AUSTIN, Texas — Austin’s social justice demonstrations in 2020 sparked unprecedented clashes between police and protestors, leaving dozens injured and indictments against 19 officers for excessive force.
More than two years later, the most severely injured protester during that turbulent chapter in Austin's history is sharing his account of that night and his story of recovery.
Justin Howell was mistakenly shot in the head with a projectile, resulting in a severe brain injury that left him learning to walk again. Austin officials paid him the largest settlement in City history in a police use-of-force case.
In a recent interview with KVUE Senior Reporter Tony Plohetski, Howell – a Texas State University student – recalled how he drove from San Marcos to Austin to participate in the second full day of protests, fully believing it was safe for him to do so.
"There was a part of me that almost felt compelled to go there," he said. "George Floyd’s murder was especially – it was just brutal."
"As a Black man, whose life has been difficult in fact, in part, because I am Black, obviously I do feel a certain sense of solidarity with other Black people," he added.
His participation nearly cost him his life – and left him with permanent physical and emotional scars.
"Getting shot was honestly the last thing that I expected to happen," he said.
Among the thousands of protesters, Howell only recalls certain aspects of the evening.
"I remember the environment was pretty electric, which of course contributed to that feeling of, 'I was out here doing something about this injustice,'" he said. "I felt like I was going there, making my voice heard and, obviously, I figured that was going to be it and I was going to go home."
Howell said he witnessed protesters "out there doing things they shouldn’t have been doing" such as breaking windows, but added that he did not participate.
Howell said he does not recall the moments he was shot in the head with what police call "less-lethal" munition.
But officials said at the time that an Austin police officer fired what officials had called a less-than-lethal munition at a man they said threw a water bottle and backpack at officers. The projectile instead hit Howell in the back of the head.
The next day, then-Police Chief Brian Manley, holding back tears, acknowledged that Howell was only filming the scene with his phone at the time.
"We are praying for this young man and his family and are hoping his condition improves quickly," Manley said at the time.
Cellphone video shows demonstrators carrying Howell from the Interstate 35 frontage road to the plaza in front of the Austin Police Department headquarters, trying to get him help as officers continued firing what they call less-lethal rounds.
Howell was the most seriously injured protester, but many others were hurt during the protests. Over the past two years, the actions of Austin police officers during those protests have remained under scrutiny. Much of the controversy has focused on their use of the plastic projectiles fired from modified shotguns into the crowd.
Jeffrey Teng, the officer who prosecutors say fired upon Howell, is among 19 indicted by a grand jury in February with aggravated assault by a public servant.
In September, the Austin Police Department said in a report that it has changed training, equipment and policies about how to respond to protests. The department said it will no longer fire projectiles into crowds and promised that the injuries of May 2020 will never happen again.
Howell spent eight days in a coma and the next five weeks in the hospital and in rehabilitation, with his friends and family at his side.
"I had to gradually regain my ability to walk again," he said. "I experienced a lot of head pain – obviously – for a long time after."
While he recovered, his brother penned a widely-circulated essay for the student newspaper at Texas A&M where he attended, saying "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."
And in a show of campus support, the president of Texas State University wrote on June 8, 2020, that "Black lives matter. It is not debatable at Texas State. Justin Howell’s life matters. Black lives matter in our classrooms, on our campuses and in the streets during tumultuous protests."
Howell has since returned to college at Texas State, starting his coursework all over again. He wants to become a social worker and eventually work in the criminal justice system with both defendants and victims.
"I see myself as doing nothing but good by being one of the few people in that system whose job is to just try to ensure the best outcome for everyone involved," he said. "I almost feel a moral obligation to try to make the world a better place."
But the toll of that night remains. He still suffers from chronic neck pain, a loss of energy and from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Only just recently, in the past few, have I gotten to the point that I don’t have daily headaches," he said. "Physically, I feel like I am about as good as I am going to get."
Earlier this year, Howell received the largest lawsuit settlement in Austin history, when the city council agreed to pay him $8 million. His attorney said he plans to donate $25,000 to help Texas State students get PTSD treatment.
Now, more than two years later, Howell said he is still focused on what first drew him to the Austin protests: Efforts to make policing more equitable for all.
"They need to start taking on the role of public servant as opposed to enemy defeater," he said.
And because of what he went through, he said that call is now more focused than ever.
"The police culture needs to improve to a point when anytime things are not all sunshine and rainbows, as far as their relationship with the people they have power over, their first priority is still ensuring the best outcomes for everybody involved," he said.
PEOPLE ARE ALSO READING: