Q&A with Soren Stevenson, who was blinded in one eye during George Floyd protests

Soren Stevenson lost an eye after getting hit by a rubber bullet while protesting the police killing of George Floyd this summer. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

One moment, Soren Stevenson was standing on a bridge over 35W with his arms raised, chanting “don’t shoot” with others protesting the murder of George Floyd. The next, flashbangs went off, and he crumpled in pain as a rubber bullet struck his face. 

Stevenson lost his left eye and is due for a sixth facial surgery this month after the projectile shattered his bones and impaired his vision. Stevenson spoke at an event Friday hosted by Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence in advance of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. He shared his experiences with the Reformer. 

What was the aftermath of the protest on May 31 like for you?

I essentially lost the month of June. I was on a lot of drugs at the time, I slept a lot, and couldn’t really see since it turned out I was left-eye dominant. Since then I’ve had five surgeries, going on six. I had just graduated with my masters from the University of Minnesota School of Public Affairs and was hoping to jump right into my career, but that got sidetracked by my injury. Now, I’m looking for a job and trying to get on with my life. But I can’t escape the fact that I lost my left eye and that essentially nothing has changed since George Floyd was killed. We’ve had no meaningful change or oversight, and making change is a priority for me. 

Why do you keep protesting?

If there’s no change, this will happen again. Other people will get shot, either by real bullets, or rubber bullets, and so I plan on being civically engaged because that’s your duty as a citizen. And it’s also a pleasure I have as an American. I want to do that and I want to do that without fear of mutilation and killing. 

Did your studies at the Humphrey School coincide with your goals now?

My masters was in international development and policy, so yes they coincided a lot. My policy focus was more in international policy, security policy, and then tangentially housing policy. But in terms of human rights, international development is — or should be — intimately linked to human rights. And human rights don’t stop at the Iranian border, and they don’t stop at the American border either, and human rights is what’s happening here with Black Lives Matter and with police accountability. So yes, they’re related to my goals now. My priorities have just shifted.

Tell us about Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence.

Most of the members of our families of victims are here in the Twin Cities metro area and have lost family to police violence from the ‘90s to now. It really started as a support group for emotional aid to get through the trauma of losing a loved one to police violence. When someone is murdered in your family, the state pays a victim’s reparations amount for therapy, rent and whatever is needed, especially if the breadwinner dies. But when a family member is killed by police, they don’t get that, and their finances are often destroyed. And they often endure a lot of police harassment. They had begun to issue legislative demands to seek justice themselves, and then George Floyd was killed, and they were rocketed on to the big stage here in Minnesota. 

How are you feeling on the eve of the Chauvin trial?

I am feeling a little jaded. It’s going to be hard. The defense is going to trash George Floyd’s name. They’re going to trash him in the courtroom and in the media, They’re going to bring up a lot of bogus stuff to try and convince jurors that they need to not believe their lying eyes. But we saw the video, we know what murder is, and so it’s going to be a painful process to try and convince jurors that that’s not what we saw. But for these families, the process of a trial, and the awful things that are said about victims in the media, it is going to be very traumatic for them. Because they’ve had their sons and fathers and fiances trashed in the media and essentially said that they deserve to die. And they didn’t. That’s the first thing. And George Floyd didn’t. And it hurts them when people say that.

What are you hoping the Legislature will do?

We have some bills that are already being considered in the Minnesota House and Senate. The most prominent ones are ending qualified immunity (which gives police civil immunity for their actions on the job.) And expanding the statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits. And so we’ll see where they go. 

How have the events and recovery affected your mental health?

The injury has had a major impact on my mood and temperament. I’m still in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, but one of the most profound impacts has been on my relationships, and those have greatly suffered due to the changes in me. And I think you might find that with other families as well.