'They Shot All Of Us': An Austin Medic Recalls A Weekend Of Police Violence Amid Peaceful Protests

Jun 4, 2020

Lee esta historia en español. 

Liz Brake had a long day Saturday. A lot of people did. One could argue the entire country did

As a volunteer medic on the streets of Austin, she worked through waves of pepper spray, waves of "beanbags" fired off by law enforcement, and hours of chanting by demonstrators targeted by those beanbags.

The beanbags, filled with small lead pellets and fired from 12-gauge shotguns, hospitalized at least three people who were protesting the police killings of George FloydMike Ramos and other black Americans – prompting a larger discussion of law enforcement's use of force in Austin.

A day after that long day Saturday, Brake, a certified EMT, and her boyfriend, a military-trained medic, went back downtown. Though an event hosted by the Austin Justice Coalition was canceled, they knew people would be out demonstrating. Still, Brake thought she'd seen the worst.

"People were being shot point-blank. That is lethal."

They met up with Austin Street Medics, a group that she understood had reached an informal agreement with the Austin Police Department.

"We were told if we had the red crosses on us and we crossed our arms in front of our face when we were going to help anybody, that the police chief had gotten with [his] people and told them, 'Do not attack the medics,'" said Brake, who plans to finish her paramedic certification after the pandemic ends.

Sunday's rally at the state Capitol began peacefully, she said. A march down to City Hall had few incidents. But then, she said, a small group started to make trouble.   

A volunteer medic fastens red duct tape to a backpack to form a red cross.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

In the afternoon, those people, who Brake identified as mostly white, began throwing rocks and water bottles at police along I-35. APD later said the demonstrations were "hijacked," and Brake agreed. 

She said she and others, including a black demonstrator who had just been maced by police, stopped one agitator from throwing a brick at other officers.

Still, the people slunk in the back of the crowds, Brake said, pelting police with objects, while peaceful demonstrators on the frontline – many of whom were black and brown folks – bore the brunt of the police response.

'Less Lethal'

Soon, a warning was issued from a helicopter above that people would be tear gassed if they didn't leave the interstate. Brake said the warnings were muffled and there wasn't enough time to clear the area.

"We knew that we were about to be tear gassed. However, there were families there. There were kids there. There was a 10-year-old that got tear-gassed in front of us. We had to treat her for being tear gassed. I understand their necessity to do that – to get people off of I-35. I get that part," she said. "But they knew families were there. They knew children were there. They should've made a better attempt to get the children out before they did what they did."

With the tear gas, Brake said, came more beanbag rounds – which APD has repeatedly called "less lethal" ammunition. As the beanbags hit, more and more people started to pour into the medics' staging area under the highway.

"What a lot of people don't know is those beanbag rounds and their riot-control rounds are only nonlethal at a certain distance," she said. "People were being shot point-blank. That is lethal, if you are shot in the neck or the face or directly in the chest – to the left – that will stop your heart. That will kill you. And I saw people shot point-blank." 

Brake said she saw wounds that could involve underlying fractures –  arms, collarbones, ribs. She said she saw people shot in the head who might have had skull fractures and brain hemorrhages. 

"They aimed their rounds at us in the frontline, to the peaceful people who were not touching them, who were not instigating, who were not throwing things."

"You could tell by how people were after they were shot that they needed an emergency room and they needed it immediately or they were gonna die," she said. "And that was just the early afternoon."

Brake said Austin-Travis County EMS maintained an unofficial pickup location at the Shell at Seventh and I-35 for those who sustained serious injuries.

After that, she and the other medics caught their breath. There was a lull. People passed out water and snacks. People picked up garbage left behind on I-35.

At about 6 p.m., the crowd dispersed. A wave of folks made their way up Eighth Street back to the Capitol. Brake tagged along – just in case.

On the way back, she said, a couple cops them how they were doing and told them to stay safe.

Point-Blank

Then things took a turn – again – when the crowd wound back up near APD headquarters. People started throwing bottles at police.

Two Austin police officers observe protesters during demonstrations that closed I-35 on Saturday
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

In response, police fired beanbag rounds – but not at the people throwing things, Brake said.

"They aimed their rounds at us in the frontline, to the peaceful people who were not touching them, who were not instigating, who were not throwing things," she said. "We were just doing our chants, and they shot all of us."

At around 11 p.m., police shot a 20-year-old black man who was filming the protest with a beanbag round. His family has since identified him as Justin Howell, a Texas State University student. Police Chief Brian Manley said Monday the officer, who is still on duty, was aiming for someone who was throwing things at police.

Brake said Howell wasn't shot once.

"When that happened, when that boy was shot, he was shot from the front and the back. He was shot by the cops up on 35, and he was shot from the cops at APD. He was shot from front and back," Brake said. "That's what we witnessed. He was shot in the neck and he was shot in the back of the head. Because when he was shot in the back of the head he started to go down, and then he got shot in the neck."

Defense Technology, the manufacturer of the rounds APD used, suggests an "effective range" of between 20 and 50 feet, and suggests targeting only large muscle groups, like thighs or buttocks, to minimize "serious or life-threatening injuries."

APD said it hasn't confirmed Brake's story and an investigation is ongoing. "It may be a question we are still working to answer ourselves," a spokesperson wrote in an email.

After Howell was shot, Brake said, a barrage of beanbag rounds from I-35 and street level prevented medics from responding quickly. She said he seized for roughly three minutes. When the lead medic approached him, she said, the truce they'd had with police was broken.

"The lead medic with Austin Street Medics immediately ran up to the front to go to this boy, and she put her hands up, she did the cross in front of her face. That was the sign, like, 'Hey, I'm a medic.' She has her medic shirt on. She has all her stuff showing that says she's a medic, and they shot her," Brake said. "They shot her in the hands that she was using to protect her face."

One man who streamed the incident on Facebook, but declined to be identified for this story, said it felt like a warzone. He said it felt like they were sitting ducks at target practice.

A Latino teenager and a pregnant woman were also hospitalized over the weekend after police shot beanbags at them.

Brake said she feels ashamed.

"I've lived in Austin my entire life, and I'm absolutely disgusted with APD. This is not our APD. This is not the APD that I grew up with. Those are not our people anymore, and that's sad," she said. "It's disgraceful."

But one day, after the pandemic ends, she hopes to finish her paramedic training and get a job with Austin-Travis County EMS – a job that means working closely with APD on a daily basis. She said she hopes there's a change at the department by then, and that it starts to look more like the APD she grew up with.

Police Chief Manley said the force APD used last weekend was "not what we set out to do as a police department."

Criminal justice advocates are calling on the Austin City Council to reconsider APD's budget, and council members will discuss the police department's use of force Thursday and Friday.

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

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