It’s probably worse that I’m crying because it’s coming out of my eyes.’ But like, I’m a visual arts student, and I use my eyes for my work and my passion.”
Matthews said her vision is still a little blurry and she still gets “floaters” in her field of vision a few times a day. She said doctors told her it could be blood that is still trying to be filtered out of her eye, so they are monitoring her progress.
Now, she wants to know why and how she was struck.
“If I could just sit down and have a coffee with the guy that shot me, I would. Just like, to know. But I think it would give me a lot of anxiety. I think it would also give peace of mind,” she said.
Nicholas Orlin, 38, calls himself a “staunch peaceful protester,” and says he was marching, chanting, and singing during the downtown Denver protests in May.
He was wearing a bicycle helmet, attempting to block a gas canister that had been thrown near him with a traffic cone, when something knocked him in the head.
“That’s the last thing I remember,” he told the FOX31 Problem Solvers. “From what it says in my hospital records, I was hit in the head with a rubber bullet or, it says, ‘rubber bullet vs rock.’ I can’t imagine that there was anybody close enough to me that I wouldn’t have noticed they hit me with a rock in the head.”
Orlin said his physical pain was intense.
“There was a whole lot of mental confusion. Just having no idea where I was, what happened to me,” he said. His face had become swollen due to several fractures along the base of his eye.
“Healing is a long process, and it’s still happening,” said Orlin, who said he works as an executive assistant and paralegal for a criminal defense attorney and as a rideshare driver.
He said doctors told him there is an increased likelihood that he may get glaucoma because his eye is not draining properly, but his sight is mostly ok now.
He says he is suffering from what he believes is post-traumatic stress disorder, related to the incident.
“It gives me anxiety when I think about joining protests,” he told the Problem Solvers.
Orlin said he would want law enforcement to know that less lethal options are still extremely dangerous.
“I can’t see any justification for a less-lethal round. If lethality is called for in the very few, rare situations that it might be called for, then lethality is OK, but other than that, I would have rather have been tased. I could not condone the use of continuing to use this type of weapon,” he said.
Orlin said he would want the person who shot him to know that it’s not always okay to follow orders.
“You can shoot somebody in the chest just as well as you can shoot them in the head. It will stop them the same way. I don’t know what I would say to that person (who fired the shot).”
Shawn Murphy said he was planning to head home from the Denver protest before the curfew set in, when he observed some “occasional clashes” between police and protesters on the street.
“The police would try to disperse the crowd, seemingly out of nowhere,” he said. “No one was breaking curfew. No one was breaking any laws that I could see, but there would be attempts at dispersal which would be launching tear gas, and whoever hung around too long in the area of the tear gas, they would shoot with the pepper pellets. So, it was kind of a constant back and forth.”
Murphy said during one of those dispersal attempts, he was struck in the eye with a projectile.
“I don’t remember any pepper dust – or whatever – being on me, so I believe it was one of the so-called rubber bullets, foam bullets, whatever you want to call them,” he said.
Murphy, who is a software developer, called himself “lucky” because he was wearing “really cheap swim goggles” that he had snagged from a woman who was earlier distributing them through the crowd.
“I got hit in the eye, and the goggles shattered, exploded, but I really think it saved my eye. I think without that person’s really kind and really thoughtful form of activism in helping the protesters, I think she saved my eye.”
Murphy said the horror that followed included his thought that he might have lost his eye.
“I told friends after, it was the first time in my life where I felt what people mean when they say their life flashed before their eyes. It wasn’t in the sense that I remembered everything past, it was that in an instant, I saw my entire life without my eye and what it would be like. All that just flashed through my head just in a second, and I thought I lost my eye. I couldn’t see. I think I was in a state of shock somewhat. I was just kind of stumbling around,” he said.
Murphy described feeling his bloody skin flapping in the wind. “I was just kind of wandering around in a daze.”
Murphy said he was able to get medical attention at the emergency room by taking a ride from a stranger who was driving in the area.
He suffered a laceration that required stitches, and his vision was really blurry that evening. He said a doctor had to do emergency surgery to save his retina. His vision is still blurry to this day, and doctors said it could take a year or more to fully heal.
“My heart goes out to the people… who did lose an eye or worse,” he said. “It is indescribable. It’s life-altering. It’s the type of thing that shouldn’t happen to anyone under any circumstances let along as the result of the armed force of our state who are engaging with peaceful protesters. It makes it just even more tragic in my opinion.”
Murphy said he believes he was possibly targeted.
“I don’t want to make any accusations, but I do find it hard to believe that it was an accident. I’m almost 6’5”. I stick out in a crowd. I have a big head. It’s an easy target,” he said. “When I was hit, I was not in a crowd of people. We were all pretty separated. It wasn’t a random ricochet or a gas cannister that bounced weird. It was – I was essentially by myself. There wasn’t anyone within a 10-20-foot radius of me. Again, the height I am, I find it hard to believe that they wouldn’t have been able to hit me somewhere other than the head, so it’s hard to view it as an accident.”
Michael Acker, 20, a college student who attends school in Grand Junction, said he was wearing an antique gas mask when a projectile smashed the glass over his eye in May.
“I just get cracked over the head with something. I have no idea what’s going on,” he recounted. “I just remember grabbing my head. I’m still wearing my gasmask, and I can’t see anything out of my right eye at this point.”
Acker said he ripped off his gasmask, and blood poured all over his face, hands, and the concrete. “I didn’t know if my eye was gone or is it hanging out of my face? I had no idea.”
Acker said he believed he was targeted during the protest, and he has filed a lawsuit against the city.
“I don’t know what would be worse – if I got hit, and they were just blindly firing into a crowd, or if I got hit and they targeted me. I was wearing a mask. I’m not going to lie, it’s kind of a scary looking thing, but I don’t think that’s really an excuse for them to target me out of a crowd when I’m not causing a problem,” he said.
Acker said he did not notice anyone standing with 10-20 feet of him when he was struck.
“It really felt like somebody had just snuck up on me with the baseball bat,” he said. “One minute I’m standing there and then I hear a thunk. And then, something just fills my vision. It was really weird. It was kind of like time slowed down and just cracks me over the side of the head. My ears were ringing. I can’t really get my bearings at all.”
Acker said a piece of glass was stuck in his eyelid, but a doctor helped pull it out when he was in the hospital, and his eyesight ended up being ok.
“Had I not been wearing the mask, it probably would have fractured my skull and would have gone into my eye. I would have been a pirate,” he said.