In the video, a volunteer medic and a group of protesters carry Justin Howell, limp and bleeding, toward the Austin Police Department. Just minutes before, he’d been struck in the back of the head by lead pellet-filled “beanbag,” one of the so-called less-than-lethal munitions deployed by police during protests that have filled U.S. streets since the May 25 murder of George Floyd.
Another medic, standing at the front of the crew, has her arms crossed above her head — the Red Cross of the city’s protests — in the agreed-upon signal to communicate with the cops. That signal was unheeded by the officers stationed on the stairs leading up to police headquarters. As the squad approached with Howell unconscious in their arms, the police opened fire, and indiscriminate rounds of beanbag ammunition blazed the crowd. The medic at the front of the squad, Maredith Michael, was hit. Her hands disabled, she fell to the ground.
“What the fuck?” cried a witness.
Howell is 20. He’s a college student at Texas State University, 30 miles south of Austin, where he is studying political science. He’s kind of shy and not prone to unnecessary risk-taking, his brother, Joshua, told The Intercept. “He’s very intelligent, very inquisitive, very quick on his feet.” He’s now in critical condition in an Austin hospital. His skull was fractured. He has a serious brain injury. The road to recovery will be long.
Howell was one of at least two young men gravely injured by the use of less-lethal munitions fired by Austin police on May 30 and 31, the first days of the city’s protests over Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers and the murder of an Austin man, 42-year-old Michael Ramos, on April 24 — a deadly encounter that also began with the firing of lead pellet ammunition.
Video and images of the damage done by less-lethal munitions have swept across social media, again raising serious questions about their use and misuse as tools for crowd control. “These less-lethal munitions are only less lethal by technicality,” Joshua Howell said. “My brother’s condition shows what can happen when you fire them into a crowd. Anything fired out of a shotgun at 90 miles per hour is lethal. Calling them ‘less lethal’ is just fun with words.”
Less-lethal kinetic and chemical weapons rose to prominence during the drug war. And that these munitions regularly cause serious and sometimes fatal injuries is nothing new. Studies have found that both pepper spray and tear gas can cause serious eye injuries and respiratory problems — an issue intensified amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Beanbag rounds have been associated with “significant” abdominal and chest injuries and death. Kinetic projectiles have long caused permanent injury or death, particularly when fired at the head or neck. Tasers have long been identified as lethal — even as proponents have worked overtime to deny that. As the protests intensified, shares of Axon, the company that makes the weapon, spiked.
People demonstrating on the streets, or following along online, don’t need studies to know that less-lethal weaponry isn’t safe — particularly in crowds. In Austin, a pregnant woman named Saraneka “Nemo” Martin was shot in the abdomen and back. So far, her husband has reported, she’s not lost the pregnancy. Another demonstrator, Samuel Kirsch, called into a special Austin City Council meeting to say that he’d been shot in the face while running away from tear gas. The impact broke five bones supporting his eye, which will take complicated surgery to fix.
Amid the protests, head injuries have become shockingly common. In Dallas, Brandon Saenz lost his left eye and seven teeth after police fired a rubber bullet into the crowd; journalist Linda Tirado lost her eye to a police-fired projectile while covering protests in Minneapolis; in Los Angeles, police reportedly shot out the eye of a homeless man with disabilities who protesters have said was not involved in their demonstration — a brutal incident cited in a federal lawsuit filed against the LAPD over its actions amid the protests. Protesters in Denver won a temporary restraining order against police, barring their use of less-lethal munitions. “Some of the behaviors of what I hope and believe to be a minority of the police officers in Denver and the nation during recent days (and before), not only vis-à-vis persons of color but against peaceful protesters of all backgrounds, have been disgusting,” U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson wrote.
Four days after Floyd was murdered, and just before the city’s protests coalesced, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley addressed the department in a video posted on YouTube. He condemned Floyd’s killing and noted that Austin residents were hurt and grieving, and he asked his officers to keep that in mind. “Give that extra ounce of care when you’re out there, that extra ounce of deference, understanding where we are right now as a society coming to terms with what happened,” he said. “I implore you to exercise patience, and as we tell each graduating cadet class: As you’re packing your gear bag for the evening shift, make sure you pack your empathy in there as well.”
That’s not how it played out. The following day, police in riot gear began what would become several days of violent clashes after demonstrators shut down Interstate 35, which slices Austin in half — east and west — and is a monument to the city’s racial divide and racist history.
Beyond its borders, Austin enjoys a reputation as a progressive oasis in a sea of Texas, though residents know that isn’t entirely accurate. Allegations of racism, incompetence, and misconduct have long plagued city institutions, including the Austin Police Department. Between 2005 and early 2017 alone, the city paid out more than $8 million in settlements related to police shootings. In 2018, a group of former police cadets came forward to say that academy instructors had told them they would be punched in the face if they said they wanted to become cops in order to help people. Others said instructors repeatedly referred to sex workers and the homeless as “cockroaches” and suggested targeting homeless individuals for arrest if they were bored while on duty. Allegations of racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior go straight to the top. Last year, Manley allowed an assistant chief to resign instead of facing investigation into his ongoing racist attitudes and language, and a subsequent independent investigation revealed widespread internal concern about racism and sexism and a feeling that the department has repeatedly failed to deal with its problems. “Reports came to us, from different ranks, races and genders, advising of the fact that the racist and sexist name calling and use of derogatory terms associated with race and sex persists,” the investigator, San Antonio attorney Lisa Tatum, reported. “Anecdotal history indicated that even members of the executive staff over the years had been known to use racist and sexist language, particularly when around the lower ranks or other subordinates.”
Over the first four days of protests in the city, paramedics responded to 53 calls for medical help.
It was against this backdrop that police confronted the ongoing protests. Images and videos show their indiscriminate use of pepper spray, tear gas, and kinetic munitions. On May 30, as police tried to move people off the interstate, 16-year-old Brad Ayala stood on a hillside above the highway, apart from the crowd. He had just gotten off work at a sub shop on the city’s south side; he’d told his family that he wanted to see history and he would be home soon. He didn’t make it there.
Instead, he was shot in the head with a beanbag round. Demonstrators immediately rushed to his side, screaming for medical help. “We thought he was going to die,” his older brother, Edwin, told city council members in the special-called meeting held June 5 via Zoom. Ayala remains at the local children’s hospital. He has a fractured skull and permanent damage to his prefrontal cortex; a recent photo posted to the family’s GoFundMe page shows him up and walking with the help of a nurse.
Over the first four days of protests in the city, paramedics responded to 53 calls for medical help. Twenty-nine of those required transportation to a hospital; of those injuries, 11 were believed to have been caused by beanbag rounds. Many were life-threatening, the city’s Emergency Medical Services chief told the city council.
During the meeting, Manley announced that his officers would no longer be permitted to use beanbag rounds to control crowds. “It is still an appropriate tool in many other circumstances,” he said, “but not in a crowd situation.”
Of course, it’s hard to imagine how anyone, let alone the chief, would have thought that firing into a crowd was a good idea in the first place — and the department’s general orders suggest that everyone in the department should have understood this. Before using chemical agents, for example, officers are supposed to provide a verbal warning, and they’re not supposed to be used at demonstrations “without the permission of a supervisor” or when a person is exhibiting “only verbal and/or passive resistance to arrest or authority.”
Where kinetic munitions are concerned, officers are told that the safety of “innocent subjects” and officers “takes priority” in the decision to deploy their weapons. The policy allows for use against those throwing rocks, bottles, or “other dangerous projectiles” at police, but singling out an actual aggressor amid the crowds seems to have been impossible for the Austin Police Department. And before firing, even when they’re allegedly being targeted, officers are supposed to consider their proximity to the subject and other environmental factors. During the council meeting, Manley said that updated orders would forbid firing at someone’s head or neck unless lethal force is warranted; previously, the order read that those areas should not be “intentionally” targeted.
Regarding the injuries to protesters in Austin, Manley said, “I have come to the conclusion that we have had some results that were not intended.”
Scott Henson, a longtime local agitator for police reform and the author of the influential Texas criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, called the APD’s actions amid the protests “jaw-dropping.” Police have always monitored protests in the city, but they usually involve “a few cops in their regular uniforms, and they’re basically there to hang around the edges, in case something happens,” he said. This time, “they showed up in full riot gear from the get-go, and their goal and intention was to enforce compliance, and anyone who didn’t just immediately accept the most unreasonable command would get shoved around or shot with a beanbag round or sprayed with tear gas.”
For Henson, the department’s actions amid the protests were just a more extreme version of the unnecessary use of force they routinely employ in communities of color across the city. That’s exactly what led to the April killing of Michael Ramos, he said. Ramos was sitting in a car with his girlfriend in the parking lot of his apartment complex when someone called the cops, first saying that it appeared that the couple was using drugs and later alleging that Ramos had a gun. The police staged a takedown, cornering the vehicle. The officers raised their weapons, demanding that the couple exit the car. They complied, but after Ramos questioned why the cops were pointing firearms at them, a rookie cop, just three months out of the academy, fired a beanbag round, hitting Ramos, who dove back into his car and tried to get away. That’s when a second officer fired at Ramos with a shotgun, killing him. According to a report filed with the state, Ramos did not appear intoxicated, and it was “unknown” whether he had a weapon.
Responsibility for deaths like Ramos’s and for the recent protests becoming dangerous belongs to the police, Henson said. “Showing up in the most confrontational fashion, if you’re the cops, invites protest defiance.”
When police are facing crowds that outnumber them, use of chemical or kinetic weapons are effective and people disperse. But they return, often angry, in response to the police escalation of violence.
Norm Stamper, Seattle’s police chief during the massive 1999 World Trade Organization protests, knows this well. There, tens of thousands of protesters took over the streets, closing down busy intersections by sitting and locking arms, Stamper recently recalled. The police were certainly outnumbered. Eventually, the call was made to deploy tear gas. Stamper signed off. It was a mistake. “I was wrong to bless it,” Stamper, now a member of the reform group Law Enforcement Action Partnership, told The Intercept. “Never use chemical agents against nonviolence and indeed in threatening fellow Americans. People who are exercising their First Amendment rights. So you just don’t do it. Yeah, something terrible could happen if you don’t, but what are the odds, really?”
Amid the WTO protests, he said he should have just let the protesters remain — after all, he said, they wouldn’t still be sitting there now; at some point, they would get up and move on. He notes that when police are facing crowds that outnumber them, use of chemical or kinetic weapons are effective and people disperse. But they return, often angry, in response to the police escalation of violence. Cops often say they can’t stand down — that if they do, they’ll look weak. But that’s not the right way to look at it, Stamper says. “I’ve heard it many times: ‘Our job is to protect lives and property, and if I’m just standing around with my thumb up my ass, I’m not doing that. I need to take action,’” he said. “But the bottom line is, if what I do intensifies the conflict, jeopardizes more people, endangers individuals, then what I have done needs to be examined for its utility. Is it useful to provoke people? Is it useful to escalate tension, which often times leads to violence? And the answer is almost always, no.”
Stamper, who resigned as chief in the aftermath of the WTO protests, said that what he’s seen on the streets of U.S. cities amid the recent crisis is upsetting. “I am terribly saddened by what I’m seeing. It’s like, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, do we never learn?’” he asked. “We never learn lessons there for the taking.”
A split second after Justin Howell was shot in the head on May 31, protesters ran to his aide, scooping him up and retreating from the front lines of the protest to a highway underpass where volunteer medics were stationed. But he was in more trouble than they could manage. One of the medics went back to the police line in front of headquarters; Howell had been shot in the base of his skull and was convulsing. Bring him up here, the cops said. The protesters did. That’s when the police began firing again, straight at the group, hitting Maredith Michael in her hands from roughly three feet away.
News of Howell’s shooting spread fast across the city. 400+1 sent out a mass email looking for anyone who knew what had happened to him. Many people feared he was dead.
In a press conference streamed on Facebook, Manley, the police chief, recounted that the cops started firing only after protesters began throwing things at them. Howell got hit, he said, after a cop missed his intended target, a person standing nearby and threatening to launch a backpack toward the police line. But video and witness accounts of the incident dispute that; it appears that no one near Howell was doing anything to provoke the violence.
It appears that no one near Howell was doing anything to provoke the violence.
“Our focus was on protecting peaceful, free speech,” Manley said. “We are praying for this young man and his family and are hoping that his condition improves quickly.”
Joshua, Howell’s brother, was not impressed. He’s a graduate student at Texas A&M University, and the opinion editor of the student newspaper, The Battalion. On June 3, the paper published a stinging column he wrote about his brother, the police violence, and Manley’s press conference. “It’s … notable in his briefing how little effort Manley puts into taking responsibility for what happened,” he began. “There was no apology.” Instead, Manley just gave details of what happened without acknowledging the harm caused to Justin Howell or to the medics who were trying to get him help. “To those protesters,” Josh Howell wrote, “My family sees you, and we thank you.”
In an interview with The Intercept, Josh Howell reiterated many of the concerns he expressed in his column, including the combination of incompetence and weaponry that has had near-fatal consequences for his brother. The fact that the cops fired on the medics is deeply disturbing, he said, though he doesn’t believe the same cops that told them to bring Howell forward are the same ones who fired at them when they did — that “strains credulity,” he said — but that doesn’t make what happened any better. “At a minimum, it shows a lack of awareness of one’s surroundings and an inability to manage the situation,” he said. “And when you have all of those factors, in combination with these ‘less-lethal rounds,’ this is what can happen.”