Editor’s note: On Wednesday, March 21, 2018, the suspected serial bomber was identified as Mark Anthony Conditt. While being pursued by Austin police, a bomb detonated inside his vehicle leading to his death.
In contrast to the sunny weather and jubilant atmosphere of last weekend’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, many people in the state capital’s historically Black and Latino neighborhoods were enduring fresh trauma and uncertainty.
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The city’s east side had been the site of three package bombings since the beginning of the month, two of them deadly and all of the victims people of color.
For weeks, terrified neighbors waited without any word from authorities about a suspect or motive. Parents warned their children not to touch any unexpected packages, while police and FBI agents combed their neighborhoods. Community leaders voiced fears that the victims were targeted because of their connection to prominent local families.
On Sunday night, a fourth bomb exploded in another part of Austin, leaving two people injured, both of them white.
This time, the explosion occurred in a wealthy, mostly white neighborhood on the southwest side of Austin. The bomb was triggered by a tripwire laid across a residential sidewalk, in contrast to the three previous package bombs that were left at specific homes.
Then, as this article was being readied for publication on Tuesday, a package bomb exploded at a FedEx facility, and a second package apparently sent by the same person was discovered unexploded at a separate facility. According to news reports, both packages were sent from Austin to destinations in Austin.
The first package bomb was delivered to the home of Anthony Stephen House, a 39-year-old father and construction worker who lived in a working-class neighborhood in northeast Austin. He was killed when he picked up the package from his doorstep.
The initial reaction of the Austin Police Department (APD) was to consider the death “suspicious” — possibly either a suicide or related to a drug raid that had occurred in the neighborhood.
“When this first broke, they said it was an isolated incident,” Susana Almanza, a community organizer and director of People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources, said. “There’s still the racism that existed there, that social structure, that makes them want to think that this was a drug deal gone bad or something.”
Instead of immediately investigating the incident as a homicide, police explored other possibilities and, in the meantime, failed to warn residents about suspicious packages or the possibility of an ongoing threat in their community.
Questioned publicly about this at a community meeting, Austin police chief Brian Manley said, “I will stand here today…and apologize that we as a department put that out there, because that was not appropriate.”
Ten days later, a second deadly package bomb ended up at the home of Draylen Mason, a 17-year-old high school student and orchestra musician. Draylen was killed after his mother brought the package inside, and it exploded. His mother was also injured in the blast.
Hours later, a third package exploded, seriously injuring a 75-year-old woman, Esperanza Herrera.
All of the victims of these first three bombs were Black or Latino, and all lived east of Austin’s historic racial dividing line of Interstate 35. In a city with a shrinking Black population, the pattern led many to the obvious conclusion that the bombings were motivated by racist hate.
Last Wednesday, Nelson Linder, president of the local NAACP chapter, said House and Mason were members of prominent African American families in Austin, whose members belong to the same church.
What’s more, the third bomb may have been intended to target someone other then Esperanza Herrera — “another person who might be connected to the House and Mason families,” Linder told reporters.
Once the police acknowledged that the bombings were homicides and apparently targeting communities of color, that raised another issue. At a community meeting hosted by Austin Justice Coalition, one resident gave voice to the widely held concern about a heightened police presence:
I’m very much interested in finding a solution to this matter. However, we all know that APD has a poor rapport with the community which we’re sitting in right now. So with this investigation that’s pending, what training are you guys having with your officers to not target the wrong Black and Brown men in these communities in which you patrol?…What are you doing to make sure your officers are sharp, and not just persecuting Black and Brown men, which we believe APD already does?
Another resident spoke about her worry that increased APD patrols of Black neighborhoods could “turn tragic.”
These aren’t unfounded fears. The APD has rightfully faced criticism for officers’ treatment of people of color, including the murder of several young Black men. David Joseph and Larry Jackson Jr. were only two such victims.
The racial tensions in Austin don’t always make the national media, but they have a long history.
Before 1928, Black and Hispanic residents lived in segregated neighborhoods. There were historic freedmen’s colonies dating back to the post-Civil War era in many parts of the city, including the west side of town.
But in 1928, the city designated a “Negro District” east of what was then East Avenue — now I-35 — all Black schools, businesses and resources were located on that side of town.
Latino residents settled south of the Black neighborhoods in areas that later became home to industry. Ever since, the population of Austin has remained extremely segregated, with high poverty, low income and poor health outcomes arranged in a segregated pattern referred to locally as the “Eastern Crescent.”
However, gentrification has brought big changes to the east side of town, and there is no shortage of anger about that and other issues. Tensions have erupted around, for example, the destruction of community murals, the demolition of local businesses and changes to the city’s land development code that encourages the siting of new construction in these neighborhoods.
Moreover, students at the University of Texas, located north of downtown, have been outraged by racist flyers and events over the past year.
After a campus stabbing last May, posters appeared bearing the slogan “Around Blacks, Never Relax.” In November, members of the group American fascist tried to hold a torchlight rally on campus’ South Mall.
After the explosions on Sunday and Tuesday, there are still more questions than answers about who and what is responsible. But it’s clear that fears of racialized violence, rooted in the reality of Austin’s inequality, past and present, are very much justified.