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'Less Lethal' Doc Details An Undercover Pursuit For Justice For Injured Protesters

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

For many Americans, the summer protests after the murder of George Floyd are now memories of the public standing against police violence. Some people, though, like a handful of people in Austin, Texas, still bear injuries.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LESS LETHAL")

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Anthony Evans still has this small reminder of two surgeries and three days at the hospital.

ANTHONY EVANS: They said my jaw looked like I got hit by, like, a car.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Evans and his twin brother Arthur protested at Austin police headquarters peacefully pushing for change. As he left, officers on the I-35 overpass fired a less-lethal round, hitting him in the face, fracturing his jaw.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: This is 20-year-old Justin Howell.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Austin police instructed protesters to carry Howell to the steps of police headquarters. As the group got close, beanbag shots were fired in their direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The bean bag put Howell in a coma.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A new short documentary called "Less Lethal" looks back at the use of non-deadly force by police during these protests. It follows a tech worker turned sleuth who's trying to get justice for injured protesters. Jamie Wilken made the documentary. She is a student at the University of Texas at Austin, and she joins us now as part of NPR's showcasing of excellent student films. Welcome, Jamie.

JAMIE WILKEN: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi. Your short documentary focuses on the case of a 16-year-old protester called Brad Ayala. Tell me about him and what happened to him.

WILKEN: Brad Levi Ayala was on a hill next to the highway. He had actually just gotten off of work, and he was just watching from afar. He had hands in his pockets, and no one was around him. He was hit in the head with less-lethal ammunition. His skull was fractured, and there was damage to his prefrontal cortex.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were at that same protest, although you didn't see what happened to Brad Ayala. Is that why you wanted to make this film?

WILKEN: Yes. I went to the protests that same day, and the police had cleared off I-35 with - it wasn't pepper spray, but it was something similar. And, like, droves of people were just running. It felt like it was a battle scene. It was, like, apocalyptic. After the protest, a few days later, video of Brad being hit went viral, and there was an emergency city council meeting that was held by Zoom. Two hundred to 300 Austinites were basically, like, asking the city, how could this happen? One of the speakers was Edwin, the brother of the 16-year-old boy that was shot in the head.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We have a clip from the film of Edwin speaking during that city council meeting. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LESS LETHAL")

EDWIN AYALA: We really do just want as much transparency and footages to be released. And I'm asking for everybody that was there to contact us, to provide us with the footage because we want to know the truth. We just want to know what happened. They can't be using beanbags on people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that's extremely hard to listen to. He says at the end, they can't be using beanbags on people. Just to be clear; less-lethal in this case means that they shoot sort of little sand bags from rifles, right?

WILKEN: Actually, modified 12-gauge shotguns. And it's not sand in them; it's actual metal pellets, and they're in a bean bag of sorts. They shouldn't be shot at all in the chest or head area. But there was, I think, at least 10 direct head injuries from that weekend protest of May 30 to 31.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brendan Walsh is the citizen investigator who tries to solve Brad's case and others. How did you find Brendan?

WILKEN: Seeing the video of Brad and then hearing Edwin's plea to the city, I knew I wanted to make a film about this. So I started just reading any articles about Brad that I could find. One that came up was from Texas Monthly, and it was written by Peter Holley. And it was about a regular guy, Brendan. He worked in tech, and he became an internet sleuth because he was so driven to figure out what cop had shot Brad. After speaking with Brendan, I felt that this was a really unique way to share Brad's story.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how does Brendan solve Brad Ayala's case if the police ultimately refuse to release body cam footage?

WILKEN: Brendan asked all the protesters that he could get in contact with to send him footage from their phones, whatever they had. He compiled photographs and videos from the news and from social media. He was able to figure out the trajectory of where the less-lethal ammo came from. Once he was able to focus it down to just two police officers, he was able to use small details - if their visor was up or down, if they had a bracelet on or sunglasses - things like that. Then once he was sure, Peter Holley, the journalist for Texas Monthly that was writing the story, called APD and basically said, we have a source. We would like you guys to confirm it before we release the story. So he pressured them. Within hours, APD finally did release that it was officer Gebhart. They weren't going to release that if it hadn't been for Brendan.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, I mean, they ultimately confirmed Brendan's work.

WILKEN: Yes, they ultimately did.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What has come of the investigation? What reforms has the city made?

WILKEN: With 29 people that were sent to the hospital with less-lethal injuries, the chief of police said he would ban beanbags. You know, after that, there wasn't much reform. Eleven officers did get identified, and they were disciplined. But, you know, no legal charges were brought against them, and they still remain on the force.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you experience sort of making the film? Because obviously dealing with this kind of subject matter can be very stressful and traumatic.

WILKEN: Similar for how it must have been for Brendan, looking at the graphic footage, you know, on a daily basis was, obviously, difficult. But documentaries are a creative venture. And for Brendan, it was a problem solving. So really, like, the difficulty for us - it pales in comparison, or it shouldn't even be - the focus is really, you know, the victims and the families and how difficult it was for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What has Brad Ayala's family and Brad Ayala himself sort of been dealing with in the aftermath of this?

WILKEN: I did have communication with his brother, Edwin, and I sent him the documentary. He didn't actually want to watch it because he didn't want to relive that event. But, you know, he's happy that a story is being made about it and thinks it's going to be on the right side of history. And he's also said that Brad is making a full recovery, which is great news.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jamie Wilken, a student at the University of Texas at Austin - you can watch her film, "Less Lethal," on NPR's website. Thank you very much.

WILKEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF YEHEZKEL RAZ'S "MORNING SUNBEAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.