AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Gov. Greg Abbott has passionately spoken against the events that happened with George Floyd in Minneapolis calling Floyd’s death in police custody “horrific.”

“My first response is one of anger because what happened to George Floyd is horrific. Should never happen…we need to make sure nothing like this happens in the state of Texas,” Gov. Abbott said. “There is a reason why people are angry and protesting about this. It’s part of the United States of America where people have a First Amendment right to voice their complaints about actions like this. At the same time, we need to make sure the protests remain free from violence, from vandalism because the First Amendment does not authorize someone to throw a brick through a glass window and destroy somebody’s property. That’s exactly why we have law enforcement out to make sure that all protests remain peaceful.”

Protests against police brutality and racism have continued throughout the country over the last week since Floyd’s death on May 25, ranging from peaceful demonstrations to incidents of violence, vandalism and looting.

Gov. Abbott says Texas lawmakers will be proactive on crafting new legislation related to police brutality, saying the work starts now before session begins in January 2021.

“Now is the time for legislators to start bringing up ideas, proposing ideas, testing those ideas with their fellow legislators and they will get a feel for the possibility of being able to pass meaningful legislation,” Gov. Abbott said.

Police in Austin and other Texas cities at times used force against protestors. That including using tear gas, pepper spray, and bean bag rounds, so-called less-lethal force.

During an emergency Austin City Council meeting on Thursday, Austin Police Department Chief Brian Manley explained that beginning this week, APD will no longer use bean bag rounds during crowd situations.

When asked about Brad Levi Ayala, the 16-year-old who was shot in the head by a less-lethal round at a protest this past weekend, Manley said:

“I will speak to some immediate changes to our deployment to protests this week: and that that the deployment of bean bag ammunition will not be used in a crowd situation. It is still an appropriate tool in other circumstances so it is still approved for use however not in crowd situations.”

The announcement comes after several Austin protesters reported injuries at the hands of bean bag rounds.

MORE: Austin protesters explain moment when they were hit with APD bean bag rounds

Sixteen-year-old Ayala underwent neurological testing after being shot. A video of the Saturday incident showed the teen collapsing after being shot while standing on the berm along Interstate 35 near Eighth Street.

Ayala’s brother spoke at Austin City Council’s virtual meeting on Thursday.

Edwin Ayala told the elected officials and Manley that Brad had just had a birthday — and now he’s in the hospital.

“He was so kind! He still is,” said Edwin Ayala. “He’s in so much pain… We hope he’s going to recover, but we just didn’t know we thought he was going to die.” 

“I’ve seen the video where he is standing and it appears as though he is struck in that video that I’ve seen on social media with a less-lethal impact munition in the head, in the forehead,” Manley said on Monday.

Meanwhile, a 20-year-old man, Justin Howell, was also hit in the head by APD — putting him in critical condition over the weekend.

This incident was caught on Austin’s HALO camera system, which is designed for APD to monitor events downtown.

Investigators link groups to violence at protests

AUSTIN – Emily Holmead decided there was something she needed to know about the Mike Ramos Brigade Facebook group. The group popped up over the past week or so, but it has concealed who’s behind it.

On June 1, two representatives from the MRB group stood in a grassy field inside an Austin city park with their faces covered, giving a speech through a bullhorn.

Two men who claimed to be members of the Mike Ramos Brigade hold a meeting inside an Austin park on June 1, describing the group to be a “militant organization.” (Photo credit: Emily Holmead)

Their message was clear: their plans for protesting in Austin would not be peaceful.

“The Mike Ramos Brigade is a militant organization. We believe in militant rebellion. We believe in organized militant rebellion. Riots are going to happen,” an unidentified man wearing a scarf covering his face told a crowd gathered at the Krieg Softball Complex on June 1.

Holmead wasn’t supposed to be recording the meeting and a newspaper reporter was asked to leave just before the meeting started, Holmead told KXAN. Still, she decided to pull her camera out and record 90 seconds of the meeting.

It was all she needed to know.

“At that point I was like, ‘No one is actually seeing this group right now for what it is,’ so I decided to record it to see what they were going to say and right out — two seconds into the gist of what they were saying — they came out and said they were a militant group,” Holmead told KXAN.

This screenshot from the Mike Ramos Brigade’s Facebook page shows the May 31 Target event that turned into a looting investigation. (KXAN Photo)

Holmead said she found the MRB page while searching for a group she could help peacefully protest in Austin. It was named after Mike Ramos, a man who officers shot and killed in southeast Austin in April.

A friend suggested she check this group out and sent her the Facebook link. Within the first few posts, Holmead said she knew something “fishy” was going on within the group.

Then, on Sunday, May 31, the Austin Justice Coalition — a group of black activists — planned a rally at the capitol. Its purpose was to peacefully protest police abuses in Austin and across the country, according to AJC Executive Director Chas Moore.

The keynote speaker was Brenda Ramos, Mike Ramos’ mother.

Austin Justice Coalition Director Chas Moore watched the recording of the Mike Ramos Brigade’s meeting where the group identified itself as a “militant organization.” Moore said his concerns over the group’s agenda led to his decision to cancel his AJC’s May 31 rally at the capitol. (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)

But, an hour or so before the AJC rally, Moore said he called it off over concerns the rally would be hijacked by groups like the Mike Ramos Brigade. We showed Moore the video of the June 1 meeting, which he had not seen.

“When you hear them say ‘We’re a militant organization,’ does that change the dynamic in all of this?” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked Moore.

“I think that’s who they want to be. I think things like that is why I canceled the event,” Moore replied.

Moore said his group has nothing to do with the Mike Ramos Brigade and does not know who’s behind the group. In a May 31 Facebook post, the Mike Ramos Brigade called Moore’s decision to cancel the capitol rally an “act of cowardice.”

The MRB page then scheduled a 6 p.m. event that night at the Capital Plaza Target store. That store would later become a crime scene.

By the time law enforcement got to the Capital Plaza Target store at 5621 N Interstate 35 Frontage Road, it was too late. Looters had already gotten inside the store and at least one of the glass front doors was smashed in.

A line of Austin police in riot gear lined the front of the store, which was already boarded up and empty earlier in the day. Apparently, state and federal investigators knew the Target hit was coming. After all, the Mike Ramos Brigade’s Facebook page shows the Target hit as a planned event.

An Austin police officer climbs through the broken glass of a door at the Capital Plaza Target store on May 31, 2020. (KXAN Photo)

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw described the people who planned and carried out the Austin Target looting as “violent extremists.” McCraw said the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is helping the Texas Rangers investigate the people “inciting riots or looting in the state of Texas.”

“There are individuals that have been indicated that came from out of state and into — and we’re even aware of, in terms of May 31st, protest and looting of Target in Austin. That was done and organized by an ANTIFA web page and of course the surveillance that was provided over the internet identifying where law enforcement resources were staged was done over ANTIFA accounts. So, there’s no question that there is involvement from these violent extremists that are trying to exploit these things.”

In the comment section of the MRB post, at least one Facebook account posted a picture of two Austin officers who were staged at a bank near the Target store. State and federal agents have gone undercover to identify the people involved in the violence connected to the Austin protests.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw said state and federal agents had “embedded” within groups connected to violent criminal acts during the past week’s protests across Texas. (KXAN Photo)

KXAN sent messages to the MRB Facebook account asking for an interview so the group could address the allegations made against it. The MRB page responded to a message, declining an interview because of a past KXAN report detailing ANTIFA-types being involved in the violence in the protests.

McCraw said agents have found no evidence that white supremacists groups were behind any of the violence so far, but McCraw said he would not be surprised to see those groups counter-protesting or working to pit different protest groups against one another.

“I don’t mind advertising this. We do have special agents embedded trying to identify criminals that are leveraging these or using this as an opportunity — exploiting these demonstrations. We’re going to identify them, and we already have identified some of them and we will be arresting them, but not at this particular moment,” McCraw told reporters during a press conference alongside Gov. Greg Abbott on June 2 in Dallas.

On Saturday, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office announced three suspects have been arrested in connection with looting, burglarizing and damaging property at an east Austin Target store on May 31.

The suspects have been identified as Lisa Hogan, 27, Samuel Miller, 22 and Skye Elder, 23 — all Austin residents.

The DA’s Office says Hogan is charged with state jail felonies for riot and burglary of a building. She reportedly sent out a live feed video from the scene on Facebook in order to encourage others to join in. Her bonds are set at $25,000 each.

Miller is charged with state jail felonies for criminal mischief and burglary of a building. He reportedly destroyed and ripped out the surveillance cameras located inside the store. His bonds are set at $25,000 each.

Elder is charged with a state jail felony for burglary of a building. Elder’s bond is set at $25,000.

McCraw said law enforcement is not interested in any of the conduct of the protesters who are showing up and not committing criminal acts. “The majority of the people that are protesting are doing it for lawful reasons,” McCraw said.

Brenda Ramos had just gotten off the phone with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office when we showed up to her east Austin home. The DA’s office called her to discuss the next steps in the investigation of her son’s shooting death at the hands of an Austin police officer on April 24.

Ramos said she knew about the Facebook page before the interview, but that she has no idea who’s behind it.

It’s definitely not the Ramos family, she said.

“I was really disappointed. It made me angry what they were doing. I’m not about violence and stuff like that,” Ramos said as she sat under the shade of a large pecan tree behind her home on Wednesday.

“I feel hurt because they’re using my son’s name and that makes me angry,” she said.

Brenda Ramos said she’s “hurt” by the Mike Ramos Brigade’s use of her son’s name as the branding for the group’s agenda. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

During the May 31 Austin Justice Coalition rally at the capitol, Ramos was set to publicly address her son’s killing for the first time. With the threats of violence from two different protest groups — one of those the Mike Ramos Brigade — Ramos said she and the AJC decided to cancel their rally.

“Someone just comes in the picture and just — everything was quiet from the beginning, like I asked for, and all of a sudden you see more and more with these different states, bigger states and they figure, ‘Oh, they’re doing this. We’re going to have to do it, too,’ that’s what I felt. Because it was quiet. It was peaceful,” Ramos said.

Ramos fears the MRB group is destroying her son’s memory.

“It’s not good. I don’t like that. I don’t like his memory to be like that. I’m thinking positive. I want peace and quiet and respect. My son is dead, have respect. I don’t like this protesting violence … it’s just uncalled for. I disapprove of it,” Ramos told KXAN.

Ramos said she will continue to push for changes in Texas law that would expedite investigations of police shootings but said she plans to do so peacefully and by having discussions with the people who can make the changes.

Emily Holmead told KXAN she decided to record the Mike Ramos Brigade’s June 1 meeting inside a city park after the group would not allow a newspaper reporter to stay and document the meeting. (KXAN Photo/Andrew Choat)

“Stop,” Ramos said of the protesters committing the violence, “You can be heard by mouth, but the violence’s got to stop. It’s ridiculous. It’s just got to stop. I don’t agree with that — not at all. The throwing, this and that, that’s really disrespecting me, especially when I see having my son’s name — does not have nothing to do with that. I don’t — I do not know who they are, but something should be done about that.”

Ramos and the Austin Justice Coalition rescheduled the canceled May 31 rally for June 7 at Huston-Tillotson University. Ramos will talk about her son’s death and the pending investigation and organizers planned a march from the university to the Capitol.

Lawmaker: Law requiring added police training needs more work

This week, while speaking out against police brutality, Governor Abbott said Texas has led the nation in criminal justice reform, specifically citing legislation like the Sandra Bland Act.

The law is named after a 28-year-old black woman who, in 2015, was arrested during a traffic stop and found just days later hanging in her jail cell.

Bland’s death was ruled a suicide. But it led to protests over her arrest, allegations of racial violence against the state trooper involved, and the creation of the Sandra Bland Act. The law requires police to complete racial profile training and 40 hours of de-escalation training.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) authored the Sandra Bland Act. He said there are things he hoped to get in the law that did not make it through the legislative process.

“There’s one portion that I think applies to these circumstances nationwide and that’s implicit bias training,” Coleman said. “I just couldn’t get that in the law because of opposition by police unions,” he added.

Coleman also said he tried and failed to pass a measure to stop what he called pretext stops. “That’s where officers use reasonable suspicion to pull somebody over. And as we know, any interaction between a citizen of color and the police is likely or could end up in a violent circumstance. So, the more stops, the more opportunities for those type of violent circumstances,” he explained.

Coleman says he’s hopeful that there could be progress on legislation to address those problems in the coming session. He said having a bipartisan criminal justice caucus, with both Republican and Democratic co-chairs is encouraging. He also pointed to the response from state leaders to the death of George Floyd.

“This time around, Governor Abbott made some very positive, or let’s just say revealing comments about what happened in Minneapolis, that we didn’t hear before,” Coleman said. “I think that’s a positive thing.”

Coleman represents the Texas House district that includes the neighborhood where George Floyd grew up. “We all mourn for the family and consider them our friends and neighbors and family,” he said.

“What I say to them is don’t lose heart, that you have people who are going to work on behalf of preventing these circumstances in the future,” Coleman said of his message to the Floyd family.

“What I say to my constituents, and what I say to my son and daughter, you know, we’re working to make sure that this doesn’t happen to you or your friends or others,” Coleman continued. “And I’m always hopeful. You have to be hopeful.”

Hope for common ground

The protests this week have put the spotlight on problems that do not have easy answers. Sometimes, the results have been disturbing, bringing out anger and violence.

But it’s important to remember that most of the people who joined these rallies have been peaceful.

Some chose to express their calls for change by coming together to sing protest songs. One artist painted a mural honoring George Floyd. And cameras captured people coming together to clean up after the protests.