AUSTIN, Texas – For nearly 30 years, the irreverent soul of this Texas capital city has been linked with what has been billed as the biggest music festival of its kind in the world – the ever-expanding mash-up of music, culture, technology and buzz known as South by Southwest.
But when two people were killed and at least 23 were injured shortly after midnight Thursday after a driver trying to evade arrest slammed his car into a festival crowd, it crystallized a question floating around the edges of the festival for years: Has South by Southwest become too big and too rowdy, and has it lost the original spirit of what it intended to be?
It is a question that, on a larger scale, could be applied to Austin itself, which has long struggled with how to grow and prosper while retaining the laid-back, hipster-meets-hippie culture at the heart of the city and the festival’s identity.
So while people were careful not to read too much into an accident caused by a reckless driver, amid the shock and grief, there was also reflection.
“It sometimes feels like we’ve gotten too much of what we wished for with South by Southwest,” said Stephen Harrigan, 65, a novelist and a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly who has lived in Austin since 1966 and who walked the crowded downtown streets with his wife a few hours before the crash. “South by Southwest has upped the ante of what Austin is, and Austin is trying to play this game with itself, to try to compete with itself, to see if it can succeed in pulling this off.”
The city’s police chief, Art Acevedo, told reporters that officers watching for drunken drivers had tried to stop a motorist at about 12:30 a.m. outside a service station near the nightclubs and other sites hosting events for South by Southwest, also known as SXSW. But the driver suddenly sped off, heading the wrong way down Ninth Street, a one-way street in downtown Austin, before turning onto Red River Street, where he rammed through a police barricade and struck a moped, a bicyclist and a taxi, in addition to hitting pedestrians, Acevedo said.
The suspect, Rashad Charjuan Owens, 21, was caught by the police after he tried to flee on foot. A female passenger on the moped was killed, as was the bicyclist, who was visiting from the Netherlands, the police said. Owens was arrested but not formally charged, and he was expected to face two counts of capital murder and multiple counts of aggravated assault with a motor vehicle, the authorities said. The police were investigating whether he had been intoxicated.
In the aftermath of the crash, as three of the wounded remained in critical condition, residents, business owners, city officials and festival organizers and attendees engaged in a kind of citywide soul-searching. There were no calls to cancel the festival, as many defended the organizers, saying it was an accident that could have happened during any festival in any city.
“It’s not about South by Southwest or a reason to radically change the event,” said Jason Cohen, who worked part time for the festival in the early 1990s and was an editor of “SXSW Scrapbook: People and Things That Went Before,” a 2011 book that explored the festival’s roots and highlights.
Every March, tens of thousands of rockers, rappers, journalists, celebrities, music and movie industry executives and gawkers fill the streets, hotels and bars of a city that is 298 square miles, or half the size of Houston. It is telling that Julian Assange and Edward J. Snowden chose the conference for (virtual) appearances this year, adding to its reputation as a place where a digital culture of openness flourishes, along with sponsors, which seem to be everywhere. It plays out in a city that is used to large crowds, many of them inebriated, who flock to Sixth Street, the city’s famed party district.