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The news broke in the Texas Tribune at around 7:30 in the evening, or roughly halfway on my trip from Austin back to my apartment in College Station. The headline read: “Austin police critically injured a black man during protests against police violence.”
I knew who this unidentified black man was at around 5:45 that morning, though I confess I sometimes have trouble thinking of him as a “man.”
His name is Justin Howell. And he is my little brother.
As this column has argued before, if you really want to know what happened, there is no substitute for the raw, unedited video. In it, you will see five people carrying Justin’s limp body toward police headquarters, begging the officers to get him medical attention. As they do, the police fire some 15 rounds (many of which were at the protesters carrying my brother) over the course of about 30 seconds.
“What the f---?” one of them yells.
Because the five people carrying Justin weren’t “begging” to get him medical attention — at least not in the typical sense. According to Chief of Police Brian Manley in a recent press briefing, the protesters “were given direction to bring [Justin] to the officers” after which the those same protesters “were fired upon with less-lethal munitions as they brought [Justin] towards the officers to get him medical help.”
Think about that. It’s unclear whether the officers who shot at the protesters were the same ones who gave them the order to approach. But at minimum, it takes a special kind of incompetence to fire at those who are doing as the police tell them. At minimum, it shows a complete inability to be aware of your surroundings and to manage the situation appropriately.
There is no better evidence that here in Austin, Texas, the police are entirely out of their depth.
I confirmed Manley’s account with a man named David Frost over Twitter. He was the one who filmed the aforementioned video, and he was able to provide me with another picture of my brother shortly after being hit. In the photo, his body is splayed upon the ground. Onlookers are rushing to his side.
In our brief interview, Frost told me that “other protesters were throwing rocks, water bottles, and a backpack. [Justin] was not. The chief of police even said on Facebook live today. They shot the WRONG person.”
Indeed, Manley did admit as much during his briefing. But it’s worth considering that this is the world in which we live: If the police tell you something, it’s best to get a second source to confirm its accuracy.
It’s also notable in his briefing how little effort Manley puts into taking responsibility for what happened. No, reader, I haven’t omitted the part of Manley’s statement where he seems contrite. There was no apology. Instead, he sat at his desk for three full minutes, gave us the details above and at no point apologized to my brother, my family or the five brave protesters who carried Justin to police headquarters under fire. (To those protesters: My family sees you, and we thank you.)
And what is somehow worse, Manley concludes his remarks by saying: “We are praying for this young man and his family and we are hoping that his condition improves quickly. ”
To which my family, a deeply religious one, says this: We aren’t interested in your prayers. We are interested in you appropriately using the responsibilities with which the people of Austin have entrusted you. Prayer is not an excuse to abdicate responsibility.
And responsible you are. Because Justin won’t be improving quickly. “It will be a marathon, not a sprint,” according to one of his doctors.
He has a fractured skull. He has brain damage. Doctors anticipate that when he wakes up, he will have difficulty telling his left from his right.
These “less-lethal” munitions are only “less-lethal” by technicality. My brother’s condition shows what can happen when you fire them into a crowd.
Earlier this week, the Austin-American Statesman reported that the Austin City Council “will hold an emergency hearing [on Thursday] to address concerns about officer’s response to racial justice protests over the weekend and to address what they see as little cooperation from Austin police leadership to transform policies.”
We shall see if anything comes of it. Expect suggestions in a later column.
But I would like to leave the reader with this: Two evenings ago, as I drove home from Austin, my mom was with Justin in his hospital room. He was still sedated. Suddenly she heard a flurry of police sirens. Going to the window, she saw what one nurse described as 60 DPS vehicles passing by. She suspected it was a show of force, a threat to the protesters of the violence the police would visit upon them if they saw fit.
Jesus. If this were the end of a movie instead of a column, we would have all said the scene was cliche.
Joshua Howell is a computer science graduate student and opinion editor for The Battalion.