by Seth Harp
TWENTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD LAUREN MESTAS was already having a bad day when she noticed a cop car tailing her northbound on Interstate 35, headed into downtown Austin. She wasn’t overly concerned at first, as she wasn’t breaking any laws, but the patrol vehicle remained on her tail as she exited onto Riverside Drive, headed west. She started to suspect that it might have something to do with the slogans soaped all over the windows of her 2001 Toyota 4Runner. In addition to “BROWN PRIDE” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” written across the rear window were the words “FUCK THESE RACIST POLICE.”
Two days earlier and not even a mile away, a few blocks south of the Texas Capitol in the center of Austin, Mestas had witnessed an off-duty Army sergeant named Daniel Perry shoot and kill an Air Force veteran named Garrett Foster, who had been at a BLM protest with an AK-47 slung across his chest, pushing his quadruple-amputee fiancée in a wheelchair. At the sound of gunfire, Mestas and two other young women had fled across Congress Avenue, the main downtown boulevard, and hidden behind a column of the Frost Bank Tower. In the process, she had accidentally lost her cell phone, as well as the remote control to open the gates of her apartment complex.
That night, on arriving home, she’d parked in an ungated portion of the sprawling, 42-building apartment complex, located in far South Austin. Badly shaken by the shooting, she must have confused the spot, because when she went out the next morning, a Sunday, she couldn’t seem to find the 4Runner anywhere. “I was not in a good headspace,” she told me. “I thought somebody had stolen my car.”
She called the city’s non-emergency line to report the suspected theft. Eight hours later, she stumbled across the 4Runner while walking her dog, a chihuahua named Optimus Prime, and redialed 311 to retract the stolen vehicle report. The operator, Mestas told me, assured her that the 4Runner’s vehicle identification number and license plate number would be removed from the police department’s stolen vehicle list, and gave her a confirmation number for verification, should she happen to get pulled over.
Monday morning, she went to her job at Planet K, the longtime Austin smoke shop where she was employed as a shift lead. She had yet to recover, emotionally, from witnessing Foster’s murder. “I spent two hours on my shift sobbing,” she told me. “I had just seen somebody get shot and killed. I was pretty much catatonic.” A little after 10 a.m., her manager sent her to the bank to break $200 into small bills and coins. She took Optimus Prime with her for company.
It was on the way to the bank that the cop car picked up her tail. The officer, a state trooper from the Texas Department of Public Safety, or DPS, later filed an incident report which made clear that his reason for running a license plate check was that, in his words, “the vehicle had anti law enforcement rhetoric scribble [sic] all over the outside.” He followed her for a mile on Riverside Drive along the south shore of Ladybird Lake, and waited a full five minutes to hit the siren and lights.
“Oh my God,” Mestas thought, surmising what must have happened. “They think I stole my car.”
She panicked, and instead of pulling over, she came to a dead stop in the middle of the First Street Bridge, blocking the inside lane. The spot where she braked to a halt might well have been the precise geographic center of Austin, with Ladybird Lake flowing beneath her toward Longhorn Dam, Auditorium Shores and all of South Austin to her rear, and City Hall directly in front of her. It was 10:40 on a weekday morning, and normally the bridge would have been packed with traffic, but four months into the pandemic, there were hardly any other cars.
The state trooper, Garrett Ray, was joined by a second DPS officer, Jason Melson. Instead of approaching the 4Runner, they drew their service weapons and took cover behind the open doors of their patrol vehicles. According to Ray’s incident report, it was an “HRS,” or high-risk stop, also known as a felony stop: a procedure employed when an officer believes that someone in the car has committed a serious crime and could be dangerous.
The tactical terminology is worth noting because earlier that very same morning, the Austin Police Department had released damning dashcam footage of officers shooting and killing an unarmed man named Michael Ramos in a high-risk or felony stop that, like this one, had been based on faulty dispatch information. A 911 caller reported that Ramos and a woman had been using drugs in a parked car, and that he was holding a gun. Ramos had been spooked by the sight of eight armed officers pointing weapons and screaming at him to get his hands up. When he tried to flee, one of the officers opened fire with an assault rifle. APD later confirmed there was no gun in Ramos’s possession.
ONE HOUR AFTER Mestas was pulled over, at 11:40 a.m., I happened to come across the scene by accident. I was riding my bike around Ladybird Lake, and I counted at least 40 DPS vehicles blocking the south end of the First Street Bridge. There had to be 80 cops on scene by that time, if not 100. The emergency vehicles included a fire truck, an ambulance, and two BearCat armored personnel carriers.
Every minute or so, a mechanical RoboCop-like voice repeated, “Driver, exit the vehicle with your hands up.” The dystopian intonation sounded over Auditorium Shores, where a crowd of people who had been exercising or playing with their dogs had gathered on the sidewalk to watch the spectacle unfold.
Like other bystanders, I initially assumed that it was a hostage situation, bomb threat, or active shooter. The first clue that it might be something more farcical or absurd were the slogans soaped on the windows of the weather-beaten old 4Runner, which the police had so thoroughly surrounded. From 100 yards away, in the blinding sunshine, I couldn’t quite read them, but on one rear window I distinctly made out the acronym ACAB, which stands for “all cops are bastards.”
Ever since the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota on May 25, cities across the United States had been convulsed by protests against police brutality, and Austin was no exception. Like virtually every other big city in America, the lion’s share of our municipal budget goes to an increasingly militarized department of police, and all through June and July, there had been rising calls for APD to be defunded, and for the chief to resign. In response to indications that Austin’s relatively liberal city administration would give in to protester demands, the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, had deployed thousands of DPS troopers to Austin, as well as to Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, to combat “violent extremists, anarchists, and antifa,” as DPS Director Steven McCraw put it in a June 2 press conference. “They just can’t help themselves,” McCraw said of the out-of-town antifa operatives believed to be besetting the city.
I had seen the newly arrived formations of state troopers standing guard around the Capitol but never out in force like this. The officer who appeared to be the incident commander was a relatively young man with black hair, shiny black cowboy boots, and a black tie under his flak vest, which identified him as a DPS special agent.
Other agencies were present as well. A U.S. Marshal in boots and jeans suited up in a bulletproof vest alongside his Ford F-150 4×4. Texas Army National Guardsmen patrolled the side of the bridge, lest an amphibious threat come from the paddleboarders on Ladybird Lake. City bike cops in blue polo shirts held the outer perimeter.
Overhead, a police helicopter circled. Technicians in T-shirts and camo pants were unpacking a drone the size of a coffee table on the pavement. A smaller police drone, consumer-grade, already hovered above the beleaguered 4Runner.
I had only been there a few moments when an APD SWAT team arrived. They pulled up in eight blacked-out Chevrolet Tahoes with all the insignia removed, and commenced to unload an arsenal of military weapons and body armor from big drawers that pulled out of the beds. The sound of multiple firearms being locked and loaded echoed from the face of the apartment building across the street. One SWAT officer with tribal tattoos had his shirt off as he changed uniforms. A SWAT sniper with a heavy backpack went trotting off in the direction of Aussie’s, the sand volleyball bar, presumably to find a shooter’s nest in the urban terrain.
A vehicle like a refrigerated truck pulled up, and police technicians placed an antenna on the roof and busied themselves assembling some kind of machine in the cargo area. The surface of Mars would have seemed a more suitable place for the thing that they eventually rolled out than the First Street Bridge. It was a bomb robot on a platform of tracked wheels the size of an ATV, bright silver in color. It must have made some kind of ultrasonic noise when they booted it up, because it set a dog walker’s clutch of terriers barking.
Half an hour passed, and nothing seemed to happen. Under the glare of the midsummer sun, it was impossible to see inside the motionless 4Runner at a 100 yards’ distance. Some bystanders got bored and drifted away or sought shelter in the shade.
A potbellied DPS officer in a felt cowboy hat walked up to those who remained and began to take photos of us with a digital camera. It was an unexpected thing to do to unoffending pedestrians, and chilling the way he went about it, coldly making eye contact with each person in turn. But then, it’s not for their friendliness that Texas state troopers are so famous. Anyway, we were all wearing face masks, as was he, on account of the coronavirus pandemic.
Shortly before noon, the SWAT team — about two dozen men — stacked behind one of the BearCat armored vehicles and began to advance on foot toward the stationary 4Runner. Behind them, a line of half-ton police SUVs crept forward at a walking pace, their bright LED light bars flashing silently in the heat. The two BearCats boxed in the 4Runner, front and rear, and physically sandwiched it in place, crushing both bumpers. The big gray police drone hovered directly above, like a UFO about to abduct the driver. Finally, the bomb robot moved in and used its mechanical arm to smash a window that said “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE.”
At that point, the 4Runner was completely blocked from view. It would be another 18 days before I obtained the incident report from DPS through a public records request, and three weeks before I tracked down Mestas and learned from her what happened next.
AFTER COMING TO a stop, Mestas told me, she couldn’t understand why the officers didn’t approach. She only saw them standing behind the doors of their cop cars with their guns drawn. She says she never heard their commands, which they made over a megaphone, for her to exit the vehicle. Her windows were rolled up, her hands were in the air, and she was too afraid to reach down and switch off her blasting music. “They might have thought I had a weapon or something,” she explained. As a first-generation Mexican American, “I didn’t want to give them any reason to think I was a threat.”
She saw more police cars arriving, many more, which only worsened the incipient panic attack she was suffering. She told herself that she would not lower her hands, not move a muscle, no matter what happened next. Optimus Prime could sense her terror. “He was trying to comfort me. He was up on my lap licking my face like, ‘It’s OK, mom.’”
She saw the drone hovering by her window and tried to talk to it. “I was screaming at the top of my lungs: ‘Hey, this is my name, this is my car. You guys are going to look so stupid after this, when you realize it was you that messed up.’”
She couldn’t believe it when the armored vehicles crushed her bumpers. “I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ At this point in time, there were dudes in military gear all around me. I’m worried about my dog because that’s my baby boy, and I don’t know if he’s going to jump out and how they’re going to react. I’m trying to tell them, ‘Dudes, this is a misunderstanding. Someone didn’t file the paperwork. I have my driver’s license in the car. I have the case number in my purse written down.’ They’re like, ‘Don’t talk, don’t talk.’”
The SWAT officers instructed her to reach with her left hand and open the door from the outside, step out slowly, and lie face down on the ground. She was wearing a stretchy black dress and boots, and the hot pavement burned her bare knees. Next, they had her crawl backwards toward the sound of their voices. “They’re shouting all this stuff at me: ‘Go forward. Now actually back up. All right, go forward. No, no, no, wrong. Go back.’ I’m like, ‘What do you want me to do? I’ll do it.’”
She was literally shaking with fear, and could not help thinking of the 2016 killing of Daniel Shaver, an unarmed and unoffending 26-year-old who was mercilessly executed by police in Mesa, Arizona, for failing to follow their confusing instructions— screamed at him like some cruel game of Simon Says — to crawl backwards toward them in a hotel hallway.
Mestas avoided that fate, at least. The SWAT officers zip-tied her wrists, jerked her to her feet, put her in a black sport utility vehicle, and transported her to the DPS building just north of the Capitol. The state troopers detained her for the purposes of a “CID interview” with DPS’s Criminal Investigative Division, charged with investigating organized crime, transnational gangs, active shooters, and other acts of terrorism. They told her she wasn’t being arrested, only detained, and took her into a room where she was interrogated by a detective named Bibler — pronounced, he told her, “like the Bible.”
According to Mestas, Bibler asked her nothing about the 4Runner but grilled her on the subject of Black Lives Matter, her opinion of police officers, and the rioting and looting allegedly taking place in Austin. “He was trying to propagate his thoughts on me,” Mestas said. “He was like, ‘All lives matter.’ And I was like, ‘So you agree: Black and Brown lives matter.’ He’s like, ‘And Green and Blue.’ At the time, I had some pretty visible self-harm scars, so he was also kind of commenting on that. And I was like, ‘Uh, this ain’t therapy, dude. Like, nah.’”
DPS and APD told The Intercept that the incident was caused by Mestas’s failure to report that she had recovered her car. 311 records, however, show that she did place a second call — as she says she did to retract the stolen vehicle report.
She was released without charges within the hour. DPS returned her 4Runner with the window broken and both ends crushed. She was not offered compensation for the damage but was thankful to be reunited with Optimus Prime, who was rattled but otherwise unharmed.
Undaunted by being arrested in so spectacular a fashion, she rejoined the ongoing BLM protests the very next day. She estimates that she has been to a dozen or more demonstrations since then, around APD’s headquarters, the Capitol, and the corner of Fourth and Congress — the spot where Foster was shot and now the site of a makeshift shrine. “We don’t need more police,” she said. “We need more social workers, and EMTs on nonviolent calls.” She acknowledged that she was partly at fault for the incident on the bridge — she should have pulled to the side of the road and exited the vehicle as instructed — but called the over-the-top reaction “a complete waste of resources.”
Despite its reputation as a progressive bastion in a conservative state, Austin spends nearly 40 percent of its municipal budget — some $434 million — on its police force, a more lopsided allocation of resources toward law enforcement than any other big city in Texas. But there are indications that this could change. On August 13, the City Council voted unanimously to cut APD’s funding by up to a third. Although it was a preliminary move that could be walked back, $21.5 million in cuts will take place immediately, and it counts as one of the most concrete measures that any U.S. city has taken to rein in police spending to date.
Echoing knee-jerk support-the-troops rhetoric used to suppress criticism of Pentagon waste, Abbott said that the City Council’s decision “puts the brave men and women of APD at greater risk.” On August 18, he and other Republican leaders unveiled a proposed bill to freeze the property tax revenues of any Texas city that reduces the budget of its police department. Abbott also vowed to deploy even more DPS troopers to “stand in the gap,” and on September 3, tweeted that he was considering a separate legislative proposal that would allow the state government to assume control of APD, which would effectively become a subsidiary of DPS.
That agency’s nearly $6 billion budget does not appear to be in any immediate danger of reduction, even with the looming $4.6 billion deficit the state comptroller is predicting through 2021. DPS employs 4,129 full-time commissioned officers and spends about $1.4 billion on salaries alone. If the overwhelming number of state troopers summoned to arrest Lauren Mestas for stealing her own car was any indication, they have an awful lot of time on their hands, not to mention an apparently unlimited cornucopia of top-of-the-line vehicles, equipment, and gear to draw on.
The plentitude of resources contrasted strongly with the street refugee camp directly underneath the First Street Bridge, which grows a little larger every day that the pandemic grinds on, and more people lose their jobs, face eviction, or are ruined by medical costs. Not just here but beneath bridges and overpasses all over Austin, homeless encampments are proliferating, made of dome tents, shelters built of old signage, lawn furniture, laundry lines, and dumpsters installed by the city to contain the trash. All the wooded and overgrown areas of the hike-and-bike trail around Ladybird Lake are now tunneled and burrowed by human residents; at night you can hear their radios playing softly and catch whiffs of hot dogs grilling on small charcoal fires. A stone’s throw from where Mestas was arrested, not 100 yards away, is the House the Homeless Memorial, dedicated to those who have lost their lives on the streets of Austin. The plaque at the base of it says, “Homelessness is the essence of depression. It is immoral. It is socially corrupt. And it is an act of violence.”