A Week With Some of Austin’s Most Vehement, Revolutionary Protesters
By Ram Rodríguez
Men and women in their 20s hurried back and forth trying to fix a projector. More than 100 supporters of all colors and ages relaxed on blankets in a corner of Bartholomew Park in Northeast Austin. A few offered free buttons — of the comic strip character Calvin peeing on the word “COPS” — tamales, lemon bars and Topo Chico. When the projector started working, a presentation on police brutality commenced. “The revolution will be violent!” a woman shouted.
The Mike Ramos Brigade, or MRB, formed the night Mike Ramos, an unarmed 42-year-old Black and Mexican-American man, was shot and killed by Austin police in April. The brigade’s demands started with justice for Ramos. They quickly started calling for justice for all victims of police brutality and the abolition of the criminal justice system, capitalism and the destruction of what they call the ruling class. After the death of George Floyd in May, MRB became synonymous with protesting and occasional violence in Austin.
In October, Reporting Texas interviewed members and attended several events sponsored by MRB. It was a rare invitation from the highly scrutinized but secretive group. For security purposes, the group doesn’t volunteer information on its size or what is required to become a member. Brigade members also use aliases within the organization. This story will use pseudonyms to protect privacy.
Some critics, from both the political right and left, question the group’s tactics. The brigade has received media attention for clashing with the Austin police, marching on Interstate 35, vandalizing state property and looting — an allegation the group disputes, saying most of the looting was not done by MRB comrades.
Brigade members say their critics are misguided. They insist that nothing less than a grassroots revolution is needed to save Austin, and the country, from a capitalist system that encourages police to exploit and even kill the poor and people of color.
About 19 MRB members gathered on a dark basketball court at 6 p.m., using their phones to light the signs they were making. One read, “REACTIONARY VIOLENCE GETS PEOPLE’S JUSTICE.” A supporter joked, “Not to be confused with the People’s Elbow,” referencing professional wrestler and actor The Rock’s signature move. This is Ian.
Ian grew up middle class on the West Coast, watching classic Nickelodeon television shows. He radicalized after the killing of George Floyd in May, he said.
Ian is not like most members of MRB. He’s older, holds a steady job in television and isn’t superheated about protesting. He was planning to vote in the presidential election, he said, unlike other group members who reject the electoral system outright. When asked for whom he would vote, Ian lowered his voice, leaned in and said, “ol’ White Hair,” meaning Joe Biden.
He used his normal voice when talking more generally about the election. Another MRB member — one who said he wasn’t voting — agreed that Biden would be preferable to Donald Trump. “If Biden wins, I’ll be in the streets. Don’t get me wrong; I’ll be in the streets happy that Biden won; but I’ll be in the streets,” Ian said.
Both lament that MRB leadership isn’t planning an MRB event on election night. They predict a Biden victory, but still expect a full-on conflict with extreme right groups like the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers in the weeks after the election.
“Get ready for the craziest few months of your life,” Ian said.
Katy and Sofia, both in their early 20s, were very hesitant to talk to Reporting Texas. Katy initially said she held several high-level positions in MRB, and other members referred to her as an authority figure. Later Katy said she was only the group’s social media director. Sofia said she oversees MRB’s committees.
Sofia received her bachelor’s in government from the University of Texas in 2019 and does kickboxing. Katy is a concert dancer who wants to use her craft to promote social justice. But, like most members, they said they don’t have that kind of free time anymore because of the time they devote to MRB.
Katy lost her job in childcare in 2020, she said. She plans “to find a more working-class job down the line,” saying it would make more sense with her politics.
Between polemics against the ruling class and petty bourgeoisie, they looked to clear up a misconception about MRB. They’re neither police nor a CIA psyop — a “psychological operation” intended to panic the public into calling for heightened security. It’s a rumor people throw around about the group, but the Austin Police Department corroborated what Katy and Sofia said.
“The allegation about MRB being an APD-affiliated or government psyop group is not accurate,” an APD spokesperson wrote in an email, marking a rare instance where the two parties are in agreement.
Sofia said the brigade is also not a bunch of middle class millennials who want to be romantic revolutionaries. “I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the left is just a bunch of petty bourgeois people slumming it and cosplaying as poor,” she said. “If you have the right politics then you have a place in the movement.”
The brigade is getting more organized, bigger and working toward being seen as more legitimate, Sofia said. Still, Sofia didn’t rule out violence as an approach to protesting.
“The system that slaughters people, you don’t owe it peace,” she said.
When asked about the racial makeup of MRB, Katy said the group’s racial breakdown is “not important to the piece,” and that dignifying the question feeds into the ruling class’s identity politics. After further pressing, she said the brigade has “more than a few” black members. Headcounts over the next few days produced only three black members and a couple Latinos. White and Asian people comprised the rest of the group.
At 6:30 p.m in Adams Hemphill Park in Central Austin, a group of 19 people, many with tattoos and some with hair dyed different colors, gathered for a know-our-rights training. The MRB holds study groups like this one weekly.
Brigade members confiscated attendees’ phones, and supporters, one by one, shared their encounters with the police. The anecdotes weren’t funny talking-your-way-out-of-a-ticket stories. Several people told of being shot with bean bags rounds during an anti-police brutality protest. Others described being tear gassed and spending the night in jail.
Then attendees — most of whom grew up in solidly middle-class families and are the sons and daughters of doctors and business executives — memorized the phone number for a donation-based legal aid service called Austin Red Aid, and shared tips for how to best survive a night in jail. At the end of the study group, MRB members gave attendees a quiz. Correct answers were rewarded with chocolate and candy.
At 6:30 p.m. about two dozen gathered at Roy G. Guerrero Park in Southeast Austin for a workout. The brigade holds workouts regularly. Sometimes members train for hand-to-hand combat and play no-rules Rugby. After a run, members did push-ups, squats and marching practice.
After working up a sweat, Katy said she was having second thoughts about meeting with a reporter. She was worried MRB member’s passion would be misportrayed.
Earlier, Katy had said that the mainstream media gave short shrift to the group’s ideas and obsessively focused on the brigade’s willingness to use violence. The questions about violence bothered her.
“Would you not be violent for someone you love?” she said. “Would you not be violent for something you believe in?”
Editor’s note: The Mike Ramos Brigade went on indefinite hiatus in late October. Tribune Of The People reported the news and quoted unnamed brigade members. Those members cited leaders’ middle-class backgrounds, diminished fervor and poor training as reasons for the hiatus. Former members have expressed plans to reorganize under a different name.