• October 2, 2023

‘Less Lethal’ Doc Details An Undercover Pursuit For Justice For Injured Protesters : NPR

Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to student filmmaker Jaime Wilken about her documentary “Less Lethal”, about a technician who uses a video of a protest to uncover a teenager who was shot there.


For many Americans, the summer protests following the assassination of George Floyd are now memories of the public stand against police violence. However, some people, like a handful of people in Austin, Texas, still suffer from injuries.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER # 1: Anthony Evans still has that little memory of two surgeries and three days in the hospital.

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

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER # 1: Evans and his twin brother Arthur protested at Austin Police Headquarters, peacefully pushing for change. As he was leaving, officers on the I-35 flyover fired a less fatal bullet, struck him in the face, and broke his jaw.


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


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER # 2: Austin Police ordered protesters to carry Howell to the steps of Police Headquarters. As the group approached, bean bags were fired in their direction.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER # 2: Howell got comatose in the beanbag.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: A new short documentary entitled “Less Lethal” looks back at the use of non-lethal force by the police during these protests. It follows a tech worker turned detective trying to bring justice to injured protesters. Jamie Wilken made the documentary. She is a student at the University of Texas at Austin and is now joining us as part of the NPR presentation of excellent student films. Welcome Jamie.


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

WILKEN: Brad Levi Ayala was on a hill by the highway. He had actually just come from work and was just watching from a distance. He had his hands in his pockets and there was no one around him. He was hit in the head with less lethal ammunition. His skull was broken and his prefrontal cortex was damaged.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were at the same protest even though 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 I-35 with – it wasn’t pepper spray, but it was something like that. And, like, crowds of people just ran. It felt like it was a fight scene. It was apocalyptic, so to speak. After the protest, a few days later, the video of Brad’s blow went viral and there was an emergency council meeting held by Zoom. Two hundred to three hundred Austinites basically asked the city how this could happen. One of the speakers was Edwin, the brother of the 16-year-old boy who was shot in the head.

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


EDWIN AYALA: We really want that much transparency and footage to be released. And I ask everyone who 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. You can’t use bean bags for people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, this is extremely difficult to hear. In the end, he says they can’t use bean bags on people. Just to be clear; Less lethal in this case means they’re shooting some sort of little sandbags out of guns, right?

WILKEN: Actually modified 12-gauge shotguns. And there is no sand in it; They’re real metal pellets, and they’re in some sort of beanbag chair. Under no circumstances should you be shot in the chest or head area. But I believe there were at least 10 direct head injuries from that weekend protest May 30-31.

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

WILKEN: When I saw Brad’s video and then heard Edwin’s plea to the city, I knew I wanted to make a film about it. So I started just reading all the articles I could find on Brad. One of these came from Texas Monthly and was written by Peter Holley. And it was about a normal guy, Brendan. He worked in technology and became an internet detective for being so driven to find out which cop shot Brad. After speaking to Brendan, I felt this was a really unique way to share Brad’s story.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does Brendan resolve Brad Ayala’s case when the police ultimately refuse to post body cam footage?

WILKEN: Brendan asked all demonstrators he could contact to send him recordings from their cell phones, whatever they have. He compiled photos and videos from the news and social media. He was able to find out where the less lethal ammunition was coming from. Once he could focus it on just two cops, he could use small details – whether their visors were up or down, whether they were wearing a bracelet or sunglasses – things like that. Then when he was sure, Peter Holley, the journalist for Texas Monthly who wrote the story, called APD and basically said we have a source. We want you to confirm before we release the story. So he put pressure on her. Within hours, APD finally announced that it was Officer Gebhart. They wouldn’t publish this if it wasn’t for Brendan.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I mean, they ultimately validated Brendan’s work.

WILKEN: Yes, in the end they did.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What happened to the investigation? What reforms has the city carried out?

WILKEN: For 29 people who were hospitalized with fewer fatal injuries, the police chief said he would ban beanbags. You know, there wasn’t a lot of reform after that. Eleven officers were identified and disciplined. But you know, they haven’t been charged and they’re still with the police.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you experience the production of the film? Because dealing with such topics can of course be very stressful and traumatic.

WILKEN: As it must have been for Brendan, it was of course difficult to look at the graphic recordings on a daily basis. But documentaries are a creative endeavor. And for Brendan, it was a problem solution. So really, the difficulty for us – it pales in comparison, or even shouldn’t be – the focus is really, you know, on the victims and the families and how difficult it was for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did Brad Ayala’s family and Brad Ayala himself deal with in the period that followed?

WILKEN: I was in contact with his brother Edwin and sent him the documentation. He actually didn’t want to see it because he didn’t want to experience this event again. But you know, he’s glad that a story is being made about it and thinks it’s on the right side of the story. And he also said Brad is making a full recovery which is great news.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jamie Wilken, student at the University of Texas at Austin – You can watch her movie “Less Lethal” on the NPR website. Many Thanks.

WILKEN: Thank you.


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