police violence

What It Feels Like to Be Shot by a Rubber Bullet

Photo: KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images

Over the weekend, protesters demanding justice for George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis cop have themselves become victims of police brutality. On top of using physical force and tear gas, as well as driving their cruisers into a group of demonstrators, officers have shot multiple protesters with rubber bullets. These rounds were originally designed to be aimed at the ground to help disperse a crowd, but when shot directly at a body, they can lead to serious injuries like cracked ribs, a fractured skull, or concussion. And in many cases, this is exactly what police have done at protests across America.

On Friday, a journalist said it felt like her “face exploded” with a rush of blood after being hit by a rubber bullet in Minneapolis. She is now likely permanently blind in her left eye. Actor Kendrick Sampson said an LAPD officer pointed a gun directly at him before pelting him with rubber bullets and posted a video of another man who was rushed to the hospital after being shot in the face.

In addition to the physical danger, it’s psychologically damaging to be hit with any kind of bullet when officers have used their guns to kill Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Alton Sterling, and many other black people who did not pose a threat. Photojournalist Andre Mercharles, 27, spoke with the Cut about the traumatic experience of being a black man who was shot at during a protest.

I was hit with rubber bullets twice while protesting in Minneapolis. I flew down from New York to document what was happening. On Friday night, I was walking down the street and everything was on fire. When the cops finally showed up, they started shooting everybody. The crowd I was part of had no weapons. But the cops didn’t care if they were attacking the wrong people.

I heard a bang and just remember feeling that pain in my right thigh. At first I thought it was an actual bullet and that I’d have to go to the hospital to get my leg checked. It felt like something sharp entered my body really fast.

At first it hurts in a concentrated area, but then the pain expands from the swelling. When you hear the word “rubber,” you feel like, “Eh, it’s gonna bounce off and you might be in a little pain.” But I’ve gotten hit by a baseball before and this is 100 times worse.

I dropped to the ground. I was still holding my camera, but my glasses fell off and someone stepped on them. I got up and started running so I wouldn’t get trampled. I was holding my leg and limping. I remember thinking, What if I get shot in the eyes and I’m blind? What if I get shot in my chest? What if it stops my heart? They’re not aiming. They’re just shooting.

It felt like a zombie apocalypse. Cops shouldn’t use any type of gun to disperse a crowd because it feels like the real thing. It feels like somebody’s shooting at you and you’re running for your life.

I had a packet of ketchup in my pocket because I had ordered a burger at the airport. It burst open when I was hit and I thought, Damn, there’s a lot of blood, when I felt the liquid. The mind can play tricks on you. Then I kind of stopped focusing on the pain. My instincts of trying to survive kicked in. I was just thinking, Yo, get out of here. I thought I was going to die.

When I finally got to a safe zone, I sat down to catch my breath and realized, Oh shit, it’s ketchup. I realized I hadn’t been hit by a real bullet.

Back at my hotel, I took off my pants and saw some real dried up blood. It was also smeared on my leg. I had a cut and was bruised up.

Photo: Andre Mercharles/The Cut

On Saturday, the people out past the 8 p.m. curfew were protesting in peace and assumed the officers weren’t going to retaliate. We were by the Fifth Precinct, and a band of officers came out of the building. They threw this smoke bomb to signal their arrival. I guess it was like a warning. Then the shooting started. I felt the bullet right away hit my butt, and I was like, Oh shit, not again.

I wanted to drop, but I started running along with everybody else. It’s like the officers were thinking, “These people are not humans, they’re animals. And we’re just going to be trigger happy and keep shooting.” It feels like you’re the target practice at a shooting range.

It was like I was in war. I’d look left and there were people on the floor with bloody knees or people getting milk poured in their face. People were crying out, “Where’s my sister? Where’s my brother?” I’m trying to run away. It smelled like nothing but gunpowder. People were throwing up next to me because of the tear gas.

The cops were chasing us, and everyone ran under an 18-wheeler truck and then jumped over a fence. They literally caged us like rats, and we had to break the fence to get over it.

Once I got home that night, I just started breaking down. I sat on the bed and thought, What’s the next move? You ever get that overwhelming emotion, where tears start coming out and you don’t even understand why it’s coming on yet? That’s what happened. I was thinking about my black friends and family who could be targets. Who’s next?

I couldn’t sleep because my leg and butt hurt. That’s another reason I was crying. I didn’t come prepared to be in pain. When people said, “Be careful” I felt like, “Everybody’s overreacting, I’m gonna be okay.” But clearly my body doesn’t matter to the police.

When so many black lives are taken by guns, rubber bullets feel like a repetition of the same thing. We’ve been having our lives taken by these weapons for so long. It’s traumatizing to see a gun aimed at you. If you’re hit in the wrong place, it could be the end.

What It Feels Like to Be Shot by a Rubber Bullet