Terrorism for trolls: A note from Austin

“Hell Broke Loose”. Text from newspaper headline accompanying reports of the “Servant Girl Annihilator”, Fort Worth Gazette, 26 December 1885

This evening, our local drunk was in the park baying at the crescent moon with punctuated venom. He raged and then cut himself off, mid-howl. After a few seconds, he keened again against the fucking bastards who routinely assail him. Then an unusual, abrupt silence. Everyone in my house wanted him to start up again, just to make sure he was ok.

The T-shirts that say “keep Austin weird” feel like they’ve been misspelled. Austin is wired.

The rhythm of the bombings has been exponential. On March 2, the first explosion killed Anthony Stephan House, a 39 year old father and construction worker, in what the Austin Police Department initially ruled a ‘suspicious death’. The assistant chief police officer suggested  that House’s fatal injuries might have been self-inflicted.

March 12 saw two more bombs – packages left on doorsteps which killed whoever lifted them. First, 17 year old college-bound musician Draylen Mason was killed and his mother injured. Soon after, 75 year old Esperanza Herrera lost fingers and a leg after she picked up a package destined for someone else.

Those second and third bombs went off during the South By Southwest festival. The headline news from Austin on the feeds that day: Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One film wasn’t too bad, all things considered.

It wasn’t hard for communities of people of color to feel under assault and ignored by law enforcement. (The Unabomber killed three people, prompting an epic manhunt. Until recently, efforts in Austin seem to have been minimal.) The first and second people killed were connected through Freddie Dixon, a pastor at a historically black church, who is House’s stepfather, and friends with Mason’s grandfather. And APD had tried to blame the first victim.

In the days after the first bombs, theories proliferated. That the bomber might be a white supremacist was, and remains, a good bet. The neighborhoods in which the bombs went off are on the east side of town, where blacks were sent after whites segregated Austin in 1928.

This isn’t Austin’s first brush with racialised terror. Over a century ago, the city suffered mysterious attacks directed predominantly, though not exclusively, at people of colour. In a brief and bloody reign, the Servant Girl Annihilator, killed eight people – five black and two white women, and a black man –  between 1884-5.

But this time, there’s an information vacuum. As far as we know, there’s no manifesto, no letter, no word, no politics, no pattern, no way of knowing intent other than the act. The bomb is the comment. Austin is being trolled.

Although the police are impressed with the sophistication of the bombs, motive escapes law enforcement. The Austin Police Department itself addressed the bomber directly, wanting to understand “what brought you to this point”. Soon after, the fourth bomb went off in southwest Austin, a whiter more affluent part of the city. Two white men were hit by shrapnel from the tripwire-activated device.

Then on Tuesday a bomb went off at a FedEx facility near San Antonio, a second bomb at FedEx didn’t detonate, and the day has ended with an explosion outside a Goodwill in southwest Austin.

“When I got into the office today it felt like the morning after Trump won,” a friend told me. That’s about right. The White House’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders won’t call it terrorism.  Perhaps this is because the bombs don’t come with a coherent political philosophy attached. But incoherent philosophy there is in abundance. Right now, it feels like the trolls are winning and that, somewhere, someone’s smirking.

Update: The 24 year old white man who bombed the city is, apparently, dead. Be prepared for coverage of a ‘lone wolf’. Meantime, as Snehal Shingavi put it:

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