“I Want Peace, but I Want Justice First”
Austinites protested against police brutality. Police responded with brutal force.
After weeks of lonely calm while the city sheltered from the COVID-19 pandemic, the streets of Downtown Austin have been filled with pain and rage this week, as deep frustrations over the Austin Police Department’s own racism and use of lethal force dovetailed with nationwide unrest and outrage, sparked by the murder of Houston native George Floyd by Minneapolis police. As the Chronicle went to press, protests and dangerous encounters have continued, but tensions have eased somewhat as the city's leaders, activists, and institutions grapple with how to respond and move onward.
In addition to the ongoing investigation into the death of Mike Ramos after being shot by APD Officer Christopher Taylor, the department is now conducting similar probes into at least three shootings of peaceful protesters, leading to life-threatening injuries, by riot-armed officers using "less lethal impact munitions" near APD's own headquarters at I-35 and Eighth Street. The adjoining highway overpass was overtaken multiple times by crowds over the course of the protests; according to police Chief Brian Manley, blocking the highway was an unacceptable outcome that put the safety of the whole city in jeopardy. After clearing the highway on Saturday using dozens of officers at street level, APD on Sunday used tear gas (CS gas, along with smoke canisters) to disperse protesters more quickly and safely, in Manley's assessment.
According to city officials, around a dozen people were hospitalized with injuries sustained during the protests; Austin EMS spokespeople told us they estimated the department responded to 29 protest-related incidents (some treated at the scene, some transported) Saturday and Sunday. Most severely, 20-year-old Justin Howell suffered head injuries after being struck with a beanbag round and falling to the pavement; he underwent surgery on Tuesday at Dell Seton Medical Center. Howell's brother Joshua edits the opinion section of the Texas A&M University student newspaper, The Battalion, and in a column he responded to Manley's offers to pray for the victim's family. "To which my family, a deeply religious one, says this," Joshua Howell wrote: "We aren't interested in your prayers. We are interested in you appropriately using the responsibilities with which the people of Austin have entrusted you. Prayer is not an excuse to abdicate responsibility."
A pregnant woman struck in the stomach by munitions fired by APD did not lose her baby, as many had feared. Saraneka "Nemo" Martin was retreating under fire when hit, according to her husband Kenneth: "Horrifically Nemo got shot with projectiles in her abdomen and in her back while pregnant," he wrote on a GoFundMe he organized to raise funds for the family's medical and legal expenses. "Our baby is miraculously ok, as far as we know, but we will definitely need another check up. We are in a safe place, resting and recovering." Kenneth Martin says any leftover funds from the appeal – more than $18,000 had been raised as of press time – would be donated to relevant organizations.
Another GoFundMe has raised more than $120,000 for Brad Levi Ayala and his family; the 16-year-old was hit in the head at nearly the maximum range of the "less lethal" beanbag rounds, on the hill on the east side of I-35 at Eighth Street, more than 50 yards from the crowds on the highway. At press time, he remains hospitalized, reportedly in serious but stable condition.
Boots on the Ground
APD provided reporters with information on 24 arrests on protest-related charges (including four by Department of Public Safety troopers at the Capitol) over the weekend, as well as at least 15 for burglary in what have been described as looting incidents. DPS Director Steve McCraw told reporters at a Tuesday news conference that "organized antifa" had broken into the Target at Capital Plaza on I-35 at 51st Street, miles from the protests, but did not provide further clarification; APD reported four burglary arrests there Saturday night.
While McCraw joined other local and state law enforcement leaders in deploring the murder (his word) of George Floyd, he also identified outside agitators from the left and right as well as apolitical criminals who had used Texas protests as an opportunity for mischief. Manley also made reference to "infiltrators" at his Monday evening press conference, but was generally more circumspect, distinguishing peaceful protesters from those wishing to cause harm but not blaming unrest on outside forces. His officers engaged with less force with protesters at APD headquarters Monday and Tuesday evening, and in fact brought the crowd within its perimeter guarding the building early Wednesday morning after two different motorists circumvented barricades along the I-35 frontage road, with the apparent intent of running into the crowd.
Protesters on Saturday at APD headquarters and on Sunday all over Downtown, including the Texas Capitol and City Hall, told the Chronicle that they could be peaceful and very angry at the same time. One Black woman, who declined to be identified, said on Sunday afternoon as she marched with a group down Congress Avenue, "I'm here for justice because we are tired as Black people at this point. We marched, we rallied, we protested in peace. Nothing has happened. ... I'm here standing on behalf of my people and I'm angry. I want peace, but I want justice first."
Was she afraid to protest after the violence seen Saturday both in Austin and around the country? "I don't walk in fear. The only person I fear is God. I'm practicing my First Amendment right, that's why I'm here. There's no reason to fear. We're human, just like everybody else out here. People are angry. If you protested peacefully for years and nothing has happened, now you got people crying out."
On the west side of the Capitol grounds, one female protester held a sign that read "White Supremacy is a Looter: BLM, black lives matter." She implored the stone-faced officers to look within themselves and said, "We are not asking you to revolutionize the police department, we are asking you to be human."
During the protests and marches through Downtown, people on bicycles and one-wheel boards and on foot made their way through the crowd sharing food and water. Legal aid observers (in green hats) monitored the crowd to render assistance as needed during confrontations with police, and members of the grassroots organization Street Medics Austin provided treatment for those with heat exhaustion, pepper spray exposure, scrapes, and contusions.
"We understand and recognize that in situations like this, it's very difficult for emergency services to get down here for a variety of reasons," said Toby Heidel, Street Medics member. "If we can take some of that load and provide some support on the ground ... it keeps the stress off of that system."
Walking a Very Narrow Line
Manley, who was named chief to succeed Art Acevedo (now leading Houston's police) after community praise for APD's response under his watch to the 2018 bombings, has resisted demands that he resign since last fall's revelations of racism in his executive ranks; those calls have gained further strength since the killing of Mike Ramos and, now, the events of this week. The chief fought back tears – which some critics dismissed as inauthentic – as he discussed with reporters the "tragic incidents ... that did not go the way they should have gone." Describing the Ramos shooting as "a very concerning and critical incident here," Manley defined APD's mission as "creating space" for necessary dialogue. "The community wants to have those conversations, and that opportunity was truly taken away from them this weekend," Manley said, placing the onus for the weekend's violence on "others who joined that group for reasons other than peaceful protest."
On Wednesday afternoon, City Manager Spencer Cronk – the only person with the authority to fire Manley – issued a lengthy statement addressing the week of unrest. In it, he sought to walk a fine line: "I personally have struggled with the complexity of this moment and realized that our feelings can't and shouldn't be limited to one or two choices. I believe that we can condemn the disgusting abuse of power, authority, and trust by some officers, while at the same time respect and appreciate those who choose policing as a calling and treat others with the dignity and respect we all deserve."
He acknowledged that "for far too many in our community, lived experience has left them feeling hopeless, afraid, and convinced that nothing will ever change," and said that he, his leadership team, and Manley are all committed to "finding a way forward that rebuilds that loss of trust while improving our police force to ensure it is reflective of the community values Austin holds dear."
At the state level, Abbott also did not take the opportunity to catastrophize the unrest that had been presented to him and his fellow governors by President Trump in a Monday morning call one participant described as "unhinged." Abbott declined to invite U.S. military forces to deploy to Texas, nor has he sent the state's forces (DPS, National Guard, and others) to bolster the get-tough tactics employed elsewhere. Though he deplored violence and committed to restoring order as expected, that "does not complete our test," Abbott said. "We will not end until fairness, justice, and equality are a reality in every corner of our state."
The governor, who has also been the state's attorney general and a justice on its supreme court, described Texas as a leader in criminal justice reform, noting that the legislation named for some of its prior victims of injustice – Timothy Cole, Sandra Bland, James Byrd, Michael Morton – passed with bipartisan support, and promising more of the same in 2021. "We are up to the task of doing both, restoring justice and ensuring safety in our communities. We can seize this moment to bridge the divide in this state."
As Abbott spoke with reporters in Dallas, the Austin City Council met for the first time publicly since the protests began; Natasha Harper-Madison, Council's sole Black member, told her colleagues, "We cannot continue to stick our fingers in our ears and just wait for the next eruption of anger. ... I would ask for forgiveness for sounding angry, but I don't need forgiveness for sounding angry. I am angry. And I am hurt and I am sad! And you should be too. And if you're not, then I don't know what to tell you. It didn't start with Mike Ramos! I could name names all day and that's a damn shame, y'all. We should all be sad and mad right now.
"We have got to act," she concluded. "If we don't do anything else with our time, we have got to act and in a way that people know that we see them and we hear them now, loud and clear."
Austin Sanders and Nataleah Small contributed reporting to this piece.
Editor's note: This story originally listed an incorrect credit for the second photo. It was shot by David Brendan Hall.