As the nation erupted in protests against police violence, one name on the list of battlegrounds proved surprising: a city known for its prosperous economy, low crime rate and relative tolerance. Locked down by curfew after five days of confrontation, with boarded-up shops, the smell of tear gas and sound of helicopters overhead, Northern California’s biggest city more resembled a war zone than the capital of Silicon Valley.
It wasn’t for lack of good intentions, or empathetic messaging. San Jose’s top cop became the nation’s first to denounce the killing of an unarmed black man by police. “Not going to hide behind ‘not being there,’” SJPD Chief Eddie Garcia tweeted on May 27. “I’d be one of the first to condemn anyone had I seen similar happen to one of my brother/sister officers. What I saw happen to George Floyd disturbed me and is not consistent with the goal of our mission. The act of one, impacts us all.”
“These types of incidents are the reason why, particularly communities of color, lack a lot of trust in law enforcement,” he told KTVU in a segment that aired on May 29.
In a video uploaded to YouTube a day later, Garcia told a roomful of recruits how footage of Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin squeezing the dying breaths from Floyd shook him to the core and brought back memories of Rodney King. “What happened there was inexcusable,” he told the academy class No. 37.
Never before had San Jose Independent Police Auditor (IPA) Shivaun Nurre seen a law enforcement leader so promptly break the code of silence.
“I was surprised—in a good way—that not only our local leader, but national leaders were so willing to condemn the action itself and the action of the officer,” she says. “I was surprised by how quickly that came down. It was exceedingly swift.”
Mayor Sam Liccardo echoed the chief with a characteristically well-polished statement sent to reporters and posted to his official social media accounts.
“Anger and peaceful protest will always be appropriate responses to injustice; violence will never be,” the pronouncement read. “San Jose is united in outrage over the atrocious crime committed in Minneapolis.”
Knowing full well that words would do nothing to quell an uprising in his own city, Liccardo promised that police in San Jose, at least, would “take a measured approach” to facilitate peaceful protest. “But there will be no tolerance of violence to our people,” he added, “or damage to our city.”
Those affirmations set a high bar for the rank-and-file as they stared down, from behind face shields, thousands of people enraged by the brutality that seems inextricably linked to American law enforcement.
As hundreds of protesters descended on City Hall and marched through downtown over the next several days, SJPD responded with gas canisters, flash-bangs and rubber bullets.
In just the first few days of demonstrations, police made more than 150 arrests and marked an untold number of people with florid welts from batons and projectiles. The crude and clumsy use of force did not take surgical aim at provocateurs or criminals.
Police detained National Lawyers Guild–certified legal observers, a state Assembly candidate and two journalists. They knocked down a San Jose planning commissioner and pelted his thigh within 20 minutes of him stepping out to observe the first day of demonstrations. With truncheons held horizontally, they shoved a woman trying to navigate her bike through a throng of marchers.
In videos that have since gone internationally viral, a six-year cop named Jared Yuen—who the police chief later described as “a good kid”—curses and smirks at protesters, rocking on his feet like he’s itching for a fight.
Other clips—including an aerial shot from ABC7—show a man in a black shirt filming a line of police on East Santa Clara Street before getting jumped and pounded by a crush of riot-gear-clad officers. When asked about the incident, Liccardo and Garcia alike said the footage was selectively edited by leaving out what happened seconds before. However, San Jose Inside correspondent Kyle Martin witnessed and photographically documented that same moment from several feet away. The man spent the next three days in the hospital after undergoing knee surgery from his injuries.
Two days later, a motorcycle cop barreled into protesters, knocking over a couple in an aggressive effort to enforce a hastily imposed curfew.
To those who showed up to march or simply watch, SJPD’s response on the ground undermined the sympathetic rhetoric of city leaders.
“People came to protest police brutality and the response was police brutality,” says Daniel Mayfield, a 41-year criminal defense attorney who personally observed the demonstrations that played out on a daily basis all week.
Yet Mayor Liccardo and Chief Garcia saw the same things everyone else did—or, at least footage of it, since neither attended the marches—and came to a radically different conclusion. Sure, both men disavowed the conduct of one officer after he disgraced the city nationally as a model of bad police behavior. But they called him an exception to the department’s otherwise justifiable conduct.
“We had hundreds of officers in an incredibly intense, adverse environment,” Liccardo says, “and I thought they behaved with considerable restraint.”
The first of what would become daily protests began at 2pm on Friday, May 29. Upward of 1,000 people converged at City Hall. An apparently spontaneous event, there were no speakers to kick things off or itinerary to guide the assembly.
Over the next two hours, the mass of people holding signs decrying police abuse and mourning Floyd’s death peacefully marched the 20-or-so blocks to Highway 101. Some turned back while others walked onto the freeway, where they blocked most lanes, allowing some cars to pass on the left shoulder.
The vast majority of participants remained peaceful. Some of the motorists even stepped out of their cars to briefly join them. Others honked in support.
However, a few people took the occasion to escalate the situation into shows of force. One young man bashed in a car window. A young woman walked up to another vehicle and kicked the door. TV news focused overwhelmingly on the violent outliers. As the protesters disembarked down the offramp, they left in their wake a couple police SUVs vandalized with messages such as “stop killing.”
As the crowd re-entered the city’s jurisdiction and began the long trek back to the civic center, officers switched on a loudspeaker and declared the assembly unlawful. Over the chants and conversations in the middle of the march, the announcement was barely audible. But it marked a turning point. By deeming the gathering “unlawful,” SJPD changed the rules of engagement from facilitating the public’s First Amendment rights to dispersing a mass of agitators.
Alex Lee, a 24-year-old state Assembly hopeful, recalls hearing the declaration in the distance, from “a 50-vehicle armada” of police cars behind the crowd. “I thought that because we diffused the situation, we left the freeway, that police would be hands-off and continue to watch,” he says. “So, we walked back toward City Hall. Everything was peaceful. People were chanting and singing. The police kept their distance.”
As the protest approached the starting point, however, police brought their vehicles from the back to the very front of the march. “Instead of letting us keep walking,” Lee says, “they created a confrontation. It wasn’t us, it was police who escalated to violence.”
Alex Jordan Caraballo, an electrician and union organizer who found himself on the same side as Lee during the standoff, recounted the moment on Facebook, describing how SJPD’s militaristic blockade at Sixth and Santa Clara led to an “inevitable shitstorm.”
“What do you think is gonna happen when [an] unstoppable force of hundreds of years of grief meets the immovable object of oppression?” he wondered.
What happened, of course, played out in full view of reporters and the public. While San Jose didn’t summon military backup like other cities (at least not in the first few days of the marches), it met protesters with the force of a small army. A phalanx of officers decked out as if spoiling for combat stopped the procession in its path and tried to divert people down Seventh Street. While officers later said protesters instigated the violence by throwing water bottles their way, from this news outlet’s vantage point, it appeared that cops fired the first non-lethal projectiles, seemingly at random.
The next several hours unfolded in a fog of noxious gas and hail of rubber. Sound cannons punctuated shouts and screams. Taggers scrawled various anti-police epithets on boarded-up shops. Some broke ranks to vandalize restaurants and stores.
Liccardo says he emerged from an afternoon of back-to-back meetings at around 4pm that day, long after police had declared the assembly unlawful, and watched the battle play out several-hundred feet below his 18th-floor office.
“I saw there were more than 300 police officers, vastly outnumbered, having bottles thrown at their heads, having fireworks thrown at them, other objects being hurled and, in some cases, direct assault,” the mayor recalled in a phone call Monday. “Obviously, from an overhead view, I wasn’t able to see everything that was happening.”
Though he calls some of what he saw on social media and read about in news reports “undoubtedly troubling and worthy of investigation,” Liccardo says the city will make sure the officers involved are held accountable.
It took a couple days before Liccardo engaged with demonstrators and it marked a shift in tone from his previous messages, which lamented the property damage without acknowledging how many people were physically battered by his city’s police.
Late afternoon Sunday, at about 4pm, he finally descended from the top floor of City Hall, walked up to the front line of protesters and told them he wanted to listen. Hundreds of people who had been chanting at police officers to “take a knee” redirected their plea at Liccardo, who stood on the side of East Santa Clara Street facing the civic center plaza. After exchanging some words drowned out by the din of the crowd, one of the organizers, two-time Olympic sprinter Alvin Harrison, convinced the mayor to heed their demands with that one symbolic gesture.
“We’ve been asking them,” one woman said, gesturing toward the row of armed-to-the-hilt officers, “but they’ll listen to you.”
“That’s all we want!” a man shouted into a megaphone. “One knee!”
A fellow protester snatched away the loudspeaker to quell the tension, handing it to Harrison, who announced that Liccardo would oblige.
“The mayor has agreed to take a knee with me right now in support of George Floyd,” Harrison said. Amid more chants and a swell of cheers, he added: “Just for five minutes, take a knee with us so that we know you stand with us in solidarity.”
And he did. With his back toward a row of battle-ready police, the mayor strapped on his San Jose–branded face mask, lowered his right knee to the asphalt, placed his hands on his left thigh and bowed his head. A woman in a black-and-white striped dress knelt in front of him and repeatedly told him to not worry about the cops. Harrison knelt beside the mayor, draped an arm over his shoulders and whispered something in his ear.
Minutes later, the mayor stood up and returned to his top-floor lair to prepare for a press conference announcing an 8:30pm citywide curfew.
To Harrison, the moment seemed genuine. “At least he tried,” agreed Maliesha Akins, the woman in the striped dress. “That counts for something.”
To others, it felt more like a photo op—especially in light of his comments the next day about SJPD’s “remarkable restraint,” and the fact that he signed off on a curfew that was used hours later as a pretext to arrest people.
Chief Garcia echoed the mayor’s message.
“I’m extremely proud of the work our men and women have done in a very chaotic situation,” he says. “Our men and women do not want San Jose to become what we’ve seen in other cities in this country. But because this situation turned into a riot, they had to act appropriately—they couldn’t turn a blind eye to any of it.”
Garcia says he recognizes and respects the public’s anger, but his officers can’t excuse violence, vandalism and theft.
“I think these protests have started peacefully enough,” he says. “But they devolved into non-peaceful, criminal activity, and when assemblies turn violent, when they stop being peaceful, you start seeing property damage. Windows got blown out of police cars—our cars got spray-painted, vandalized. It became clear that this was no longer a peaceful event and that we had to do what we could to keep the city safe.”
Could police have de-escalated? Could Garcia have ventured away from his command post to talk face to face with protesters? Could he have taken a cue from his counterpart in Santa Cruz by kneeling alongside them?
“It was too volatile,” Garcia insists. “Even when the mayor went out, our officers were starting to get encircled.”
What about his officers—could they have kneeled to assuage the crowd?
“It’s not against the rules,” he offers. “But … that’s up to them.”
On Sunday, a female deputy from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office—one of the agencies that helped SJPD police the protests—took a knee, eliciting applause from onlookers. When she lifted herself back up, a supervisor promptly pulled her away from the line of officers extending from Fourth to Sixth streets.
Compared to many big-city police departments, San Jose’s is progressive.
Under Chief Garcia’s watch, SJPD has lessened the severity of force during arrests. According to a newly released study, it also brought racial disparities in enforcement to within a tenth of a deviation of what’s considered even-handed.
In the past year, SJPD became one of the first law-enforcement agencies in the country to teach new recruits about the discriminatory history of American law and order. San Jose State professor Greg Woods, who developed the curriculum focused on policing in today’s social climate, commended Garcia for openly reckoning with the complicated legacy of his chosen profession, which traces its roots back to slave patrols and went on to become an instrument of racial segregation.
“Many departments may have done as much, but not more than what we have done,” he says. “I was the first chief to institute training that confronts the original sin we’re born with in this job, and I want to continue that dialogue with my community. It saddens me that we’re not perfect but recognize these facts and we are trying to get better.”
In a public hearing on Tuesday, Garcia hit some of the same notes, commending his department for “moving the needle” on curbing inequities.
Yet in a country of yawning divisions—urban and rural, rich and poor, red and blue, white and black—there’s a growing sense that reform’s too incremental and contrition too cheap. Black Lives Matter coalesced in the Obama years as police misconduct and militarization came to the fore in cellphone videos, forcing the broader public to confront the ferocity disproportionately meted out against black and brown people.
To quell the outrage, police throughout the U.S. agreed to wear body cameras and undergo training to recognize their underlying biases.
But the killings continued. Eric Garner. Laquan McDonald. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Philando Castile. Stephon Clark. Ahmaud Arbery.
In San Jose, police killed Jacob Dominguez, Rudy Cardenas, Thompson Nguyen, Joseph Tourino, Diana Showman. In SJSU jurisdiction, Antonio Guzman Lopez. The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office—tasked with investigating every time an officer takes someone’s life in the line of duty—inevitably, invariably declared each killing lawful.
Hope waned. The death toll mounted. Rising anxiety, deepening despair and an economy-crippling pandemic became kindling for a fire sparked by Floyd’s killing.
While SJPD diversified the force, however, its union—the San Jose Police Officers’ Association—led an aggressive campaign to oust IPA Aaron Zisser in 2018 after less than a year on the job. Another activist predecessor, Barbara Attard, had been hounded from the same role a decade earlier.
The public drama derailed activists’ push for a ballot measure to expand IPA authority—a resounding defeat enabled by a City Council unwilling to oppose the politically powerful POA. One of the measure’ s key backers, Silicon Valley De-Bug—a nonprofit representing families that lost loved ones to police killings—threw up its hands in exasperation.
De-Bug and other grassroots reformers began doubling down on decarceration efforts instead, deciding that the system’s too broken to fix. On Tuesday, for the first time in generations, residents urged the city’s electeds to defund the police.
“I think people are tired of these issues being studied and they want to see more meaningful change,” Nurre, the city’s police watchdog, acknowledges. “It’s great that we’ve focused on studies and collecting data and identifying racial inequities in the system, but people want action.”
After years of waiting, however, the mayor’s announcement this week that he’ll revive efforts to expand IPA powers rings hollow.
The 1993 creation of the Independent Police Auditor—which has not proved to be independent of union and political pressure—was itself a compromise to community calls for a citizen review board. In the decades to follow, city leaders promised time and again to bolster oversight but never mustered the will to do so.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to square how city leaders could watch recent events and defend the management of the crisis when so many others who witnessed the confrontations reached the opposite conclusion. In San Jose, as in many other cities, demonstrators saw police acting more like counter-protesters than peace officers. And when the City Council questioned Garcia on Tuesday about the apparent lack of de-escalation, he argued that tear gas (a chemical weapon illegal in wartime) and projectiles are de-escalation tactics because they allow officers to keep their distance.
Clearly, the displays of force are a kind of Rorschach test, with Liccardo and Garcia seeing a measured response and virtually everyone else seeing the kind of violent suppression Americans roundly condemn when it happens in other countries.
“I guess it comes down to what you think is the role of police in society,” Mayfield says. “Should they serve and protect? Or are they here to dominate?”