Column: After SXSW tragedy, a shift in mindset

Sam Hays

The most eye-opening moments — the moments when we are most capable of important and necessary reflection — are the moments when life stands still. During this year’s South By Southwest, that stand-still moment came in the form of a screeching halt. 

Early Thursday morning, outside the Mohawk and Cheer-Up Charlie’s, a drunk driver drove through a busy crowd, killing two people and injuring 23, including the driver himself. 

As a SXSW attendee, to say that it left a bad taste in my mouth would be a gross understatement. It left me devastated and stunned. Austinites and out-of-towners alike were left in disbelief. Life actually was standing still, and we were left to piece together and make sense of the inexplicable. The crazy, we-are-all-invincible illusion that SXSW creates was instantly debunked in the most horrific way. 

The pain hits us harder because of how indisputably relatable we all are to the incident’s victims. We were all there for the music. We were all trying to get through the busy streets. I was on Ninth and Red River streets mere minutes before the incident happened. As fellow SXSW attendees, it’s hard to shake the thought that it could have been us because, in a way, it happened to all of us — the SXSW music community. 

The collision did more than put mortality into perspective, though. It changed my perception of the entirety of SXSW.

It started when I was sprinting down Ninth Street to get to the press conference that was slated to start at 2 a.m. I was struck by the stark contrast to how I had seen Red River Street just a few hours before. The roaring, happy crowds were gone. The music that permeated every corner of downtown Austin had stopped. The silent street was barren, except for the eerie sight of yellow police tape and flashing red and blue lights.

From that point on, SXSW felt a little off-putting. The things that normally come with SXSW, like the ubiquitous advertisements and marketing ploys, now felt disrespectful, considering what had happened. It’s hard to feel the weight of two deaths and nearly two dozen injuries when festival attendees were attending shows and seeking out free drinks just as they were the night before. 

SXSW kept going, but it was hard to tell whether it kept going because this festival is just too big to be stopped or because SXSW simply had no choice but to go on.

Thursday, the day after the collision, Cheer-Up Charlie’s and The Mohawk canceled their day events, appropriately, but even after they opened back up for business Thursday night, there was a palpable awareness in the crowd. It was this feeling that we were standing in the exact spot where, shorter than a day before, a tragedy took place. The festival didn’t seem like this beast to conquer anymore. It just felt wrong, to some degree, that we couldn’t take a day off to fully absorb and digest the previous night’s terrible events.

Now that the festival is over, we can fully take in what has happened and figure out how we want to view future SXSW festivals. There will, undoubtably, be the same level of hype, if not more, as the festival grows past its already colossal size, but, to me, SXSW will always carry an asterisk next to its name.