He Wants Action, Not Acknowledgement, After Austin Police Shot His Brother With 'Less Lethal' Round

Jun 5, 2020

Lee esta historia en español. 

Joshua Howell wants you to listen. He wants you to listen to people of color when they talk about and document police violence and racism. He wants you to experience it as those folks did.

And he wants you to know his brother's name:  Justin Howell. The 20-year-old was nearly killed Sunday when an Austin police officer shot him in the head with a lead-pellet bag.

"Something doesn't have to be lethal to be incredibly damaging."

Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services said 11 people were hospitalized after officers fired the bags at people demonstrating against racism and the police killings of George Floyd, Mike Ramos and seemingly countless other people of color. A 16-year-old Latino demonstrator, Brad Levi Ayala, was also shot in the head.

Two days before his brother was shot, Joshua a computer science graduate student at Texas A&M University and opinion editor for The Battallionwrote a column about the importance of watching the unedited video of George Floyd's death.

Justin Howell, 20, was shot by an Austin police officer with a lead-pellet bag fired from a 12-gauge shotgun on May 31. He is in critical condition, and his brother says he and his family are "taking it day by day."
Credit Joshua Howell / Cortesía de la familia

"[Reading about it] won’t show you Floyd's micro-exertions as he gasps for air," he wrote. "You won’t appreciate how his screams become whimpers and his whimpers become silence, how his tone shifts from resistance, to fear, to resignation. You won’t hear his voice crack."

Not long after, he was watching videos of his own brother.

He had been mapping out another column, then turned the focus on piecing together how Justin – who wasn't afraid to start arguments at the Thanksgiving dinner table, yet maintained a shy streak – ended up nonresponsive on the concrete outside APD headquarters.

Joshua said the act helped channel his raw emotions, and it also helped him keep track of everything – the timeline, the little details in the videos posted on social media – for himself and his family.

Since he published the column Wednesday, people have been clamoring for the police department to be defunded and Police Chief Brian Manley to resign. On Thursday, Manley said his officers would no longer fire those lead-pellet rounds into crowds.

Joshua said he's glad to see something positive come out of his brother's shooting. He's glad people now realize the danger of the rounds long billed by APD as "less lethal."

"If it's less lethal than a bullet, that's a low bar," he told KUT. "Anything fired out of a shotgun at 90 miles an hour can be lethal."

"Firing these into crowds is insanely dangerous."

Joshua said the lethality shouldn't be the primary metric, that the rounds can still leave an impact long after a shot's fired. He brought up to the dozens of people who testified Thursday before Austin City Council about the department's use of force last weekend. He pointed to Brad Levi Ayala, who was also shot in the head with a lead-pellet bag.

"Something doesn't have to be lethal to be incredibly damaging," he said. "But we're only having serious, meaningful conversations about things that can kill you, and not things that can maim you or give you brain damage, as you saw not only in Justin's case, but in [Brad's] case."

Joshua couldn't say whether APD's change on firing into crowds goes far enough. He lives in College Station, so he said he wasn't comfortable weighing in on local policy.

But he did say APD's rationale for firing on his brother – that police were targeting someone throwing objects at officers and hit Justin inadvertently – highlights the very real danger of the practice. 

"We're sort of taking this day by day. Justin is taking this day by day."

"It still underscores the fact that firing these into crowds is insanely dangerous," he said. "Shoot something into a crowd. Throw something into a crowd. Throw a pillow into a crowd. You're probably not going to hit who you think you're going to hit. That's how crowds work."

On Friday, APD said it was also no longer allowing officers to target a person's head or neck with the pellet-bag rounds, unless there was an immediate risk of serious injury or death to an officer or others. Several council members also called on Manley to resign. Again, Joshua said he didn't feel comfortable weighing in, but he did say he hopes for something more than mere acknowledgment.

"You have to take responsibility for what's going on, and responsibility isn't just about acknowledgment. It's about action," he said. "If somebody merely acknowledged that they did something to you but didn't really do anything to rectify it, it's not really taking responsibility. And, so, he's going to take responsibility for what his officers did – not only to Justin ... but for the policing in that community."

Justin is in critical condition at the hospital, and Joshua hasn’t been able to see him yet.

In his column, Joshua wrote that doctors said Justin's road to recovery would be a marathon, not a sprint. 

"We're sort of taking this day by day," Joshua said. "Justin is taking this day by day."

Whatever reforms lie ahead, Joshua said the discussion shouldn't be wholly about Justin's or Brad's experiences. He said it should be a discussion that encourages all voices – especially voices of color. He wants people to listen. He wants Austin's leaders to listen.

"I'm listening like everyone else," he said, "and I think the City Council and Manley ... need to be listening to black and brown folks, as well."

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.