Every afternoon for the past eleven days, Taye Johnson has followed the same routine. The 38-year old dons a pair of old-school running shoes, a baseball cap, and some cargo shorts, and tucks a pair of goggles and several bottles of Gatorade into his pockets. Then he heads to Austin police headquarters, where he’ll remain for the next eight or nine hours.
Once there, Johnson, who is black, slips through the crowd of demonstrators, until he finds himself face-to-face with the rows of police officers standing guard, often in riot gear. Sometimes Johnson talks one-on-one with officers; other times he joins those yelling chants at them. He says that ever since he was a teen, he has been harassed by abusive police officers—pulled over for no reason, thrown on the ground for asking questions, held at gunpoint after traffic stops.
“After watching two seconds of the [George Floyd] video, I knew what was happening,” says Johnson, a personal trainer who believes his athletic build leads some police to view him as a threat. “That could’ve been me.”
In the wall of police officers, many protesters see aggressors, but Johnson sees something else as well: men much like himself.
Johnson knows how it feels to hold a weapon while facing off with a crowd of frustrated protesters, many of them powerless, and to both fear and despise them. It was a role he and his fellow soldiers perfected during a harrowing year in Iraq between 2003 and 2004, in which the former Army National Guardsman grew accustomed to setting up roadblocks and manning perimeters in Baghdad and Samarra while Iraqis massed on the streets.
Johnson said he comes downtown not to condemn the officers but to bear witness to and confront a mentality that he’s still healing from.
In the past few weeks, Johnson has watched the APD employ military tools such as rubber bullets, beanbag munitions, and tear gas against protesters. After the Austin police pledged to stop using certain munitions on crowds, following critical injuries and maiming of demonstrators, Johnson has watched state troopers—armed with pepper spray and shields—confront protesters. Johnson used many of these same tools, and the same street formations, during his time in Iraq.
“Those are military tactics,” he said one recent evening as he pointed across the street to a row of APD officers on guard, their faces shielded by transparent masks and their hands gripping batons and rifles as they refused to engage protesters. “This is brute force. It’s them saying, ‘We are better than you and we’re going to do what we want to do and we’re not going to apologize for doing it.’ I know it because that’s the same thing the military taught us to do in Iraq.”
Johnson has been back in Texas for more than fifteen years. He hadn’t intended to become a protester or a soldier. Johnson was raised by a close-knit family of women in Quinlan, about forty miles east of Dallas. His birth mother died when he was ten and his aunt, whom he calls his mother, died in a traffic accident three years after that. He never knew his father, and joined the military at nineteen because he wanted the brotherhood and guidance he thought he could only get from other men. He arrived at basic training naive, impressionable, and desperate for structure.
Johnson now suffers from PTSD, which he started experiencing during his tour of duty. One moment he’s watching television, the next moment he’s kicking down a door in Samarra while a child screams, or he’s inside a cramped Humvee, anxiously scanning a dusty Baghdad street for incoming rocket-propelled grenades. Johnson said his PTSD was born of fear and guilt—fear of the deadly environment he and his soldiers were struggling to survive, and guilt about the violence and psychological torture they inflicted on innocent Iraqis. The more fear he felt, the more brutal he became and the more he suffered inside. Eventually, he said, as he and his fellow soldiers’ mental health began to deteriorate, every Iraqi looked like a threat, none of them fully human anymore.
In Austin and in much of America, he believes, many police officers have fallen victim to the same cycle of fear, self-loathing, and retribution. The result, he said, is the police brutality captured almost every day on social media.
Years of therapy taught Johnson to love himself again and to talk openly about the emotional trauma that he began accumulating in childhood. It’s also helped him craft a message that he delivers to officers he encounters on the front lines of protests.
“We’re designed to love one another,” he said. “When you do the wrong thing over and over, it kills you deep down and you become the enemy of the people.”
Johnson said he won’t be satisfied until the department decides to take a knee with protesters, apologizes for past abuses, and agrees to a new system of accountability, developed in collaboration with activists.
“You think you can deal with the shame and guilt,” he added, “but you will feel that pain for the rest of your life.”