It has not ended. Last month, the police in Akron, Ohio, fatally shot Jayland Walker dozens of times after a traffic stop. A family mourned. Protests followed.
For Bianca Austin and Jacob Blake Sr., the shooting brought back bad memories. Austin’s niece was Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old woman who was fatally shot during a botched police raid on her home in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2020. Blake’s son Jacob Blake Jr. famously survived a police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, months later.
Since then, Austin and Blake Sr. have become close friends and colleagues, forming an organization called Families United that seeks to support people who have lost loved ones to police violence. They’ve traveled all over the country, protesting with and consoling relatives and friends of Daunte Wright, Cameron Lamb, and others.
After Walker’s death, they traveled to Akron, once again trying to help. But when they arrived, things did not go as planned. During a peaceful protest on July 6, the police attacked their friend and fellow activist Michael Harris, punching him repeatedly in the face. When Jacob Blake Sr. tried to intervene, the police turned on him, landing him in a hospital. Police also arrested Austin and her Families United colleague Cortez Rice, charging them with rioting, engaging in disorderly conduct, and failing to disperse. (They deny the allegations.)
Last week, after Blake Sr. and Austin were discharged from the hospital and jail, Walker’s family invited them to attend the funeral. The next day, the duo video-called me from their car in Akron, along with Harris and Cortez, to share what they experienced at the protests.
“I was terrified and in shock at what was taking place,” Austin told me.
Here is our conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Bianca and Jacob, why did you want to go to Akron?
Bianca Austin: Jacob had called me, and he’s like, “You might want to sit down.” I hear the concern in his voice: “A young man out in Akron, Ohio—the police shot him 64 times.” And I said, “Please, tell me you’re lying.” It’s like you relive it all over. My niece [Breonna Taylor], how she was at home and four officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department shot blindly into her apartment, assassinating her. It’s just in our nature to offer our support in times like these, tragedies like these, especially if we have the opportunity.
Jacob Blake Sr.: We all mounted up and got on the road.
BA: You know, there’s not a handbook for tragic situations like this. So we mentor, we provide emotional support, we organize community events, we organize demonstrations, whatever the family needs.
After Breonna was killed, did you feel like you received the support you needed?
BA: The day Breonna was murdered was around the same day Covid restrictions were put into place. They was trying to sweep it up under the rug—you know, now we got Covid, now everything’s been shut down, you can’t leave your house, there are so many restrictions. There was nothing, absolutely nothing. For months, my family continued sharing through social media. It wasn’t until after George Floyd was murdered that she got the national attention, recognition, that she deserved.
How did you meet Jacob?
BA: After [Kentucky Attorney General] Daniel Cameron decided not to press charges against those officers, we had a press conference and he came down. We’ve been like two peas in a pod.
JB: We have the same lawyer, Ben Crump. So Ben had called me, and Tamika [Palmer], who is Bianca’s sister [and Breonna Taylor’s mother] wanted to talk to me. She sounded so tired. I said, “Little sis, I’m on my way. I’m gonna stand there with you, hold your hand.” And she said, “You would come?” And I said, “I’m on my way.” And this was at about six o’clock at night. I don’t want to tell you the speeds that we eclipsed driving to Louisville that night. But we made it and we stayed. Ever since we’ve been inseparable…[Bianca] is the baby sister that I never had. And her family has adopted me as their uncle.
Can you tell me what you all did when you first got to Akron?
Michael Harris: When we got here, we attended two rallies. Our objective was to let the world know Jayland Walker’s life matters, Jayland Walker should have never been assassinated that night, and that we’re not standing for that. [On July 6] they blocked the streets off, so we knew we’re accomplishing what we want to accomplish: Shut the streets down. Make y’all [the police] work; let’s use these tax dollars we’re paying. Get out of your [police] office and block the streets off and let us protest.
Why did the police approach you, Michael?
MH: They were trying to give some orders over this PA system, and the PA system, it’s breaking up, so we don’t know what they’re saying. I asked him three times, “What are you saying?” The reason I’m asking is because if you labeled us as the leaders, we could deliver a message to these people possibly.
So I ask him three times. And he pursues me, aggressively, and I’m backing up toward the sidewalk because I already see in his eyes that he’s angry and he’s about to do something fucking crazy.
JB: He came over and punched him!
It’s happening right in front of us. We’re sitting in the van. I exit the car onto the sidewalk. And I try to catch Michael’s head from hitting…these barriers [they] set up. If it’s an immovable object, and it’s steel, it’s going to fuck Mike’s head up. So I tried to position myself between Mike and the barrier. And I keep screaming, “Stop punching him!”
The whole time I’m screaming I’m not realizing that an officer has my arm. I don’t realize that until I’m getting beat up. I have terrible shoulders. And we’re telling them I’m handicapped. And they’re still wrestling with me and trying to take me down to the ground.
Cortez Rice: They were using aggressive force to peaceful protesters and families that have been impacted by police brutality.
JB: So when Mike hits the ground, he’s at my feet, and they’re stomping on Mike’s head with their feet.
MH: Absolutely kicking me.
JB: I’m watching. I’m trying to block their feet with my feet. And I have these squishy shoes on. I’m trying to put my foot so Mike can rest his head on my foot with the squishy part at least to take some of the blows. And there’s nothing I can do. Now they have my legs. Now I can’t move. Now they’ve wrestled me. So, I’m tired now. And then I sat down on the curb. I just said, “I gotta sit down, man. My legs are no good.” Then somebody cracked me, something hit me on the right side of my head. I hit the side of the van. Then I…
BA: …blacked out.
JB: …then I saw the concrete coming toward my face. And next thing I knew I was waking up in all these lights at the hospital.
Wow. You had a seizure?
JB: That’s what they say. I don’t know what the fuck happened.
Bianca, as this is all happening, how are you trying to react?
BA: My initial thought was just to record. I didn’t really react because I was terrified and in shock at what was taking place, because it was really unnecessary, because it wasn’t even a large crowd and the crowd was literally women and children. And I’m just yelling like, “You guys are wrong! That’s unnecessary!” And then I see them slam Jacob on the hood of the car, and I just was like in awe, like I didn’t know what was going on. The only thing you can hear is yelling—there was no clear direction, it was just chaos. Like, they telling us to get on the curb and I’m like, “We’re on the curb. So where are we supposed to go?” And then they pepper-sprayed us.
And so now we’re pepper-sprayed, Jacob was going to the hospital, and we have no idea where Michael is. So I’m terrified. My mother instinct kicks in. Because I know Jacob has a medical history. So my goal was to get to him to make sure they know what’s going on with him.
Editor’s note: The below video of the encounter was filmed by Bianca Austin and shared online by her Families United colleague Russell Ellis, who is known as the Jolly Good Ginger. The Akron Police Department did not respond to a request for comment from Mother Jones. According to Cleveland.com, a local news site, the protests on July 6 were peaceful until around 8:30 p.m. There was no curfew that night, but the police ordered demonstrators to disperse after traffic became blocked on High Street. Officers said Michael Harris and Jacob Blake Sr. did not comply with their instructions and continued to block the intersection. (Both men have pleaded not guilty to their charges.) Cleveland.com reported that the police then used tear gas to disperse the remaining protesters.
— jolly_good_ginger (@jollygoodginger) July 7, 2022
CR: Once we see Big Jake go on a stretcher, we told them we need to follow him. He has medical conditions; we are his family. As we were trying to get into the vehicle—which they told us we could get in the vehicle and leave—we’re getting apprehended by other officers trying to arrest us. And we’re telling them, and one of the officers is like, “No, they’re okay. Let them go.” So they made a way for us to get up out of there and get behind the medical truck, and then as we’re following the truck, another officer pulls us over and tries to arrest us again.
And they got on the radio. And I guess that officer, the university police, made a call to the sergeant of the Akron Police Department. And we heard the sergeant say, “If they come back in this area, we’re going to arrest them, but let them follow the EMS truck.” So then the university police said, “You’re free to go.”
Then we go to the hospital. And one of the officers told the security guards to not let us in. And then here comes another rogue officer trying to arrest me at the hospital—for no apparent reason. He’s like, “Oh, this is the guy right here.” One of the other officers said, “No, that’s not him.” He was like, “Oh, my bad. That’s an honest mistake.”
After the police asked you to leave the hospital, which was reportedly under lockdown because of the protest activity, you went to the jail to see if you could post bond for Michael Harris. Is that where you were arrested, while you were waiting in the parking lot?
CR: They was like, “You’re not allowed to sit here and wait.” We’re on public property, mind you. As I’m like, “We’re about to leave,” they’re like, “Nope, [you’re] detained.”
So they put the handcuffs on me. Then put the handcuffs on Bianca Austin. I’m literally sitting up there saying, “For what? What am I getting charged with?” They said, “Well, we’ll tell you later.”
They put her in the back of a paddy wagon. Then they put me in the back of the paddy wagon. And they was like, “You really messed up by coming to our city.” And I’m just like, “Wait, what’s going on here?” We weren’t trespassing or breaking the law in any shape or form.
While they were arresting you, did the police know who you all were? Like, did they know, Bianca, that you’re Breonna Taylor’s aunt?
BA: They had no idea who we were.
CR: When they did find out that Bianca Austin was Breonna Taylor’s auntie, while she was in jail, she had told me that they had moved all the other women out of the cell and left her in there by herself in the cold.
Can you tell me about that, Bianca? What was your experience in the jail?
BA: I’ve never been locked up or jailed before. At this point, I still was kind of concerned for everybody else. I just kind tried to stay calm and just went with the process.
CR: But it was very traumatizing.
BA: It was definitely something I’m experiencing and I won’t forget.
MH: We are strong, but this shit is traumatizing. My daughter texted me the other night: “I’m scared, Daddy.” And I’m like, “What happened?” She said, “For what happened to you.” That’s the thing: Families are impacted from this. Because they had to watch it go viral, me getting beaten and bro getting beaten and arrested.
Are the court hearings ongoing? Like, there hasn’t been a resolution to the charges filed against you?
JB: Well, our lawyers are handling that as we speak. They [the police] whooped us like we committed a felony. But they only charged us with misdemeanors. Bogus charges. Because there’s no way in hell you can charge people with inciting a riot when you’re only two people in the parking lot at the county jail.
Jacob, how have you recovered? How are you feeling physically since the hospital?
JB: Really, it does not matter how I feel physically. How I feel has nothing to do with this revolution. How I feel has nothing to do with how Jayland Walker’s family feels.
And even even if they [the police] would of took my legs, then I would have crawled back out there the next day to say what I had to say, because we’re not in this for play. We’re not in this for the cameras, lights, and action. We’re in this because our ancestors before us have suffered. I can see the roots on the trees that my ancestors hung from like Christmas ornaments.
Now, we’re still there.
Because when my father got his behind whooped 57 years ago—they’ve taken the dogs and the hoses and turned it into gas and brutality. And rubber bullets. You’re watching it in real time.
This is not normal. What happened to Jayland is not normal. We are not accepting it.
Where will you go next after Akron?
JB: I would like to go to sleep. [Laughs.]
BA: We have a demonstration planned out in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for Patrick Lyoya. And [we have] our own loved ones. Jacob [Blake Jr.]’s anniversary is coming up, August 23: He was shot seven times in the back. Jahmari Rice [Cortez Rice’s late son]—his birthday is coming up. Fred Cox’s birthday was yesterday.
CR: When the cameras is gone and the people are gone, we are still there.