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

L-R: Austin police chief Art Acevedo and St. David's pastor Rev. Katie Wright at Thursday afternoon's community prayer vigil
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.

Flowers and a card honoring Steven Craenmehr, a 35-year-old Dutchman who was one of Thursday's fatalities
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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One of the ICU victims is a Houston local! We started a page to raise funds for her. She is a pastry chef at Marks American Cuisine

Mary Miller
Mary Miller

Jumped the shark awhile back when it became about more than the music.


As your lieutenant for lo those many years in the trenches at SXSW -- OK, the hotel was awesome every year -- I totally agree. When I started waiting in line to see bands that we could see at Toyota Center or another large venue on the reg, instead of going to a basement to see a band that drove there in a van and wouldn't eat that day, that was when I knew I was part of the problem.


There was a point where I stopped complaining about how Austin has changed since the time I lived there, and learned to just appreciate it for the marvel it has become. It really is a fabulous city. But the problem of downtown congestion is just overbearing. It's not just SXSW, though that is the worst of it. Austinites love festivals and they love to have them right in the middle of that beautiful downtown skyline, and every single one, whether it's the Hot Sauce Festival, Fun Fun Fun Fest, ACL, and frankly, just an average pretty summer weekend, is going to lock the place up traffic-wise. They've built the city as if they've got a subway but there is no subway. And then when SXSW time comes, just accept the madness. I don't think the horrid act of one murderous idiot in a car should be a reason to call the whole thing into question, but there's no doubt the city is gonna have to get on top of the congestion problem. 

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