Safety and SXSW: Was the Mohawk Tragedy a Tipping Point?

The last morning of SXSW 2011 was not a pleasant one. Not because of any kind of personal debauchery the previous evening; that had come a few days before. Reprimands had been handed down, wrists had been slapped, and tails were hanging between a few legs, these two included. The specific infractions have long since been forgotten, but what I remember now is sitting at Starbucks downstairs at the downtown Austin Hilton Sunday morning, watching one of the SXSW directors telling a local TV station that the festival might have to take it down a few notches. So I'm not the only one, I thought.

That cup of coffee was the one single moment when SXSW finally stopped being fun for me.

That year had been out of control. Of course SXSW grew more crowded with every passing year, but not only had I never seen as many people at the festival as the throngs of people in the streets -- and everywhere around Austin, not just downtown -- they seemed to be acting rowdier than ever before. A crowd pushed over a fence trying to get into the Strokes show at Auditorium Shores, an incident that was almost repeated at Beauty Bar (Death From Above 1979) and the Scoot Inn (Odd Future).

Also at the Scoot Inn, the lead singer of Screeching Weasel punched both a female audience member and one of the club's co-owners. A camera boom collapsed at Stubb's during OMD's set; later it turned out the crew hired by the showcase's sponsor had not been authorized by SXSW. And those were just the headlines.

"No one's ever going to get the genie back inside the bottle; all that can be determined is who pours," the Austin Chronicle wrote at the time.

It was either my 15th or 16th SXSW by 2011, so I was already a little burned out by then. I was also a little bit more uncomfortable squeezing into a venue that was obviously flirting with capacity (if not over), but sometimes you can't help yourself. I had seen the sun come up waiting for a cab home from an afterparty too many times, never mind trying to find a ride home. Tried driving home plenty of times myself; sometimes that didn't work out too well either.

All those years I don't remember feeling like my life was in immediate danger, but thinking back I was probably putting my personal safety at risk more times than I'd care to think about. That morning at Starbucks, all the fun I had at SXSW over the years -- way more than any single human being should be allowed by law -- finally caught up with me. I went back the next year, despite having had a heart attack in October 2011, but barely noticed I was even there. To this day not one act I saw that year stands out enough for me to remember their name, which is why I happily haven't been back.

Story continues on the next page.

It took until this year for a real tragedy to come about at SXSW, but it was finally touched off by a routine traffic stop at a downtown Austin gas station early Thursday morning. The suspected drunk driver, who sent 23 people to the hospital and two to the morgue, turned out to be a 21-year-old aspiring rapper and producer himself. SXSW has a heavy, heavy footprint these days.

First responders at the scene did everything just as they should have, and had in fact reportedly been drilled for just a scenario the week before. Midway through Thursday morning, SXSW announced that everything would proceed as scheduled, subject to the discretion of the individual venues. A prayer vigil was held Thursday afternoon at St. David's Episcopal Church downtown, just two or three blocks from the crime scene.

An emotional support center, jointly administered by the Red Cross, City of Austin and SXSW, was set up at the Austin Convention Center to, according to SXSW's Web site, "focus on providing counseling and emotional support to SXSW staff and volunteers, as well as residents or visitors who were impacted by the incident." But scanning social media late Thursday night, the showcases and self-promotion were again going full-steam, only this time mixed with condolences and a lingering sense of disbelief. A moment of silence was scheduled for midnight on Red River Street, almost exactly 24 hours before the crash, and SXSW announced the creation of the SXSW Cares fund to assist its victims.

The festival has already changed irrevocably. But both SXSW and City of Austin officials are far too consumed with the current one to even worry about the future yet; all they can do is guard against any more disasters this year, and hope people behave themselves. But in the months to come, both the festival and its home city of 27 years now are going to have to confront some serious questions about the price of having fun and the value of public safety, questions that SXSW's long streak of good fortune allowed both entities to postpone facing longer than anyone could have expected.

It's like the old saying: it's not a party until the cops show up. Now they definitely have. And no one, least of all me, is saying the party has to end. But the moment SXSW lost whatever innocence it had left arrived when when a late-model Honda sedan drove the wrong way down a one-way street, crashed through a police barricade and plunged into a crowd of unsuspecting people whose only crime was wanting to have fun.


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