The Austin City Council heard from hundreds of people during an emergency meeting Thursday that addressed police violence at weekend protests against the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Mike Ramos in Austin.
The council has been holding its meetings remotely, via video chat, so speakers called in. Some demanded the city slash the police department’s budget and put that money towards health care and other social services, while others detailed police violence they experienced as protesters this past weekend, including when officers used tear gas and shot “less lethal” ammunition at demonstrators.
“It felt like a war zone,” said Sam Kirsch, who protested alongside Black Lives Matter demonstrators Sunday.
Kirsch said he was shot with what he thought was either a bag filled with lead pellets or a rubber bullet, which broke at least five bones in his face. (APD has said it did not use rubber bullets this past weekend, but protesters say they saw them).
Edwin Ayala, whose 16-year-old brother Brad Levi Ayala was hospitalized after an officer shot him in the head with a lead-pellet bag, spoke to council members through sobs Thursday.
“We thought he was going to die,” Edwin said. “He’s in so much pain, and I can’t help him.”
At least two others, including a pregnant woman and a 20-year-old university student, were also injured by police over the weekend.
At the meeting, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said his officers would no longer shoot this type of ammunition into crowds of people, but that it, “is still an appropriate tool in many other circumstances.”
Council Member Greg Casar, who represents North Central Austin, told Manley his response was “insufficient,” saying that he’d seen a video shared of Levi Ayala being shot and that he was standing by himself, not in a crowd.
“Changing the policy for crowds would not have changed this,” Casar said.
Other speakers asked City Manager Spencer Cronk to fire Chief Manley and to cut the police department’s budget; the council allocated more than $440 million dollars to the department last year.
“Give [the money] to our black people. We need it; better healthcare, our economy, our schools. We need food. We’re homeless out here,” said Nyeka Arnold, who has lived in Austin for 27 years and said she’s never felt safe. “Defund it, period.”
Manley said policing is not perfect.
"These are men and women in very dynamic situations," he said. "Unfortunately, there will be mistakes ... We are committed at the Austin Police Department to serve our community, to serve them rightly and appropriately and to look for opportunities to improve."
Council members are scheduled to reconvene Friday morning to hear from police about what happened last weekend, although they will not vote or take action on anything at that time.
“When is the time going to be to change? When are we going to actually do something? When are we actually going to matter to the people who have been paid to protect us?” Ashleigh Hamilton asked the council.
Casar said he hopes that as early as next week the council can vote on changes to police department policy, pointing towards eight demands for departments from the national policy group Campaign Zero. These include a policy banning officers from using chokeholds and strangleholds and shooting at moving vehicles, which is how Ramos was killed in April.
“I’m tired of talking,” said Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents East Austin, at the beginning of Thursday’s meeting. “This is not mine or that of any other black or brown or otherwise marginalized person; this is all of ours. We all should feel sad and mad and demand that we stop talking.”
After the last person spoke, council members had to then vote on accepting roughly $430,000 in grant money, with the city matching it with $173,000, to fund detectives for the police department’s car theft division. Several council members opposed accepting the money, saying they saw this as a moment to begin diverting money from the police, as so many speakers urged them to.
“I can’t support passing this after hearing from the community,” Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said.
But Mayor Steve Adler countered, saying the council had to be rational in its response to the community and not accepting grant money that otherwise wouldn’t be used elsewhere was not that. The majority voted to take the grant money, with a vote of 7 to 4.
"There are going to be some tough votes next week, some far-reaching votes next week,” he said. “It’s really important when we take those votes next week that people will say they were reasoned decisions that we took and were taken in the context of ensuring public safety in the best possible way and in an Austin way.”
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