Skip to main content

Exploding packages tap into simmering tensions over Austin’s racial segregation

The three package bombs that have exploded in the city this month, killing two people and injuring two others, share at least one other thing in common: They hit black and Latino families east of I-35.

by Eli Rosenberg, The Washington Post
Austin interim Police Chief Brian Manley speaks at a press conference near the East Austin home of 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera, injured in a bomb blast on March 12, 2018. 

AUSTIN — Interstate 35 runs north through the heart of Austin, an informal but symbolically potent line that divides the thriving city.

The wide swath of concrete, six lanes thick at many points, demarcates the separation between affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods on the city’s west side — including its downtown and the University of Texas campus — and the east, which has been home to black and Latino residents historically.

The three package bombs that have exploded in the city this month, killing two people and injuring two others in attacks that police say are linked, share at least one other thing in common: They hit black and Latino families east of I-35.

Police have said they are investigating whether the incidents were racially motivated. But an uncomfortable question has emerged that touches on deep and long-standing racial wounds in a city that prides itself on its progressivism: Would authorities have taken the first bomb — which exploded March 2, 10 days before the other two — more seriously had it exploded on the west side?

“A lot of us are just kind of tired of the discrepancies,” said Fatima Mann, the executive director of Counter Balance: ATX, an activist organization that works with low-income and minority groups in the city. “We know that if these bombings would have happened on the west side, there would have only been one. They would have locked down the community and made sure it wouldn’t happen again.”

Others have echoed the point, wondering why a week and a half passed — and two other attacks occurred — before police said people should be wary of suspicious packages. And they wonder why the perpetrator is still at large.

“If this happened in West Austin, then they would know by now,” said T.L. Wyatt, publisher of the Villager, a weekly newspaper in East Austin. “They didn’t give much attention to it.”

The Austin Police Department took days to tell the public the March 2 explosion that killed a 39-year-old construction worker, Anthony Stephan House, had been caused by a package. And police initially classified it as a suspicious death, not a homicide.

“We can’t rule out that Mr. House didn’t construct this himself and accidentally detonate it, in which case it would be an accidental death,” Assistant Chief Joseph Chacon said at the time.

“How messed up is it that police can make it seem like the person did it themself?” Mann said. “It’s insulting and offensive and tiring.”

At a forum hosted by the Austin Justice Coalition and Black Lives Matter Austin on Thursday night to discuss the explosions, one attendee asked Police Chief Brian Manley about his assistant chief’s earlier statement.

“I apologize the department put that out there because that was not appropriate,” he said, adding that he had apologized to House’s family, as well. “It may have been something that needed to have been evaluated, but it’s not something that needed to be said publicly.”

In another line of inquiry with potential racial undertones, police sought to determine whether House’s death was cartel-related. Mark McCrimmon, a defense attorney, said a client who had been arrested in a drug raid in the neighborhood weeks before was interviewed by police during their investigation into the bombing.

Police have since moved away from those theories, though they have yet to name a suspect or a motivation for the bombings.

Susana Almanza, the director of Poder, a nonprofit that works on urban issues in East Austin, said those early steps were a sign of bias.

“It’s still the racism that exists here, the social structure, that makes them want to think this is a drug deal gone bad,” she said during the forum Thursday, to applause.

Those feelings are informed by Austin’s complicated racial legacy.

City planners encouraged racial segregation in 1928, with the creation of a “Negro District,” a policy later compounded by redlining, the practice of denying services to residents based on race.

Despite its reputation as a progressive haven, the city has some of the highest rates of income segregation in the country, according to a series by the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.

Those old tensions are inflamed by gentrification: Amid rising rents and property taxes, the black population has declined in recent years, even as the city has grown larger.

Still, there are positive signs in the city, activists say.

Mayor Steve Adler created a task force in 2016 to work with community leaders to address racism, and the reports it has produced have not pulled punches.

Chas Moore, the executive director of Austin Justice Coalition, said Manley called him twice this week — first about the bombings and then to let him know that three officers had been indicted on use-of-force charges in a separate case.

Still, there is a disconnect between the peripheral neighborhoods where the bombings happened and the hedonistic world of the South by Southwest festival downtown, where big-name concerts, talks, exclusive parties and bars packed with revelers churn every day.

On Thursday, police opened the block where 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera had been injured while caring for her mother on Thursday for the first time since the explosion. Orange spray-painted circles, what investigators often use to mark evidence, dotted the street, stretching far down the block from where the bomb went off.

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Yes, I'll donate today

Explore related story topics

Criminal justice Demographics