It’s been a hell of a few weeks here in Austin, Texas, and the last one was particularly intense. There is a package currently sitting just inside the front door of my home. It’s clearly labeled and I was expecting it. But I certainly held my breath as I brought it in this week and I can’t bring myself to open it yet.
On Wednesday, I woke up to the news that the man who had been sending and planting bombs around my city since early March had blown himself up after a police chase. Before his death, he murdered two people ― Anthony Stephan House, a 38-year-old father that police initially thought had committed suicide by bomb, and Draylen Mason, a 17-year-old musician months away from starting college. His bombs had injured several more, including Mason’s mother, 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera, two men who tripped a wire and set off a bomb in a backpack, and a worker in a FedEx facility where a bomb went off prematurely before reaching its final destination. Another bomb also didn’t make it to its destination.
Shortly after the bomber’s death came the release of his age (23), race (white), and name (you can Google that). Then arrived the profiles of him, the predictable, even inevitable, ones about how “quiet” he was and how shocked his friends and family were.
They keep killing us and we keep talking about how 'nice' they were before they killed us.
The truth of it is that I don’t care about the particulars of this man’s life. I knew what news outlets would say because we’ve been here before with white men, their anger and their entitlement. They keep killing us and we keep talking about how “nice” they were before they killed us.
I have lived in Austin for a long time and there are important things we know about this place. We know that the first four victims (House, Mason, Mason’s mother and Herrera) were all people of color, three of them black. We know Austin is a city with a history of racial tension and violence. As Dr. Daina Ramey Berry and Dr. Christen Smith wrote last week, “Austin’s geographic and cultural layout was designed to segregate and marginalize people of color.” The city was built this way and we often refuse to acknowledge it.
It’s part of why House’s family feels like the police didn’t believe House was murdered, but rather that he did this to himself. House’s brother, Norrell Waynewood, told The Daily Beast that his family had lost trust in law enforcement because of how dismissive they initially were of his murder, or even the possibility that it was a targeted bombing. A 2016 federal study found that police officers in Austin disproportionately use force against black and Latino people. The relationship between the Austin police and people of color, as is true in most if not all of America, is strained for good reason.
More structurally, the city of Austin is the “only U.S. city experiencing double-digit population growth that saw its African-American population actually decline.” A researcher at the Brookings Institution has found that Austin has one of the fastest rates of suburban poverty growth in the country while, according to our local paper, “other researchers have found that the metro area ranks among the worst in the country for income and economic segregation.”
Something else we know is that this isn’t the first time a white man in Austin decided to harm others out of anger. This is the home, after all, of Alex Jones, an extreme conservative radio host who actively called for civil war with “the left” last year.
I don’t live very far from where Andrew Joseph Stack flew his plane into a building housing the IRS in 2010. I heard it hit, was confused by the noise and saw the smoke stacks from a window. I drove over that night, stood across the highway from the wreckage and took in the fatal damage he had done. I then watched as the building was rebuilt over the next year or so, the evidence of the attack patched up. Stack had murdered one person with his plane: Vernon Hunter. Robert Wright questioned at the New York Times if Stack was “The First Tea-Party Terrorist?” Stack’s friend said at the time, of course, that “he was the quintessential, stereotypical, straight-out-of-central-casting, mild-mannered, bespectacled engineer type.”
A few Thanksgivings ago, “a religiously motivated political extremist on a suicide mission took to the streets of downtown Austin, wearing military-style riot gear and armed with illegally obtained automatic weapons and a van full of explosives.” The man, Larry McQuilliams, was the only person to be hurt in the incident; a police officer killed him. McQuilliams, of course, was “a very kind person” who was “frustrated.”
That leads us to now. Two dead black residents, at least two people of color injured, a couple of unidentified men (presumed white based on where they lived), bombs that never made their destinations (where were they going?), and a list of other targets the perpetrator was thinking about sending more bombs to.
Just because he did not say the word 'terrorism' doesn’t mean he didn’t terrorize this city.
There is a search for motive with these bombings, though Austin Police Chief Brian Manley has suggested that we might never find one. In part, that’s because Manley doesn’t think anything in the 25-minute video the bomber recorded in the hours before his death indicates one. Rather, he says, “He does not at all mention anything about terrorism, nor does he mention anything about hate. But instead, it is the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.”
We should all be asking for the audio of that recording and a transcript so we can see exactly how he never mentions hate. We know actions speak louder than words. No one should have to “mention hate” to justify hate-filled actions. Just because he did not say the word “terrorism” doesn’t mean he didn’t terrorize this city. Forgive me if I don’t trust the interpretation of his words by an older white male police officer.
Even if there is indeed nothing useful in that video to understand what motivated this man to murder, we already know so much about this place from which he came and this culture in which we live that we can answer some questions without him telling us directly.
I’m going to get over my fear and open that package by my door. But Austin, and especially my fellow white citizens, needs to get brave and open its eyes to the realities of this city that made this bomber.
Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist, author and co-host of the feminist sports podcast “Burn It All Down.”