After nearly a week of protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the Austin City Council convened Thursday to address the much-criticized tactics Austin police have deployed against protesters in recent days.
Hundreds of residents called in to the virtual meeting, many demanding that Austin police Chief Brian Manley be fired and the police department’s budget be reallocated to benefit black and brown communities. Others recounted firsthand how officers tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, and shot at them with rubber bullets and bean bag rounds, even as they were protesting peacefully.
Manley said bean bag munition will no longer be used in crowd contexts but that it is still appropriate in “many other circumstances.” Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk said his office is reviewing police conduct in the last few days and continuing a review of law enforcement policy that began in December.
As the meeting continued Thursday evening, people gathered at police headquarters for another demonstration, this one focused on Austin police officers inflicting injuries on previous protesters. Another group of protesters started at the Texas Capitol nearby and were reportedly headed to the police station to join the demonstration there. At one point, the group outside the police department was chanting, "Who killed Michael? APD," referencing Michael Ramos, an unarmed black and Hispanic man who was killed by Austin police in April.
By late Thursday night, the crowd remaining at police headquarters was protesting peacefully, KXAN-TV reported.
While rubber bullets and bean bag rounds have been touted as “less lethal” by law enforcement, Austin officers injured protesters with them during the previous demonstrations against police brutality in recent days. Justin Howell, a 20-year-old black man, was critically injured after police shot him in the back of the head while aiming for another protester. Police also shot 16-year-old Brad Levi Ayala in the forehead with a bean bag round.
The meeting opened with a moment of silence for Ramos and Floyd, a black Minneapolis man who was killed after a white police officer kneeled on his neck long past the point when he lost consciousness.
Ramos' death brought out tensions that have long plagued the city, a place regarded as a liberal bastion but that has deep-rooted racial biases.
Council members conveyed dismay and outrage Thursday at the Austin Police Department’s handling of the demonstrations.
“I was an early supporter of Chief Manley but have become incredibly disappointed in what feels like complete disregard for the reform efforts this council has consistently tried to implement,” Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said.
The sole black council member, Natasha Harper-Madison, was the last to give remarks before the public comment period began. She demanded that Manley, who was present but had his video turned off for the first hour of the meeting, turn on his camera and face Austin residents.
“Chief Manley, I implore you … if you couldn’t do it for my colleagues, when these people come before you to share their words with you, I want them to look at you when they do it, and I want you to look at them,” Harper-Madison said.
One of the first residents to speak, of the over 300 who signed up, was Edwin Ayala, brother of Brad Levi Ayala. Between sobs, he explained how the bean bag round had penetrated Brad’s skull and embedded itself into his brain, damaging his prefrontal cortex and his ability to regulate his emotions. Multiple council members teared up as Ayala spoke about his family’s experience.
“We thought he was going to die,” Ayala said. “He’s in so much pain, and I can’t help him. ... We want to know the truth. We just want to know what happened.”
Breaking protocol, council member Greg Casar asked Ayala to stay on the line while he asked Manley what he is doing to make sure this “never happens again.” At that point, Manley said bean bag rounds will no longer be used when dealing with crowds, effective immediately.
“Well, it’s just not enough. I’ve seen the video of Levi, and he wasn’t in a crowd,” Casar responded. “He was standing by himself, so changing the policy for crowds would not have changed this. The answers are insufficient.”
Organizers have condemned actions they say injure residents and could incite crowds rather than deescalate tension. The show of force, they argue, heightens fear and anger and highlights the underlying discord between police and residents that underpinned the protests in the first place.
One resident said Austin police's use of tear gas and pepper spray, both of which can affect the respiratory system, is unconscionable — particularly during a pandemic.
Another said he was shot in the eye with either a rubber bullet or a bean bag round while running away and will have to get metal plates put in his face. He said he would have been blinded if not for his sunglasses and still stands to suffer partial or permanent loss of eyesight.
"There was blood all over my chest and my hands," he said, comparing the protest to a "war zone."
A third resident, who participated in the protests on Sunday night, said it “felt like a massacre.”
“I spoke with officers who swore they cared for our cause and knew that APD has trigger-happy and racist officers. Yet when they witnessed these heinous and violent crimes, they did nothing,” he said. “For that, they are accomplices to the crimes committed by the other officers.”
Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.