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David Frost, 22, filmed Austin protester Justin Howell (left) being carried to medics after being shot in the head by an Austin police officer. Other officers then shot at the protesters as they approached, causing them to duck (right).

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.

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.

Crowdsourcing footage

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."


Backlash

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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