David Frost, 22, had never attended a protest before the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in May. Then the cell phone-wielding Austinite became a key player in a series of events that touched off major change in the Austin Police Department.
When Austin police officers began using tear gas on screaming protestors to clear I-35 on May 30, Frost pulled out his phone and hit the record button.
"I wasn't originally going out there planning on filming," he said.
One video showed a group of protesters carrying Justin Howell's limp body to medics after an Austin police officer shot the 20-year-old Texas State student in the head with a "less lethal" round.
His 45-second clip on social media now has more than 10 million views. Outrage over the video, and similar ones on social media, led to a ban on less lethal rounds and tear gas at Austin protests.
"The importance of documenting this stuff is, like, nobody knew Justin's name for 48 hours," Frost said.
@arianalipkin https://t.co/ZGHtMpPj8B— David Frost (@David Frost) 1590986632.0
Amateur video footage has been critical to the Black Lives Matter movement since it gained national prominence in 2014 following the Ferguson unrest—and most recently in the death of George Floyd, which prompted protests around the world.
Austin police have even recognized the amateur videographers as valuable, frequently calling on citizens to send in their footage to help—including in the cases of Howell and Brad Levi Ayala, 16, who suffered brain damage after being hit with a bean bag round that same weekend.
"I have been filming," Frost said. "And I have noticed a lot more people filming as well."
Local activists are using video footage not only to capture and post isolated incidents but also to record protests, rally support and investigate misconduct.
"I'm seeing new tactics as well as new platforms being deployed," said Professor Dhiraj Murthy, who researches social media activism at the University of Austin at Texas.
It fits into a broader trend of the public watching the police, he said, a practice known as "sousveillance."
"It's the idea that you can monitor how the police are treating people," he said.
When Brendan Walsh, another newcomer to protests, saw video clips of the Austin protests in late May, he described it as "warfare on Austin citizens."
Walsh scoured the internet for clips showing Ayala being hit. His goal: To identify the officer who fired the weapon.
Reddit has a strict anti-doxxing policy, due to its users wrongly accusing an innocent 22-year-old of being one of the Boston bombers. So Walsh created the Instagram account @justice4ayala, where he posted updates on his investigation.
Last week, APD confirmed to Texas Monthly what Walsh had already discovered: The officer's name was Nicholas Gebhart.
"There's a reason people are interested in my work," Walsh said. "They feel that this officer might not be held accountable."
Murthy says the actions of these amateur investigators tend to incite those who believe they're vigilantes.
"There have been plenty of incidents where the people filming footage have had abuse online leveled at them and that has resulted in real threats against them," he said.
Walsh said some protesters have sent footage to him instead of APD because they fear officers will ask why they were searching through their social media accounts.
Hiram Gilberto Garcia, an independent journalist who interviewed Austin protester Garrett Foster on camera the night he was shot and killed by an Uber driver, has documented being arrested by APD and discouraged comments that "initiate disagreement or discord."
In spite of of that, however, Walsh hopes more people follow his lead, especially as official inquiries drag on.
"This only took me 25 to 30 hours by myself to get a significant amount of progress," he said. "And now it has pushed from something that was just kind of an online project to what I feel is real change."
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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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