Officers Use Tear Gas And Smoke To Get Demonstrators Protesting Police Killings Off I-35

May 31, 2020

Protesters demanding justice for Mike Ramos, George Floyd and other black people killed by police moved onto I-35 for the second day in a row after marching through downtown Austin. 

Southbound lanes of the highway near Austin Police Department headquarters were blocked due to protesters, some of whom kneeled and chanted “Black Lives Matter” while facing a row of officers. Police officers then retreated to police headquarters. Someone in a helicopter overhead used a loudspeaker to warn police would use "tear gas" if people did not leave the highway. 

Some people got off the interstate. Police then used CS gas — or tear gas — along with smoke and began firing bean bags on those who remained. Originally, APD said officers did not use tear gas but later released a correction saying the gas was used.

The Austin Justice Coalition, one of the organizers of a planned rally and march downtown, had canceled Sunday's event for safety reasons, but thousands still showed up at the Capitol and marched to City Hall and then to APD headquarters.  

Chas Moore, executive director of AJC, announced the rally's cancellation on Facebook Live less than two hours before its planned start, saying organizers could not ensure the safety of participants.

"There’s no way … we can ask people to come out and potentially have black bodies in harm’s way,” he said. “We will figure out a way to come and do this in a more peaceful way, in a more safe way.”

 

Organizers said the peaceful protest aimed “to build unity and organizing power as we continue to strive to make the world a more just and equitable place for Black people, all PoC (people of color), and all marginalized communities.”

Protesters gathered at the Capitol on Sunday, even though the Austin Justice Coalition canceled its "Justice For Them All" rally over safety concerns.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

The march was set to begin at the south steps of the Capitol at 1 p.m. and end at Austin City Hall. 

Moore said there had been rumors about Sunday's event being disrupted, as he felt demonstrations were on Saturday.

“When I look at what’s going on in Austin, 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,” he said.

Moore said other people of color and white people have co-opted this current moment in Austin. 

“White people have colonized the black anger and the black movement in this particular time frame and have used black pain and black outrage to just completely become anarchists in this moment,” he said.

People, including Moore himself, still showed up at the Capitol. One group, calling itself the Mike Ramos Brigade, said on Facebook the cancellation was “an act of cowardice” and encouraged people to turn out.

Brenda Ramos, the mother of the 42-year-old black and Hispanic man killed by an Austin police officer last month, had been set to attend the AJC rally Sunday. In a statement sent Saturday, she pleaded with the community not to commit violence in her son’s name. 

Sunday afternoon, she spoke at the site of her son's shooting in Southeast Austin.

“I cry every day," she said. "Now I am in the terrible heartbreak club. It’s a club of mothers of black Americans who have been murdered by police.”

Ramos said she had been watching the violence and that was why she couldn't attend Sunday's demonstration.

"It hurts me," she said. "I don't want no violence. I just want peace and quiet and respect for me, my son, my family."

A few hours later, police responded to reports of looting at the Target store at Capital Plaza. Members of the Mike Ramos Brigade had encouraged people to protest outside the store, citing the retailer's "funding of the Minneapolis police's surveillance of citizens."

The store was temporarily closed and boarded up, after Targets in other cities had been hit. It was unclear whether the looting was done by the demonstrators themselves.

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said in a virtual news conference Sunday night that officers have experienced minor injuries from people throwing objects like rocks and bottles at them. He said he recognizes that this weekend’s events had been disrupted by other groups.

“What should have been a weekend of civic engagement and a lot of public speaking and marching and speaking about this important issue has been hijacked by others,” he said. “These are very difficult times right now for us, but we are your police department and still call us if there is something that you need.”

Sunday was the third day in a row of Austinites protesting racism and police violence after a Minneapolis police officer killed Floyd, an unarmed black man, while onlookers filmed the incident. 

On Saturday, protesters demonstrated outside Austin Police headquarters and converged on I-35, temporarily blocking all lanes of traffic. Law enforcement intermittently pepper-sprayed protesters and fired volleys of beanbag shells from shotguns. 

APD said 14 people were arrested Saturday and five people on Sunday. Charges included robbery, assault on a peace officer and obstructing a highway, APD said. The department said it is partnering with surrounding agencies on Sunday to keep the city safe.

Clashes have erupted between police and demonstrators across the U.S., and some cities, including Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Louisville, enacted overnight curfews.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster for all Texas counties on Sunday in response to violent protests. He also released a statement saying he was sending resources to cities throughout the state, and has ordered thousands of troopers to cities and more than 1,000 National Guard members to help local law enforcement. He also said the FBI had also sent tactical teams.

Thousands gathered at the Capitol on Sunday and marched to Austin City Hall to protest police killings.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

Texas House representatives in Travis County sent a statement Sunday saying they stand with the peaceful protesters calling for justice after the murders of Floyd, Ramos and others. The representatives — Eddie Rodriguez, Donna Howard, Celia Israel, Gina Hinojosa, Sheryl Cole and Vikki Goodwin — said they don’t approve of any kind of violence, whether it be from police or protesters. They also said they were devastated by the destruction of businesses.

“Moving forward we are hopeful that today’s protest, and those that continue across Texas and the United States, will remain peaceful and that we can begin to address the underlying causes of this unrest,” they said. “We need serious reform of law enforcement, and accountability across the system.” 

People protest in front of the Austin Police Department.
Credit Michael Minasi / KUT

Before the AJC event was canceled, Mayor Steve Adler sent a statement saying he was not attending the demonstration because of concerns over the coronavirus. He said the decision was a difficult one to make, and though he “wants to stand with others to recognize that only a ‘just’ city is a safe one,” he also knows large crowds “still present great risk” of spreading the coronavirus.

“The peaceful gathering planned for today is another important moment compromised by the virus, which has already taken so much from all of us but especially black and brown communities,” he said, encouraging people to wear masks, maintain 6-foot distancing and stay home if they’re sick.

Ashley Lopez and Matt Largey contributed to this report.

This story has been updated.

Correction: This post was updated to reflect Austin Police said CS gas, or tear gas, was used on protesters. Originally, APD said it did not use tear gas but later released a correction.