Ethan Marks, 19, squinted in the morning sun last week as he recalled the moment a tear-gas canister exploded in his face back in May. He has double vision in his right eye, and says he’s been told by doctors the blindness in that eye is permanent.
“It was like nothing I ever felt,” Marks said. “It burned so hard. I was felt I was going to die.”
His friend, Soren Stevenson, 25, wears an eye patch. His left eye is gone. He has a vivid, gruesome memory of being shot by police with a projectile, also in May.
“I felt my face and a glutinous substance and I knew it was my eye all over my face,” said Stevenson. “I’m still coming to grips with it.”
Both are suffering the consequences of police actions that occurred on different days during the civil unrest that followed the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25.
Marks said he was helping his mother clean up rubble on E. Lake St. on May 28, the day after several fires and looting broke out, when a police officer fired a tear-gas canister into his face. Stevenson said he was struck by a nonlethal projectile May 31. He said an officer fired it without warning on a ramp onto Interstate 35W in Minneapolis.
In neither case was there a curfew when they were injured.
Marks filed a federal lawsuit Sept. 8 and Stevenson filed one Monday. The lawsuits each name as defendants the city of Minneapolis, police Chief Medaria Arradondo and unnamed officers.
Asked for comment last week before the filing of Stevenson’s suit, John Elder, a Minneapolis police spokesman, said that all uses of force are undergoing “an internal review.” He referred other questions to the city attorney’s office.
City Attorney Jim Rowader said the office was reviewing the Marks lawsuit “We are declining to comment at this time on that suit, or on the allegations made by Soren Stevenson.”
Robert Bennett, the attorney for Marks and Stevenson, has negotiated a $20 million settlement with the city of Minneapolis last year over the killing of Justine Damond Ruszczyk, who was shot by former officer Mohamed Noor in 2017.
Bennett said the police shooting of his two newest clients violated their constitutional rights. “Both these men could have easily died,” he said. He is seeking $10 million in damages plus attorney fees for each of his clients.
There have been other suits filed over eye injuries in the wake of the Floyd protests.
They include Graciella Cisneros, 21, who sued the city last week for an injury to her left eye on May 29, when an unknown officer shot her with a nonlethal projectile, shattering her cheekbone. Linda Tirado, a freelance journalist, sued June 10, alleging she was blinded in her left eye when she was shot May 29 with a nonlethal projectile.
Bennett, introduced Stevenson and Marks to each other, and they have become friends as they cope with their loss of vision, subsequent eye operations, and diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We’re definitely supporting each other,” said Marks. “Not a lot of people know what we’re going through.”
Marks is a sophomore at St. Paul College and lives at home with his mother, Anne Marks, in St. Paul.
He and his mother, a registered nurse, drove to E. Lake St. near the Target store in midafternoon on May 28 to help clean up, according to his lawsuit.
About 5:40 p.m., Anne Marks went to help an individual who required medical attention, according to the lawsuit. Her son walked over to help. He was unarmed and “posed no threat to the officers or anyone at the scene,” according to the suit. Without warning, the suit alleges, Marks was struck in the right eye orbit and socket by a tear-gas canister fired by an officer. Bennett said the city attorney’s office has told him they know who the officer was but have declined to give him the person’s name and has yet to release body camera video to him.
The city attorney’s office said, without explanation, that the officer’s name is not public data.
Marks remembers the moment after impact. “I was on the ground,” he said. “No ambulance, no police were coming. I was bleeding out.”
His mother added, “I thought he was going to die. There was a lot of blood coming out of his nose and mouth and ears.” She couldn’t figure out why they fired at him, she said, because it was not a riot scene.
“How could somebody shoot him and not help? It didn’t make sense. There were of police standing around and we were screaming for help.”
A bystander drove them to the hospital.
Stevenson, who lives in Minneapolis, is a graduate of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota with a master’s degree in international development.
On May 31, he participated in a protest of Floyd’s killing and was standing on a 35W ramp at University Ave. W. when an unknown officer fired a nonlethal projectile. He said the ramp was closed and no cars were on it.
“There was no announcement to get off the ramp, no statement of unlawful assembly, that we were subject to arrest,” said Stevenson. “We were linking arms and chanting.”
He said that police fired some sort of flash device to his left, and a second one to his right, and then fired at him.
“I knew my face had been destroyed,” he said. “All of a sudden, I felt my eye, and my face and my life were in grave danger.”
No officer rendered aid to Stevenson, who was driven by a bystander to a hospital.
The lawsuit cites police policy stating that firing projectiles to certain parts of the body can cause serious injury and possible death and forbids discharging them for crowd management.
Both men are seeing counselors for PTSD.
“Any loud noise, I just duck down,” says Marks who continues to have pain in the eye. “I have nightmares … I have so much anxiety about police in general.”
Stevenson said that when he sees police, he has trouble breathing.
The nonetheless have attended other demonstrations together since they were injured.
“We have no option,” said Stevenson. “We can’t be deterred. People like us are going to continue to be shot and people like George Floyd are going to continue to be murdered.”
Said Marks: “It affects our whole community in a negative way.”