SXSW 2014: Lost in the Crowd and Contextualizing Tragedy at the Mohawk

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AUSTIN, TX: Late last night, day two of SXSW Music was coming to a close and all eyes were on popular venue the Mohawk — not because of the Tyler, the Creator show that was about to get underway, but because a hit-and-run by a drunk driver had left two bystanders dead and 23 others injured, five critically. At around 12:30am, police tried to pull the driver over, an attempt he evaded by going the wrong direction down a one-way street and eventually driving into a police barricade and several vehicles (including the moped that the two victims were riding). After the crash, the driver fled his vehicle on foot, eventually to be chased down by a police officer.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtOAdOFYtnA]

At a festival that’s designed to be Everywhere — shows spanning all genres, scattered throughout the city in nearly every venue — this was an event that reached every single SXSW attendee and beyond. Social media was immediately flooded with terrifying rumors, photos, and frantic requests for friends to check in. There were other dispatches too, from festivalgoers who apparently had not seen the news yet; I winced at one that happened to use the phrase “killing it” to describe a band’s performance. The triviality of putting so much effort into bar-hopping, seeing band after band, really set in.

There has been no shortage of coverage of this tragedy, but I want to take a moment to try to set the scene for those who’ve never attended SXSW. The festival is unlike any other, and the streets of Austin swell with activity — particularly along Red River, where the accident took place. There are a number of prominent venues running along Red River, mostly south of where the driver was pulled over on Ninth Street, that were hosting marquee names Wednesday night. A few blocks down Red River, I myself was at the NPR Music Showcase at Stubb’s.

When you emerge from a venue like Stubb’s or Mohawk during SXSW, you immediately encounter a sea of faces, mostly attendees adhering to the one out-one in rule at venues that have hit capacity. And so there are a lot of lines — an unbelievable amount of lines, really. It often feels as though there are more people outside waiting to get in than there are spots in the club. So of course the busiest streets, like Red River and Sixth, are police-barricaded so that pedestrians can walk and more over, wait their days away in line.

Perhaps because of the increased police presence and the fact that many of the busiest streets are barricaded off, pedestrians are not necessarily playing defense when it comes to cars. Many streets only have sidewalks on one side, and a number of venues require crossing the interstate on foot. I’ve dodged across the highway that separates downtown and the east side too many times to count, assuming the drivers would slow down. SXSW breeds a pedestrian culture in a car city. Of course it’s not the bystanders’ fault here, but with that said, I don’t think I’ll ever jay-run across busy streets in Austin again in light of last night’s tragedy. Safety is not a “cool” thing to think about at a festival, but we must remember that this isn’t a bubble of bands and brands and beer. The delicate balance between the city of Austin and SXSW’s transitioning ecosystem got too real last night.