City Manager Jesus Garza went before TV cameras Monday to defend the conduct of Austin's finest during Saturday's Mardi Gras riots, saying, if we may paraphrase: "Since you kids can't have fun responsibly, we just won't have any more parties downtown."
Garza canceled the Fat Tuesday parade and said his office would re-evaluate whether the city should sponsor block events along Sixth Street in the future. He said the Austin Police Dept. performed admirably in quelling the riots, which began early Sunday when onlookers pelted police with rocks and bottles as they broke up a fistfight near Sixth and Neches. The police responded by driving the crowd out of the area with pepper spray. Garza said the police used the necessary amount of force to control the situation.
But neither Garza nor police officials have offered much explanation of how an isolated altercation exploded into a full-blown riot lasting nearly an hour and a half. Witnesses are coming forward saying the police ignited the melee with their heavy-handed use of pepper spray and batons as they dispersed the droves of confused revelers.
UT student Jason Morgan says he was sprayed in the face with pepper spray when he asked where he could hail a cab. Two friends with him that night were beaten with batons and shocked with stun devices before being arrested, Morgan says. "It was like a dream, a really bad one," says Morgan.
Morgan and his friend Schonna Manning say they encountered a row of police dressed in riot gear as they emerged from the Texture nightclub on Neches around 3am. Unaware that police were clearing the streets, Morgan says, he started to walk around the officers and was subsequently pushed and then hit in the face with pepper spray. Morgan's friend Chuck Holden says he approached Morgan to find out what happened, and "this cop just came out of the blue, and he's just swinging this billy club." Holden says the officer struck him in the shin with a baton. Holden then reapproached the line of officers to get the officer's badge number. That's when things really spun out of control, Holden says.
The officers yelled at Holden to get down on his knees, which both Morgan and another friend, Jessica Murray, say he did. Police then struck Holden in the head repeatedly with batons, shocked him with stun devices, and cuffed and arrested him, the witnesses say. Holden says he later found blood in his ears and believes he suffered a concussion.
Murray says she yelled at the officers to stop beating Holden. She says another officer struck her in the chest with the end of his club. Someone yelled at the cop to stop hitting her, Morgan says, and another officer swung a baton at him. Meanwhile, the officer continued to strike her, Murray says, eventually knocking her to the ground. Murray was taken to jail on charges of "disobeying a lawful order," but she says the officer who attacked her never gave any command. Holden was also arrested. Theirs were two of 35 arrests that night, and 91 during the four-day Mardi Gras celebration.
Manning says officers were spraying people who tried to get information from them or get to their cars. "The violence on the partygoers' part was because police were being assholes," says Manning.
Holden, Morgan, and Murray say they will press charges against the police, and their complaints are hardly isolated. Several complaints have been filed against the police, one by a UT student who said he was only watching the riot when he was hit in the eye by a rubber bullet. Another, a soldier stationed at Ft. Hood, says he was clubbed after asking a police officer if he could assist in keeping order.
Police officials did not return calls by the Chronicle requesting comment, but APD Asst. Police Chief Rick Coy told The Daily Texan student newspaper that officers do not use force indiscriminately to disperse crowds. The APD's Internal Affairs division is handling all complaints, Coy said. (For more information on the riots, see Dancing About Architecture)