A Summer of Protests to Reclaim Power From the Police
"Whose streets? Our streets."
Brenda Ramos wanted to talk about the loss of her son, Mike, about what his absence means in her life. She wanted to ask why Christopher Taylor, the Austin police officer who shot Mike Ramos in late April, hadn't been indicted for the killing, or fired from the Austin Police Department, or even suspended. But as she began her speech at the Austin Justice Coalition's Black Austin Rally on June 7, Ramos had something else to address first.
"I want to get this straight," she said to the hundreds listening on the Huston-Tillotson University lawn. "We do not associate with [the] Mike Ramos Brigade. We do not, we do not. We want my son to lay in peace, with quiet and respect."
The activists to whom Ms. Ramos referred, the Mike Ramos Brigade, say they do respect Mike and Brenda Ramos. But quiet is not their thing. The week before Ramos spoke, the MRB helped mobilize one of the angriest protests in the city's history, the May 30 demonstration at police headquarters that shattered any image APD may have had as a relatively peaceful and enlightened police force. The MRB led scores of protesters, almost all in their teens and early 20s, onto I-35 and shut it down. Police sprayed the crowd with tear gas and "less lethal" lead-pellet rounds. Dozens were hurt, including Justin Howell and Brad Ayala, both hospitalized after being shot in the head. When night fell, protesters looted shops and smashed storefronts along Sixth Street.
The next day, Chas Moore of the Austin Justice Coalition canceled his group's planned protest, worried about violence at an event designed for families and children. In a thinly veiled reference to the MRB, Moore said, "When I look at the mess that happened last night, I look at white people burning stuff up in the name of Black Lives Matter. And there's little to no Black lives at these events." The MRB called Moore's cancellation an act of cowardice.
Hours after the cancellation, protesters again shut down I-35. Again, police shot and gassed them. As the demonstration continued into the evening, the MRB made a call on Facebook for action at the Target in Capital Plaza, 5 miles north of Downtown. An MRB member allegedly livestreamed her comrades looting the store. She was arrested days later along with two others. The three were charged with rioting, burglary, and criminal mischief.
Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McGraw stated at a subsequent press conference that "special agents" are embedded within the MRB, gathering information on its membership. He declared with flat certainty that the Target looting was organized by "Antifa," saying, "There is no doubt there is involvement from these violent extremists."
scott crow, an influential author and expert on the far left, said the MRB is certainly anti-fascist but it's not "Antifa" – because there is no such group. "'Antifa' – I'm using air quotes – doesn't refer to any specific group, it's just a set of ideas and actions that confront direct examples of fascism – like prisons or white supremacist organizations," crow said. Though Donald Trump has pledged to designate "Antifa" as a terrorist organization, crow says domestic groups, by law, can't be treated as such: "It's just a dog whistle, stirring up white supremacists and law enforcement and trying to delegitimize sadness and rage over corrupt policing."
Whether or not the MRB can be called "Antifa," the group leaves no doubt about its militancy. In the days following the May 30-31 protests, video surfaced of a recruiting session showing an MRB member declaring through a megaphone, "We believe in organized, militant rebellion. Riots are going to happen."
It was Brenda Ramos' understanding of the MRB as a violent organization that led her to disavow them at the AJC march. She has repeatedly asked the group to stop using her son's name and image, which are major features of its Facebook page and banners. They have refused. "Ms. Ramos' perspective is pretty simple," said Rebecca Webber, her attorney. "'You're hurting me when you use my son's name and commit violence.'"
In interviews with the Chronicle in June and in August, an MRB spokesperson – who wished to remain anonymous – said the group is concerned about Ms. Ramos' feelings and has considered changing their name. "It is something that we've talked about and thought about a lot," the spokesperson said. "[But] I think it would be a mistake to take his name out of our mouths, take his name out of our organization. I think it probably does hurt to hear his name brought up and to also not agree with how this movement is going. And I wish things could be different. But we're doing what is necessary to make gains for people in this struggle."
The Marches Go On
"If you had told me I was going to spend every weekend this summer in head-to-toe black, out in the sun, I would have called you crazy," said Ramona. "I hate – hate – the heat. But the momentum only sustains if we're all committed to it."
Ramona – she didn't want to give her full name – is among the protesters unaffiliated with any group, who have made Black Lives Matter part of their lives. And she's had plenty of opportunity to show up for the movement, in actions led by several different groups. In June and July, PEACE in Austin led 30 straight days of demonstrations. Star Power Blac Kollective staged events with different themes in different neighborhoods. Then there were the protests called by the MRB, many of them on Saturday nights at police headquarters at I-35 and Eighth Street.
At any given event one might find members of Families for Justice, Austin Justice Coalition, and JUST America. "We support each other," the activist known as King, the leader of Star Power Blac Kollective, told the Chronicle. "PEACE in Austin have been to a couple of my protests, I've been to Mike Ramos Brigade. I got love for MRB, I got love for PEACE in Austin, and I got love for the independent Black leaders as well."
On a typical Saturday night this summer, masked-up protesters began streaming around 6pm into a Downtown rendered empty by COVID-19. There, they found the sponsors of the demonstration with hats, sunglasses, and bandannas covering their faces, standing next to the plastic barricades at the base of APD's stairs, passing a megaphone back and forth.
Nearby were those regulars who made it out night after night, chatting, catching up. The bulk of the crowd spilled into the street. Protesters with signs stood on the corners. Street Medics Austin, in their pink shirts, hung at the edges of the crowd. Independent journalist Hiram Garcia, who has been streaming the protests on Facebook since the beginning, moved from person to person, asking for comments.
After chants and speeches, a leader called out, "Whose streets?" The crowd screamed back, "Our streets!" and the march began, with people moving into the center of Eighth Street, heading west. The routes changed often but typically took protesters to the Capitol, down Congress Avenue to City Hall, along Sixth Street, and back to APD. They walked for hours.
Along the way, the crowd chanted the slogans devised by the MRB: "One solution, revolution!" "Who killed Michael? APD!" and "What do racist pigs get? People's justice!" But though they marched behind the Mike Ramos banner, only a fraction considered themselves members of the Brigade, or of any group. Many questioned the concept of "leaders."
The MRB's spokesperson, one of those who has led march after march, said there is in fact organization and leadership in place at the marches. "It may not always be the most apparent, especially when things are getting messy, but there is leadership that is keeping track of what's going on and trying to make the best maneuver to help prevent arrest and keep the event going." The group unsurprisingly does not identify who those leaders are.
The protest on the evening of July 25 had started off promisingly. "I was leading it with Eric [Brown] from JUST America, and DeShawn [Barr] was leading with PEACE in Austin, and Jay, he's independent – it was a beautiful collaborative effort," King of SPBK told us. "It was like we were gliding, it was amazing. I felt like differences were put aside, like – hey, we're out here together, we're not gonna worry about them calling us antifa, we're not gonna worry about them calling us rioters or looters. This is for Black lives, Black lives matter!"
Hiram Garcia's livestream that evening opened with a shot of protesters standing before police headquarters. In the center of the frame were Garrett Foster, the AK-47 he carried openly hanging from his chest, and Foster's fiancée, Whitney Mitchell, sitting in her wheelchair.
Foster and Mitchell were shy and spoke little, but everyone knew them. Mitchell is a small Black woman, a quadruple amputee; Foster, a large white man, was her full-time caretaker. They'd been together since high school, through Foster's years in the military and the illness that led to the amputation of Mitchell's limbs. Not previously affiliated with any of the protest groups, they had been moved to take direct action by the killings of George Floyd and Mike Ramos. Foster pushed Mitchell through the streets each Saturday. They served dinner each Wednesday to people living under I-35 across from APD.
The July 25 march took the protesters to the Capitol, where King and his fellow Black leaders and an MRB rep gave remarks. King urged the crowd not to get distracted by tangential politics. "I don't want to focus on defunding APD," he said. "I don't want to focus on gentrification." The group proceeded to the W Hotel and Residences, where the crowd filled Lavaca Street and leaders tried to call out Mayor Steve Adler from his home there. Then the group started back toward APD, moving north along Congress Avenue.
As they passed Fourth Street, a motorist turned recklessly into the crowd, captured clearly by Garcia's livestream and other bystander video. He pulled up beside Foster and Mitchell and honked his horn. Foster and others started toward the car. The driver fired five shots through the open window; three hit Foster. Protesters surged away as the black Hyundai sedan drove off.
As Whitney screamed, police, firefighters, and an independent volunteer medic worked to save Foster's life until an ambulance arrived. He was pronounced dead later that evening at Dell Seton Medical Center.
After retreating a few blocks away to Cesar Chavez – where more bystanders captured photos and video, including the number on his license plate – the shooter turned himself in to APD, telling them he'd fired in self-defense after Foster raised the barrel of his AK-47. Despite statements from several witnesses contradicting this, APD let him go on his own recognizance, pending further investigation and claiming there was no probable cause for an arrest. They withheld his name from the public.
After the Killing
At a memorial the next evening, mourners lit candles and laid bouquets of flowers and handwritten cards at the foot of a bench at Fourth and Congress, near the spot where Foster died, creating an ofrenda they still maintain. They then passed the megaphone, sharing reminiscences.
At 8pm, Mitchell and members of Foster's family arrived. By then, the crowd had swelled to 300 and taken over the intersection. Mitchell was carried to her wheelchair, where she sat in the center of the street, her head bowed, surrounded by kneeling activists, their fists raised. After long minutes of silence, the crowd chanted Garrett Foster's name and the megaphone was again passed.
Those who had spoken the night before spoke again. When it was his turn, King held the megaphone for a long time, his head tilted up. "You got this," members of the audience called. Then, as much with silence as with words, he summed up the weight of the moment. "It happened, man. It happened," he said. "Here we are. Grieving. Over someone who was fighting for something that should be given to everyone."
At the end of King's remarks, Mitchell, who was near, said in a low voice, "Let's do it."
"She said, 'Let's do it!'" King roared. "We're taking the streets!" The crowd got to their feet and began the march, pushing Mitchell to the front.
Within hours of Foster's killing, a group of around 30 citizen investigators began searching for the shooter's identity. Working with the license plate number of the car and the testimony of those on the scene, they soon learned the killer was Daniel Perry, a 33-year-old Army sergeant stationed at Fort Hood who had professed anger at BLM protesters on social media. After Perry was named publicly by the "revolutionary news service" Tribune of the People, his Dallas attorney confirmed on Aug. 1 that Perry was the shooter while again advancing a claim of self-defense.
"We figured it out pretty quick," said Debbie Russell, a criminal justice reformer who's been scrutinizing APD for close to 20 years. Russell has acted as a self-described "helper bee" to the younger generation of activists she works with, though she says they don't really need her help. Together, they've continued digging for information.
Like many protesters, Russell believes the killing of Foster was premeditated. "The guy did it in the name of that whole way of thinking: that the bullies are in charge," she said. "They're mad at losing power, they're mad at the world for having to give a little justice. And they just have to go out and assert their power, because that's what bullies do."
Shows of Force
Throughout June and July, police had allowed protesters to march in the streets without making many arrests. But after Foster's memorial, that changed.
Anticipating trouble at the protests the first weekend in August, law enforcement brought enormous resources into Downtown – dozens of APD bike cops, dozens of Texas Department of Public Safety officers in riot gear, and the entire mounted patrol. The show of force may have prevented violence between protesters and the right-wing "boogaloo boys" who had descended on the city. But 37 protesters were arrested that night, practically all for walking in the streets, none of them from the far-right side of the political spectrum.
The following weekend, another 22 protesters were taken in. Justin Daisy was one. Daisy had begun attending the demonstrations in July, serving as an independent street medic. He had been one of those who worked to save Garrett Foster after he was shot.
Daisy was standing at Foster's memorial when the cops grabbed him. "I was standing in the bike lane, physically holding a bike, because we had complied with the police to get out of the street," Daisy said. "Fifteen officers came out of the fucking flashing lights they had going. I was brought through their car brigade of like 50 cars. I felt like I was in a mosh pit with the amount of hands taking my shit off. And then I wouldn't answer their questions because I have a constitutional right to remain silent. So they zip-tied my hands, slammed me on the car hood, assaulted me, and then threw me in the car."
Daisy spent 24 hours in jail – the legal maximum for a misdemeanor. Echoing the stories of others who've been arrested, he said that when he returned to APD to reclaim his personal effects, he found that police had ruined or lost them. "They had desterilized all my medical equipment," Daisy said. "I [had] single-use medical stuff, and they had opened up all that. I had walkie-talkie radios and those all just mysteriously disappeared."
As Daisy waited to be released on the afternoon of August 10, the MRB called an action to confront a group of bikers from outside the city who had organized a demonstration of support for APD called "Silent No More – We Back Our Protectors." When the bikers arrived, they parked in spots reserved for police; protesters watching from across the street say they shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with APD officers. Police then escorted the bikers, about 40 in number, up the street to face-off with the group the MRB had called. In the confrontation that followed, 18 BLM supporters were arrested. None of the bikers were.
"I was there for the [Silent No More] event," said Ramona. "You had [their] supporters mingling and stepping into the street outside the crosswalks, and they were never arrested or attacked or admonished for that. But then when protesters on the opposite side stepped off the curb, officers would come barreling out, at least a dozen at a time, and snatch that person and arrest them."
The Council Votes
Four days after the Silent No More demonstration, Austin's City Council voted unanimously to chop APD's budget by about a third. Though no police officers were laid off and the essential operations associated with policing weren't affected, the move remains the boldest yet undertaken by any large U.S. city.
The MRB immediately released a statement pointing out that they had never demanded the defunding of Austin police. They did, however, take some credit for the vote: "The reason City Council now cares enough to act is because the people made it impossible to ignore and have threatened 'business as usual' with regular protests, with taking the highway, with facing off against police. We have dared to name City Council, Adler, [Travis County District Attorney Margaret] Moore, and other 'progressive' politicians enemies of the people, and now they are trying to get positive press for themselves."
Few elected officials would disagree that the protests, and APD's response to them, have built consensus for defunding APD. Council Member Greg Casar points specifically to the emotional testimony of Edwin Ayala, the brother of Brad Ayala – who suffered severe and likely permanent brain injury from a "less lethal" APD round on May 30 – at a lengthy Council hearing in early June. "That was definitely a real turning point," Casar told the Chronicle.
Casar naturally does not consider himself and his colleagues "enemies of the people." But it's not his first direct experience with the tactics of the hard-left activist ecosystem from which the Mike Ramos Brigade emerged. These activists, who have staged actions under names including Serve the People, Popular Women's Front, and others, trace their ideological roots and some of their membership back to the now-defunct Red Guards Austin, an aggressive "Marxist-Leninist-Maoist" group active from 2015 to 2018.
Longtime community organizers say that when Red Guards dissolved, some of its members migrated to, and then took over, an Eastside anti-gentrification group called Defend Our Hoodz. With its transformed membership, DOH – recently rechristened as a chapter of the national United Neighborhood Defense Movement – went on to become an enormously energetic group. Much of that energy has been directed against the planned high-end 4700 East Riverside redevelopment, which DOH has labeled "the Domain on Riverside." That project, approved by Council earlier this year, will replace currently affordable apartment complexes in the East Riverside corridor – a part of town Defend Our Hoodz claims as its own.
Actions linked to DOH in its campaign to shut down 4700 East Riverside include extensive vandalism, disruption of multiple public meetings, and a violent assault on 68-year-old East Riverside neighborhood leader Larry Sunderland. DOH and other efforts with Red Guards roots have also targeted with harassment Casar, former congressional candidate Heidi Sloan, and other leftist and reformist leaders.
Though the MRB denies any affiliation, or even that much familiarity, with the Red Guards and its offspring, its protests have included the same tactics, including hostility toward those who might otherwise be allies. (This includes the press and specifically the Chronicle, whose photographer Jana Birchum was assaulted by MRB activists in early June.)
The connections between the MRB, DOH, and the Red Guards are widely accepted as fact by many observers, including Casar and CM Jimmy Flannigan. The chair of Council's Public Safety Committee, Flannigan attended several protests this summer, including the Garrett Foster memorial and the big AJC march in June. He credits the large, peaceful protests with focusing Council's attention on the need for change at APD.
But he's reluctant to credit the MRB. "The property damage and other things become a distraction," Flannigan said. "That type of tactic and approach will not drive reform. If anything, it will inhibit reform." Still, he's been impressed by the young people who march behind the MRB's banner: "Yes, folks were aggressive in their rhetoric, but folks were incredibly peaceful – a peaceful march and demonstration in public streets."
Regardless of who deserves credit for what, criminal justice activists are still pinching themselves over a triumph at City Hall that, after generations of struggle, seems to have happened overnight. "A year ago, we never thought we'd be having any of these conversations – let alone thinking up new words: decouple, reimagine," Russell said. "We're seeing the fruits of our labor where we're not used to seeing that. ... But we have to keep the movement going, and I think you're gonna see we want [Austin Police Association President] Ken Casaday gone, we want [police Chief] Brian Manley gone, and we want [City Manager] Spencer Cronk gone."
These are outcomes that would satisfy the MRB, at least momentarily. The group is also trying to put pressure on presumptive District Attorney José Garza, who defeated Moore in the July primary run-off and should be elected to the post in November. They've repeatedly asked what he plans to do about the cops who shot Mike Ramos, about those who shot demonstrators on May 30-31, and about Daniel Perry.
Garza has not made his intentions clear. Russell thinks she knows what he will do: "Oh yeah, I'm 100 percent positive he will convene grand juries."
Threats and Allies
On Aug. 21, Jolie McCollough of The Texas Tribune reported that DPS agents have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars this summer examining social media sites and surveillance video, looking for the young people who spray-painted monuments or lobbed water bottles during the May 30-31 demonstrations at the Capitol. That research has resulted in the arrests of 14 – half of them Black, most for misdemeanors – and more arrests are expected.
To some observers, the increasing shows of force by DPS and APD signal that police believe the public has stopped paying attention – and that they may finally administer a coup de grâce to the movement. Or, alternately, that after the Council's vote they've abandoned the pretense of professional restraint.
Observers estimate that over 200 young people have been arrested in the protests this summer. That poses problems for the movement: Arrests drive down attendance. Daisy says he can understand how getting arrested might cause an activist to shrink away from the cause. "If you can't get a hold of your mom or a friend or a lawyer, and all you're going off of is these heavily armed guys saying, 'You broke the law,' and now you're stuck in a cell all by yourself for god knows how long – if you're just some high school person who got thrown in there – that shit's fucking traumatic."
Ramona spoke of the practical concerns that make arrests intimidating. "These are working-class people and they can't afford to lose their job, they can't afford to hire an attorney or even pay court fees or pay their own bail ... I think that's definitely informed some of the decision-making: 'Can I afford to go Downtown? If I get arrested, it's Friday, does that mean I'm going to be in jail until Monday morning? What about my kids, what about my job?'"
With attendance declining, there is an emerging consensus that organizers need to strengthen the bonds between different groups. "I would say that we haven't done the best job of seeking unity with these groups," the MRB spokesperson said. "So we are trying to rectify that error, because we understand that unity is really important."
King agrees: "We need to come together on this. We need to come with action, we need to come with better ways of protest, different tactics."
Ramona believes that stronger coordination between groups is the next logical step. "There's a lot of cooks in the kitchen," she said. "You know, you have libertarians out here, you have Marxist-Leninists, you have Maoists coming out. And yeah, there's going to be friction in ideologies. So how do we organize across those different lines? I think it's a learning process."
Though it's been a struggle, groups who on paper should be incapable of getting along have achieved working relationships. The MRB has members who believe in old-fashioned Communist revolution, but they have deified Garrett Foster, a libertarian. Black-led groups such as SPBK and PEACE in Austin are concerned about white-led groups usurping leadership of the movement, but they acknowledge the value of white allyship.
Debbie Russell, a white progressive who adheres to the anarchist creed of "a diversity of tactics," sees some value in what the MRB brings. "You gotta have loud voices that are saying the most radical things, alongside the majority voices that are speaking at Council meetings and marching in the big marches like AJC put on," Russell said. (More than 20,000 people attended the AJC march that followed Brenda Ramos' comments at Huston-Tillotson.) "You have to have a little push and pull to get people out more, get people involved."
Chas Moore of AJC has moved on from his early criticism and now considers the group something of an ally. "I've talked to them ... and we talked for hours," Moore said. "And we didn't walk away agreeing on everything, but we agreed that what we can't do is continue to fight and have these types of conversations in the media, because it doesn't get us anywhere. You know, they have different tactics. But we are more aligned than what people assume."
The original issue that Brenda Ramos and Rebecca Webber had with the MRB is their use of Mike Ramos' name and image to solicit money. The MRB is on its second round of crowdfunding requests, each for $20,000. It reportedly assured the community back in May that it would share some of the funds with Ramos, and a spokesperson said some money has been given to her. However, funds currently being raised are going solely to legal expenses, especially for those the MRB calls "the Targeted Three" – the ones arrested for the Target looting, who face state jail felony charges.
Ramos, through Webber, confirmed that she was given $800 in early May by three women who tried to persuade her to lend her voice to the movement. "They were very nice to her. I'm not saying they came in and harassed her; they were actually really sweet," Webber said. But when Ramos asked if the women were part of a violent group, two of the three simultaneously answered both "no" and "yes."
Ramos made her feelings about the MRB known at that time and hasn't had occasion to mention them since. Webber's personal feelings about the group are mixed. "I don't denounce them – I mean, I denounce them for using a grieving mother's son's image when she has asked them not to. And I denounce them for the idiotic idea that looting a Target will accomplish anything. But I commend them for caring, for being leaders – I wish they would be better, but there's a lot of things I commend them for."
The MRB spokesperson accepts that people have criticisms but insists the group is in it for the long haul. "We just have to stick to our principles. Keep making gains in the movement and the people will be shown. People will be moved, you know? People will be won over. One day a Trump supporter will just throw away his ballot, you know what I'm saying? I'm not even joking, that shit will happen. Everything comes out in the wash in the class struggle. All things will be revealed."