SXSW didn’t warn attendees about bombs targeting Black people in Austin, in case you forgot Black lives with money don’t matter either
We must continue to reject justifications of our value based on perceived or real exceptionalism because they are harmful
By Teju Adisa-Farrar
Draylen Mason was a 17-year-old living with his family in Austin, Texas when he was killed by a bomb on March 12th. Many of the articles written about his death list all of his accolades and note how incredibly talented he was. The picture generally shared is one where he is playing a bass, much more “positive” than the usual photos that surface of Black people in the U.S. who have been killed, which usually try to reinforce stereotypes about them.
But even if Draylen was an “exceptional” boy, it does not matter. He was a boy who was killed because he was Black. Listing his achievements does not make his life more valuable than any other Black person’s. The point is that he was killed because he was trying to live his life in a country that wants him dead.
At this year’s South by Southwest festival, I was on the phone with my sister, who lives in Paris, telling her how much I was enjoying myself. During our conversation, she received an alert on her phone saying there were bomb packages being left at people’s houses in Austin, where the festival was being held. The initial information and media coverage about these incidents suggested that the bombs were meant to target “prominent” Black families.
Further bombs and more information later suggested that the bombs were meant to kill people of color in general, having already injured an elderly Latina woman, in addition to taking the lives of Draylen Mason and Stephen House, who were Black.
But since starting this piece, there have been three other bomb attacks in Austin that are not aligned with the previous theories. One such bomb injured two white men in southwest Austin. And only then has the story picked up steam in the mainstream, with the president belatedly commenting on the attacks.
Though I was in Austin, I heard nothing about the first bomb attacks and received no alerts on my phone. My sister was the one telling me about something that threatens my immediate safety and likely the safety of other Black people enjoying themselves around me.
I was half expecting SXSW to mention it on their app or Twitter. It didn’t have to be anything significant, just a small announcement saying something to the affect of “Our Black SXSW participants and their safety is important to us so you should all know this is happening in Austin right now.”
But SXSW did not say anything while I was there, even though Questlove cancelled The Roots’ concert at the festival due to the threats (which I found out later). After the cancellation, SXSW’s twitter account simply tweeted: “The Bud Light x The Roots SXSW Jam at Fair Market has been canceled. We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your understanding.”
It seems the only reason they felt inclined to tweet at all was because a concert was cancelled as a result. We affected their scheduling, so now we become important, but still not important enough to warn about our safety beforehand. Our safety is just about us. The cancellation affected a larger SXSW community, so commenting became necessary only at that point.
Austin is one of the fastest growing cities, experiencing gentrification that has resulted from its legacy of racial segregation. I could see this gentrification on a micro-level within the festival, a spatial segregation that mirrored that of the city. While it’s clear that Austin does not care about the Black population already there, continually displacing them and excluding them from the benefits of the city’s growth and tech hub, I thought at least the Black participants who were paying for and performing in the festival would warrant some sort of attention.
I was seduced into thinking that who matters might be a capitalism thing, but it is still a Black thing. Invariably, these two things are linked.
Though the Black poor often bear the brunt of anti-Black violence, it’s no coincidence that the first bombs in Austin targeted Black families who are well-to-do. There are whole populations of poor/working class white people who feel like this country should be theirs, and yet it is slipping through their fingers to people of color. They feel like their position is being encroached upon.
While bombs were being sent to Black families in Austin, Afro-Brazilian activist Marielle Franco was also assassinated. Her work threatened white men in Brazil and the legitimacy of their power. The lack of response to the first bombings in Austin and the murder of Marielle are apart of the same narrative that renders Black people a threat, making our lives become unimportant and disposable.
SXSW is a festival for ideas, music, film, and connecting people. Its Interactive Conference, which I attended, focused on social good technology and equitable technology. Even in spaces that encourage innovation and inspiration, our humanity is still not a priority. While I’m not surprised, it is a powerful reminder that our human value will never come from this country or any institution that was built to benefit only a small segment of its population.
We have to keep each other safe. We have to send the alerts, information, and warnings to our networks when something happens to make sure we are informed of our safety and looking out for one another. We must continue to reject justifications of our value based on perceived or real exceptionalism because they are harmful and reinforce degrading narratives.
We can never relying on or expect a centralized American institution or corporation disseminate information that primarily concerns us. It is our cooperative organizing and commitment to our Black community that has kept us existing thus far. Because of each other we can know we are here, we are staying, and we are important.
*Update: The suspected bomber, 24-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt, was killed this morning after a confrontation with police.
Teju is a writer, poet and urban geographer. Her work focuses on subaltern artist & activist communities, geographies of Blackness, decolonization, social art praxis, and postcolonial culture in cities. She’s out here just trying to get funding for her projects, by any means necessary.