The Killing of Garrett Foster Shocks the City – and Galvanizes the Moment
Whether Foster raised his gun may never be known, but there can be little doubt about the driver's intentions
On Sunday night, 300 young people sat in the street at the corner of Fourth and Congress, utterly silent, their heads cast down. For five minutes, 10 minutes, nothing could be heard but the hum of the city and the occasional passing car. Then a voice called out, "Say his name!" The crowd roared back, "Garrett Foster!" "Say his name!" "Garrett Foster!" The call and response continued, crescendoing, until the voices fell silent, their chant echoing among the tall buildings.
Foster had been killed 24 hours before while marching with the Mike Ramos Brigade. As about 100 protesters moved north along Congress Avenue Saturday night, a motorist in a black sedan drove recklessly into the crowd. Witnesses say Foster, armed with an AK-47-type rifle carried openly, approached the driver, who fired five shots through an open window. Three shots hit Foster. Another member of the crowd – possibly a volunteer street medic supporting the march, according to social media reports – returned fire at the car as it fled.
Foster was given first aid at the scene by two police officers, Austin firefighters, and a volunteer medic before being transported to Dell Seton Medical Center. He was pronounced dead around 10:30 Saturday night. Despite early reports of multiple victims, no other injuries were reported. The motorist, whose name has still not been made public, four days later, reportedly called 911 after driving away and was brought in for questioning by homicide detectives, as was the second shooter. Both have been released pending further investigation.
Battle Lines Being Drawn
As news of the event hit social media and quickly became a top topic nationwide, right-wing commentators blamed Foster, claiming that he raised his rifle as he approached the car. Despite multiple videos of the event, there is no clear evidence to support that contention one way or the other. Foster's fellow marchers, including a Tribune of the People reporter who claimed to be standing near him when he was shot, swear that the barrel of his gun never came up.
On top of declaring that he pointed his gun, many on social media have claimed that Foster shot first. Police on Sunday said conclusively that he never fired his gun. That did not keep Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday from saying, in essence, that Foster got what he deserved. "He was looking for confrontation," Casaday tweeted on Sunday evening, "and he found it." The union chief then escalated his ongoing confrontation with activists and the City Council in a volatile interview Monday with CNN.
Whether Foster raised his gun may never be known, but there can be little doubt about the driver's intentions. Video captured by independent journalist Hiram Garcia, a fixture at the protests, shows the driver turning his car intentionally into the crowd. The squeal of his tires can be heard as he accelerates from a stop, turning right into the body of the group and then coming to a sudden halt. In the video, marchers scream and approach the car. The car is stationary for a moment and voices call, "Get back, get back!" Then the shots ring out.
For Mike Ramos Brigade members, the apparent use of a car as a weapon recalls an event that occurred a month before. On June 27, Logan Bucknam – believed by the group to be the son of a police officer – purposely drove his car into a crowd protesting at APD headquarters. (Rumors abound now that Foster's killer is also a police insider; the Chronicle is investigating.)
As in Saturday's incident, Bucknam stopped in the middle of a group of protesters, narrowly missing several of them. The protesters slapped on the hood of the car; some approached the doors. Bucknam, visibly enraged, seemed to consider getting out of the car, then reconsidered, flashed a gun, and drove forward to the police garage, 100 feet distant. He exited the car as members of the crowd ran toward him. A line of police emerged from the parking garage and whisked Bucknam away, and a police officer drove Bucknam's car into the garage. Within 30 minutes protesters saw the car leave the garage and drive away.
Police tear-gassed demonstrators multiple times that evening as they protested at the gates of the garage. APD later stated that Bucknam had acted in self-defense, though he had initiated the confrontation. "APD protected him," a spokesperson for MRB said. "People could have died then too, and APD did not care. They let him go free ... It shows what they stand for, it shows that they like racist vigilantes who do their work for them."
A Constant Presence
Many of those who gathered on Sunday had marched and rallied alongside Foster and his fiancée Whitney Mitchell throughout the weeks of protests against police violence and white supremacy. The vigil began at 6pm with MRB members driving a political opponent from their midst, a not-uncommon occurrence. In this case it was Eric Brown, co-president of JUST America – a new group that appeared after MRB's protests began and almost immediately was embraced as a partner by APD leadership. An MRB chant leader held a megaphone to Brown's head, screaming, "Act like a cop!" to which the group responded, "Get treated like a cop!"
Once Brown departed, attendees lit candles and incense and laid down bouquets of flowers, creating an ofrenda-style memorial. They passed a megaphone back and forth, sharing reminiscences of Foster, as in other occasions for public grieving that have become sadly familiar.
Many lamented that they had not really known Foster, who was, by all accounts, a shy person. Another common theme was Foster and Mitchell's ubiquitous presence at the protests. One speaker simply summarized, "Garrett was a hero." Others described him as a martyr to their cause who died protecting Mitchell and his fellow activists – "a white body given to protect Black lives." Stepping back from their struggle was simply not an option, most who spoke said. "You can kill the revolutionary, but you can't kill the revolution," one of the speakers told the crowd, which erupted with cheers that could be heard blocks away.
Shortly after 8pm, Mitchell arrived; the crowd fell silent as she was carried from the car and placed into her wheelchair. Foster and Mitchell have stood out among the activist crowds since the protests began. Mitchell is a small Black woman, an amputee; Foster was a large white man who was her full-time caretaker; they'd been together since high school, and during his years in the military. Foster, whose core political leanings were not only anti-police and anti-racism, but thoroughly anti-government and libertarian, had pushed Mitchell through the streets night after night. The couple had cooked and served food to the homeless under the bridge across from APD. Friends said they were inseparable. They planned to marry soon, his family says; fellow activists consistently referred to Mitchell as Foster's wife.
On Saturday night, APD gave a terse briefing to reporters confirming Foster's death and noting that the driver was (at that time) in custody. Police Chief Brian Manley's briefing Sunday went further, but also included some unsubtle opinionating – about officers' efforts to save Foster's life despite the marchers' politics, the everyday heroism of his police force, and how Foster's death added to our rising violent crime rate. And he acknowledged his hope that these things would influence how Austinites and their City Council feel about defunding, downsizing, and disempowering the police force.
Council voted unanimously in June to adopt a statement of non-confidence in Manley's leadership; several members have called directly for his resignation, including Jimmy Flannigan, who attended the vigil Sunday night. "At this stage, what I'm most thoughtful about is that we have a young man, a veteran, who while exercising his First and Second Amendment rights, was murdered on the streets of Downtown Austin," Flannigan told the Chronicle Tuesday. "That's something we have the right and the obligation to grieve." As chair of the Council Public Safety Committee, Flannigan was not moved by Manley's spin: "I don't think that's the time to talk about how great officers are."
MRB members were dismayed – but not surprised – by Manley's release of the shooter. "I mean, it's disgusting," the MRB spokesperson said. "The state is doing everything they can to repress protesters. People have to wear ankle monitors and stuff, people are under house arrest for fighting for Black lives. Meanwhile this man, who everyone saw murder Garrett Foster, gets to walk free. It's terrifying and disgusting."
Manley's efforts to change the dialogue likely weren't helped by his summary of the shooting itself, which enraged many protesters. In his briefing, the chief stated as fact that the driver had inadvertently turned into the crowd, which then began to attack the car, and that Foster then pointed his gun at the driver. This all sets up a "stand your ground" defense for the shooter and no doubt is what the motorist told police. But, again, it is at odds with the statements of numerous witnesses as well as bystander video. On Monday, APD publicists blandly recapped the killing in their routine post-crime press release, labeled "Homicide #28," in which they noted witnesses presented "several different versions of the event."
On Monday, attorney Emily Gerrick of the Texas Fair Defense Project quoted on social media a statement attributed to Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, who oversees public safety, in response to a council member inquiry: "APD coordinated their preliminary investigation with the Travis County District Attorney's office and it was determined there was not probable cause to make an arrest based on the facts uncovered during the initial review. The case remains under investigation and APD will continue to collaborate with the D.A.'s office."
Gerrick noted that police frequently find probable cause based on witness testimony that contradicts a suspect and could have arrested and held the shooter for offenses other than killing Foster (e.g., reckless driving) while the investigation continues. "I wish all low-income defendants and victims of over-policing had this much due process, but that's not at all how things normally work," Gerrick wrote. Flannigan, who had also heard Arellano's explanation, dubbed it "awfully convenient ... There's a lot to be said about how this could be different. I don't know if that's a fruitful exercise at this point, but one does 'what if?'"
The MRB Marches On
In his Sunday briefing, Manley implored people to share video with APD to further the investigation, but much documentation of Saturday's shooting and its aftermath is already public and has been viewed worldwide. The "revolutionary news service" Tribune of the People has already compiled a five-minute edit of video from multiple sources. Garcia, who has covered the protests since they began (and who was himself arrested by APD on July 17), captured the actual shooting on his livestream, which has since been picked up by numerous outlets, including The New York Times.
In its coverage, the Times foregrounded the fact that Foster carried his rifle to the protests. This framing has resonated nationally, with debates raging on social media over whether Foster was to blame for his own death. "The media is already trying to victim-blame Garrett, act like, oh, he was trying to attack this man," the MRB spokesperson said. "And I know the cops are going to try to use 'stand your ground' as a way to let this killer walk free. And the press is supporting that by pointing out that Garrett had a gun even though this is an open carry state. He wasn't pointing the gun at the guy. And even if he was it wouldn't matter, because the guy was using his car as a weapon."
After the vigil on Sunday night, protesters took to the streets, marching and chanting for hours. At least four protesters with assault rifles were seen on the fringes of the march, keeping a lookout. The MRB spokesperson said they have not organized those carrying the guns but are glad to have their support: "A lot of these people who are open-carry, we've talked to all of them, they're on the side of the people, they're here to protect the protesters. And at the end of the day I think it's perfectly justified. Why should cops get to brandish guns in our faces, why should racist vigilantes get to do that, but the people can't do that in defense of themselves?"
Supporters are directed to a GoFundMe for the "Official Garrett Foster Memorial Fund," created to cover funeral expenses and provide ongoing support and health care for Mitchell. As of Wednesday, it had raised $107,709, well beyond its goal. The MRB spokesperson lamented that she hadn't known Foster well. "But I didn't need to know him to know that I love him and I love what he stood for," she said. "He was willing to defend the people, he was willing. He lost his life doing that."