Essay: Pop. Impact. Run. What Happened When Long Beach Police Shot Our Reporter With Foam Round
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I think about May 31, 2020 every day. It was my son's 16th birthday and my wife and I helped him make it into a socially distant celebration in a park.
But that's not what I think about.
What I think about every day happened a few hours later: The pop of a police weapon that launched a projectile in my direction while I finished an interview with a kneeling protester.
I wonder whether I saw the trajectory of the round. I can't remember.
I wonder whether others shot at protests -- and in other circumstances -- also wonder whether they saw the projectile coming at them.
I wonder if my eyes could have seen the round's straight line from the muzzle, flying at fastball force and ending up striking the bottom of my throat, where it would rattle my body and my life.
And it strikes me that it's part of a rattling many of us are going through, a rattling of long-held beliefs, a rattling of our public institutions.
WHY I'M WRITING THIS
That weekend I was shot, there were many other people injured by police as protests over the killing of George Floyd took place in Southern California and across the country. I'm writing this because I owe it to myself, to you, and to the others injured to document the impact. Not because my injury is among the most severe. It's not. I owe this account because I believe that examining our stories will help answer this question: how much force should police officers be empowered to use?
It's been seven weeks since my injury. I was off work for four weeks. The first week was the hardest physically and mentally. Then the slow gears of workers' compensation in the time of COVID-19 stretched the time off even longer. One week I had three different medical appointments. Then I took a week off with my family. And now I'm back in the reporting saddle.
Writing this has allowed me to gather my thoughts and fold in more information about what happened on May 31. I may be one of the more well-known people in Southern California injured by police but that shouldn't keep us from asking who else was hurt and push to find out why.
The Long Beach Police Department is investigating the circumstances of how I was hit and has released some of the results of that ongoing investigation. The department doesn't investigate every less than lethal shooting this way. If you haven't already, please read my colleague Aaron Mendelson's thorough report about their findings. It's important to know what the police department says.
Regardless of whether I was targeted or not, being shot by a police foam round shook my life. Others suffered more severe injuries. Some have written about their ordeals. Lexis-Olivier Ray's photos make his account mesmerizing. I humbly add my story to their written, spoken and unspoken stories.
I see you KPCC/LAist journalists Chava Sanchez, Josie Huang, and Emily Guerin, and fellow Los Angeles journalists who endured police force from pointed guns to tear gas and batons to dodging foam rounds. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors named some of those journalists in a recent resolution. And I see everyone else who was tear-gassed or shoved with a baton or arrested. For you whose pain is ongoing, I send thoughts of love and healing.
WALKING TOWARD THIRD AND PINE
By three o'clock in the afternoon on May 31, my wife and I were sitting down on a picnic blanket at a park in East Long Beach. We set up a table with drinks and birthday cupcakes for my son and his friends and placed our lawn chairs far enough apart that neither he nor his friends would think we were ready to helicopter in and break up their fun. Two of our friends and their baby joined us on their picnic blanket to talk. I took a nap on the grass.
As I woke up at about four o'clock, I thought: there's a protest in Long Beach today. Where's my phone? Sure enough, my editor had called me about 15 minutes before to ask if I could check it out. After a quick stop at home to gather my equipment and fill a backpack with a bottle of water and a power bar, I was on my way to downtown Long Beach.
As I walked to 3rd and Pine, and wondered what this protest would be like, I remembered lessons from protests I've covered. I remembered the abundance of stories unionized janitors told me about their decades of low-paid work at a peaceful march in downtown L.A. five months ago. The May Day Melee in MacArthur Park in 2007 taught me to keep a distance from advancing police in riot gear.
Photojournalists are often a good barometer of being too close to the action. I learned that while watching L.A. Times photographer Luis Sinco in 2002 at an Inglewood march where protestors demanded discipline against a police officer who punched an African American teenager in the face. Sinco was up against the banner at the front of the march to get the shot and was jostled out of the way by some of those in the front. He gave back as much, if not more, than what he got.
The protest at 3rd and Pine would turn out to be like all those protests, and more, rolled into one.
In the space of an hour, the 100 or so protestors doubled in number. There was little social distancing but most people wore some kind of face mask. Their energy ranged from subdued and focused on the message that police killings like that of George Floyd needed to stop, to pockets of people breaking into stores and stealing clothes and hats.
Within that hour, I'd walked around the intersection, called in two news reports, took photos on my phone, and tweeted accounts of the protests.
At 6:09 p.m., Tony Marcano, my editor for my regular beat covering higher education tweeted at me:
Stay safe.— Tony Marcano (@Marcano_Tony) June 1, 2020
I captured the chanting of protesters on video:
And then, a few minutes before 6:30 p.m. I'd just conducted an interview with a protester and was typing his name into my phone when I heard a loud pop.
The pop was followed (this is where the fluidity of time kicks in) by an impact at the place where my neck meets my collarbone, followed by a nearly instantaneous reaction to run.
Pop. Impact. Run.
I ran in the opposite direction of the shot with a lot of other people. We passed a fence and got to a parking lot and stopped. I looked back and saw that the cops weren't running after us. I felt my throat. My fingertips had blood on them when I pulled my right hand away. I asked a few people around me to look at my neck and tell me what it looked like. Some cringed, others said it wasn't too bad.
A few yards away I saw a man with a long-lens camera. His name was Jorge Roa and he said he was there to document police actions. I asked him to take a picture of my wound.
I threw a lot of F-bombs as I called my editor and my wife. Most of those were versions of, why the [bleep] was I shot? Look at Roa's photo. That dazed look on my face is me wondering what the hell had just happened to me and playing and rewinding in my head the mental video of the pop, the impact, and the running.
In my car, I looked back at the photos, videos, and text that I had posted in the hour before I was hit with the foam round. Protesters held signs that read, "No lives matter until Black lives matter!" and "Latinos 4 Black lives." The videos I posted showed protestors chanting "We love Long Beach! Please don't hurt us!" as well as people breaking into a store and stealing clothes.
I didn't think much about the next post to upload, it would be the latest information: police had fired foam rounds into the crowd and I had become part of the news because I had been hit. So I took a couple of selfies and enlarged one to better show my wound. I posted it on Twitter at 6:40 p.m.
I just got hit by a rubber bullet near the bottom of my throat. I had just interviewed a man with my phone at 3rd and Pine and a police officer aimed and shot me in the throat, I saw the bullet bounce onto the street @LAist @kpcc OK, that’s one way to stop me, for a while pic.twitter.com/9C2u5KmscG— Adolfo Guzman-Lopez (@AGuzmanLopez) June 1, 2020
I still had work to do. Our newsroom's Larry Mantle, the longtime host of KPCC's AirTalk, was anchoring special coverage of the day's protests and I went on the air to describe what had happened. He asked me if I felt I was targeted. I didn't say yes, but I did say that I did not see anything around me that could have prompted an officer to fire a foam round. So I felt that I was shot for standing in the middle of the street talking to another person. Read Aaron Mendelson's story to see what the video gathered by police showed was happening around me at that time.
WE LOVE U!
My wife and my 9-year-old daughter were pulling into our driveway as I was arriving from the protest. I'd called my wife to tell her what happened. My daughter had heard the conversation on the car speaker, but the reality of what happened to me didn't become clear to her until she saw me.
When she stepped out and saw the wound on my neck, which I had not yet cleaned, she cringed and she said, "No, no, no," as if she was seeing something that she didn't want to but which she couldn't control. She didn't cry, but her voice became high pitched and she shook her hands as if she'd burned herself on a pan. I told her I was going to be OK. She walked into the house as I talked to my wife.
When I walked into my house my daughter handed me a drawing she'd made. It was two stick figures. She'd boiled down me and her to two recognizable traits: my square glasses and her long, curly hair bulging like puffed-up quilt squares. Here it is.
Art is her superpower. That's the ability she summoned to make sense of and resolve what her mind and body were feeling. My eyes welled up.
LIKE A LEAD BLANKET
On the way home from the protests I had called a family friend who's a doctor. He said my injury was probably only a superficial wound and that it may not need urgent care if I was still able to talk. At about 7:20 p.m. my wife sent him a picture of the wound. He hadn't seen the injury. When he did, he changed the recommendation and said, yeah, go to the emergency room.
My wife drove me to Long Beach Memorial Hospital and I told her I'd call her when they released me. Because of the pandemic, she couldn't come with me. The CT scan ordered by the emergency room doctor didn't show any damage to my larynx or other internal parts but suggested just how powerful the impact was. "Artifact from scattered dental fillings," is what the report said.
In other words, I was hit hard enough to rattle my teeth.
Luckily, I didn't lose my voice. My wound scarred over within a week. A doctor prescribed a steroid for the inflammation in my throat and told me to rest my voice. I've been mostly functional since the injury.
At 10 o'clock I was sitting in the hospital lobby calling home to say that I was done. When I hung up I looked up at the television screens. They showed businesses engulfed in flames on 7th Street and Pine Avenue in Long Beach. That's just four blocks from where I'd been reporting. Neither me nor that part of Long Beach ended the day as we had started it.
WHEN IS VIRAL GOOD, WHEN IS IT BAD, OR IN BETWEEN?
The tweet of my injury was on its way to getting tens of thousands of likes, retweets, and comments. I became another reporter injured -- in my case, a radio reporter, whose voice is essential for the job -- hit in the throat with a rubber projectile, on a weekend of national protests sparked by the killing of an African American man who died when a police officer placed his knee on the man's throat for nearly nine minutes.
Texts and other messages began to stream in stronger by the hour. Generally they fell into three categories: those who didn't mention the injury and sent good vibes, love, and healing wishes; people who were angry at police as a result of my injury and officers' use of force against others; and messages from people who said they'd heard my voice or read my reports for a long time and that they couldn't believe such a thing could happen to someone they knew.
A woman said she'd been listening to me all her life. I'm hoping she's in her 30s and maybe started listening in the backseat of her parents' car as a kid.
I'd pledged to disconnect from work for a week while I recovered and processed my trauma. But I broke that pledge. I felt a responsibility to respond to colleagues, former colleagues, friends, family, and Long Beach neighbors.
None of the messages had ill will -- but it all felt like a eulogy.
If the dead had to go through all this praise and comments and well wishes, I'm sure it would kill them.
But in all seriousness, it felt like my mind and body were pressed under a lead blanket like the one the dentist puts on you when you're having x-rays taken. It was too much. I've been lucky enough to find a therapist who's listening and guiding me.
Before my injury, I'd wondered at times to what extent the journalism I've produced has made a difference. I've earned awards and have received praise for my stories from listeners and colleagues over the years. But doubt still creeped in.
This experience put a big exclamation point on "yes, it does" make a difference. Given a choice, though, I'd rather not have gone through this experience to reach this understanding, but I recognize this is a way to get there.
THE MAYOR AND THE RABBI
I'll highlight two messages. In a video call a few days after, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia apologized to me.
And Stephen Einstein, the founding Rabbi of congregation B'nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, wrote this email to Mayor Garcia:
Einstein didn't do this out of the blue. He and I have had deep conversations about religion. I am not Jewish but my wife is, and we're raising our kids Jewish, so I met Rabbi Einstein through our congregation in Long Beach.
I asked him why he wrote that email. He said he was shocked that a journalist would be injured by police while conducting an interview. He also said he was motivated by the biblical dictum, "justice, justice shall you pursue." It was an unjust act, he said, and he called on the mayor to investigate.
WE ARE ALL RUBEN SALAZAR
When we are all able to move about as before in Southern California, take a trip to the Cal State Northridge campus. There's an important plaque out there. It's dedicated to the Los Angeles journalists who've died on the job. I thought about it when L.A. Times reporter Daniel Hernandez wrote about my injury. A fellow reporter told him that seeing my injury reminded him of what happened to Ruben Salazar, an L.A. Times journalist killed during a large protest in East L.A. in 1970.
I told Daniel the comment may be part of unresolved trauma in Los Angeles among those who remember Salazar's shooting or know that there were conflicting accounts about whether the Sheriff's deputy who killed Salazar targeted him or not.
If plaques are still how we honor significant events, let's take a lesson from artist Sandra de la Loza. She's been creating plaques for alternative and often ignored events in Los Angeles history, like the displacement in the late 1950s of working-class people from Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers would build their stadium there years later.
There should be alternate plaques put up where people suffered police use of force on the weekend of May 31, 2020. Yeah, the 3rd and Pine intersection would be one place. It can be a real or virtual plaque.
For me, the plaque there would be a reminder to see my life and work differently, be grateful, and do more to help connect our disparate Southern California communities.
HOLDING A FOAM ROUND LAUNCHER IN MY HANDS AND PULLING THE TRIGGER
Last Wednesday, Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna talked to me and my newsroom colleagues about his department's findings in an investigation of how I got shot.
He apologized and invited me to the department's police academy to hold a foam round launcher in my hands and fire it.
Luna said, based on the investigation, that the foam round bounced off something or someone before hitting me. What evidence is there to support that, I asked. He said: We don't train officers to shoot people in the neck or head. And, he added, despite how bad my injury was, if it was a direct hit the injury would have been a lot worse.
The round carries the force of a 100 mile-an-hour fastball, he said. Shooting a foam round on a mannequin would demonstrate to me how much damage one of these rounds leaves behind, he said. I neither accepted nor declined the invitation during that Zoom meeting.
I've been thinking about that invitation. Maybe holding the launcher would have put me, for a moment, in the police officer's place at the intersection of 3rd and Pine. But what about putting the officer in my place, going about your work collecting information then finding yourself with a bloody wound at the bottom of your throat?
On careful consideration, I don't want to hold and fire a foam rubber launcher like the one that fired the round that hit me. And I do not want to see how much greater the physical impact could have been on me.
I already know the actual impact. It has affected my body and my emotions and challenged me in ways I hadn't expected.
J Michael Walker's illustration for this story is so on point. See how the figure after being shot (it's me and it's everyone else who was hit in some way by police force) is made up of different parts, Cubist-style? That's what police use of force does, it breaks the person up physically and psychologically. And with the help of others the person will come back together and continue working and living.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled
Lexis Olivier-Ray's name. LAist regrets the error.
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