On May 31, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo stood in a crowd of people who were protesting police brutality and Minneapolis police’s killing of George Floyd and began to cry. Surrounded by activists, Acevedo talked about Floyd, who was raised in Houston’s Third Ward, and said he was angry about the treatment of Black people in America.
“I may not be Black, but I’m God’s child,” Acevedo said as tears filled his eyes. “When I saw that man crying out for his momma, I thought about my momma. What I kept thinking is, he must be seeing her already.” He pointed toward the sky. “So I’m telling you, we will march as a department with this community,” he said. “I will march until we can’t stand no more. But I will not allow anyone to tear down this city.”
The speech earned Acevedo social media fame and major media appearances. On June 1, Christiane Amanpour interviewed Acevedo on CNN, where he extended his “deepest condolences to the Floyd family,” thanked protesters demonstrating in Houston, and said “the police stand with the community, and the community stands with the police.”
But while Acevedo was publicly mourning the death of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, his officers were brutalizing the very protesters he praised. The Appeal interviewed multiple activists in Houston and reviewed videos taken from protests in the city. In addition to one officer caught on tape trampling a woman with a police horse (an incident for which Mayor Sylvester Turner was forced to apologize), video evidence, including some previously unavailable footage obtained by The Appeal, shows officers firing what appears to be tear gas at protesters, brutalizing people during their arrests, and violently handcuffing a woman in a wheelchair.
And while Houston police spokespersons have denied “kettling” protesters—a practice by which officers surround demonstrators, pen them in, and arrest the group—several activists who spoke to The Appeal say this is untrue.
Kettling has long been considered a dangerous police tactic. In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. after that agency kettled protesters on President Donald Trump’s inauguration day. In a June 6 interview with Vox, an ACLU attorney said that not only is kettling is a form of mass detention that potentially violates the U.S. Constitution, it also increases unnecessary contact with law enforcement — leading to the potential spread of COVID-19. On June 5, the New York Times reported that NYPD kettling had set off a “fierce backlash” against the police and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio.
Video from Houston protests this week shows officers kettling protesters. In one clip, a group of penned-in protesters scream, “Here they come!” as officers storm into the crowd and rip people away to make arrests. In another clip, a woman shakily says she’s trapped, while officers stare blankly at her and ignore her cries for help.
“My message to Art Acevedo is to stop lying,” Ashton P. Woods, an activist with Black Lives Matter Houston, told The Appeal. “Because the same people walking with him were the same people pepper-spraying us later.”
Asked for comment on its use of kettling, a Houston police spokesperson directed The Appeal to a previously written media statement, in which Acevedo said his department “effected mass arrests on three separate nights” and that demonstrators “were given multiple verbal warnings that they were unlawfully obstructing the roadway” before being arrested.
“I am extremely proud of Houston’s response to this tragedy,” he said, adding that it showed “democracy at its finest.”
But on Tuesday, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said that her office would dismiss 796 criminal cases as a result of a week-long review of protest-related arrests. Charges remain against 51 adults and one young person.
Numerous officers and police chiefs, including those in Atlanta, Miami Beach, and Buffalo, have become popular during the Floyd protests for kneeling with protesters while, in many cases, brutally cracking down on dissent. Acevedo, too, is a strange spokesperson for a growing movement to stop police violence. His department shot a staggering six people over the past six weeks—and most were Black or Latinx. Despite criticism from the Houston Chronicle and local activists—protesters have chanted “Release the tapes!” in Houston during demonstrations—Acevedo has refused to release body camera footage from any of the incidents. On June 3, Acevedo appeared on NBC’s “TODAY” and said he would release one of the tapes. But Acevedo also claimed he could not release every clip due, in part, to a lack of a “national standard” for camera footage releases. On June 6, Acevedo held a press conference to reiterate that he would not make the body camera footage public.
When Acevedo was police chief in Austin from 2007 to 2016, his officers repeatedly arrested people for jaywalking, sometimes violently. In February 2014, after video of jogger Amanda Stephen’s arrest for jaywalking was widely circulated, Acevedo said, “In other cities, there’s cops who are actually committing sexual assaults on duty, so I thank God that this is what passes for a controversy in Austin, Texas.” He later apologized for those remarks. (Last week, after claiming—without evidence—that protesters had traveled from Austin to destroy Houston, his comments were widely circulated again.)
In 2018, Acevedo publicly called NFL defensive lineman Michael Bennett “morally bankrupt” after Harris County prosecutors charged Bennett with shoving an elderly woman in a wheelchair after Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston. But that case later unraveled, and prosecutors were forced to drop Bennett’s felony assault charges.
Acevedo’s department is also still reeling after police killed two people and a dog in a botched January 2019 drug raid based on allegedly fabricated evidence from disgraced officer Gerald Goines, who was charged with murder after the bungled no-knock raid. The FBI arrested both Goines and his former partner Steven Bryant in November. Since then, defense attorneys have estimated that Goines’s false or tainted testimony impacted at least 160 cases that may be overturned. Prosecutors also say they are now reviewing 14,000 cases handled by HPD’s narcotics division. Last year, The Appeal reviewed 591 cases in which Goines was the main officer. Ninety-four percent of those he arrested were Black.
In 2004, 10 years before George Floyd moved to Minneapolis, Goines arrested him for allegedly selling him less than a gram of cocaine. Floyd was convicted based on the testimony of a single witness — Goines himself — and spent 10 months in prison. Before Minneapolis police killed Floyd, Harris County prosecutors announced in 2019 they were reviewing his case as part of the broader inquiry into Goines’s conduct.
Instead of returning home to potentially see his case vacated, Floyd’s body arrived back in Houston this week for a public viewing on Monday. At Floyd’s funeral, Acevedo said, “When I see my NASCAR drivers … recognizing and acknowledging that Black lives matter—people that have never in their lifetimes said those words—that’s a new movement.”
On May 31, the same day Acevedo broke down in tears in the middle of a protest, a woman who was recently arrested appeared in a video on the Black Lives Matter: Houston Facebook page, complaining that she’d been trapped the night before by Houston cops. (Activists with Black Lives Matter declined to provide her name to The Appeal.)
Standing outside the Harris County Jail, the woman stated she was charged with “obstructing a highway or passageway” despite having been given no option to leave.
“We encountered a wall of police officers,” she said. “They started with the firecrackers and the flash grenades. So we turned around to go back where we came from. Another wall of police told us we were going to be arrested and they took us all away.” She also stated that the officers “just kind of encroached on us” from all sides.
Hours after that video appeared online, Erikha Mason, 22, told The Appeal that she was marching with a group of demonstrators in Houston when three men on bicycles, who she suspects were undercover officers, shouted directions at them and led the group directly into a wall of officers.
In a video Mason posted online, Houston officers surrounded her as she asked to leave.
“We were trying to leave, and they told us to get back,” Mason says in the clip. “This is the only way out and they have us surrounded.” She points behind her, adding: “They’re on that side.” She points forward at the line of officers in front of her again. “They’re here. They’re not letting us go anywhere. They have tear gas.”
In other clips shared with The Appeal, Mason clearly asks the officers if she can just go home. Instead, she said she was corralled in that stretch of road for “a good 30 to 40 minutes” before she was arrested and charged with obstructing a roadway. (Mason separately told the Marshall Project this week that, after her arrest, she was kept zip-tied overnight in a crowded prison gymnasium and was potentially exposed to COVID-19.)
“They had us blocked in and told us to get on the sidewalk,” she told The Appeal. “Then they arrested us for blocking the sidewalk.” She added: “For them to have the audacity to say they leave some type of escape way? There was nowhere to go.”
On June 2, one day after Acevedo appeared on CNN praising the spirit of the protest, his officers were filmed surrounding large groups of protesters who had gathered at Avenida Houston, a strip of restaurants and bars outside the George R. Brown Convention Center.
In multiple video clips from that day, protester Kara Scales, 23, captured a swarm of riot gear-clad officers encircling her group.
“We were marching to the end of a street where we were blocked by a line of officers,” Scales told The Appeal. “We stood in front of the officers, chanting, saying what we had to say, and then all of a sudden we heard flash grenades and they started to spray tear gas. All those officers then came and started to surround us. We were trying to leave, and they were telling people to get off the street, but they all started to surround us, coming from every direction, and blocking us from leaving.”
In one of Scales’s videos, officers appear to have surrounded the group on all sides. One woman lets out a blood-curdling scream as someone near the phone shouts, “Oh, they’re coming for another one!” A team of officers holding batons and riot shields then violently rips a woman out of the crowd and pulls her back behind police lines.
Like Mason, Scales told The Appeal she was forced onto a sidewalk by officers and then arrested and charged with blocking a sidewalk.
In another video of the same protest posted by another anonymous social media user, a woman points a camera at a throng of Houston officers encircling a screaming group of protesters.
“Now they’ve got them in a big-ass circle surrounded by police,” she says in the video. The officers move closer to the protesters, with little heard besides screaming. Seconds later, she begins coughing relentlessly. She appears to be gassed. Officers nearby appear to ignore her hacking—but a fellow protester steps in and offers her help.
Woods, the Black Lives Matter Houston activist, told The Appeal that the barrage of horrific videos and arrests show that Acevedo hasn’t lived up to his police reformer image. “He talks a good game, but he bullshits people and tells them what they want to hear,” Woods said. Woods said activists are now gathering stories of civil rights violations and seeking legal advice from attorneys.
“Those officers are going to get hammered when we get through with them,” Woods said. “We’re going to light their asses up.”