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Overreaction to the Ozomatli incident ignores years of outstanding police performance during SXSW

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1) TAP DANCING ON A MINEFIELD: The SXSW Ozomatli incident seemed like a topic best not to weigh in on because of my clear conflicts of interest as Chronicle editor and SXSW director, but it's become unavoidable.

2) ROUGHLY WHAT HAPPENED: At the conclusion of Ozomatli's gig, the band led a conga line out into the street, as they often do. Outside, the police ordered them back into the club, as they were in violation of city ordinances. Band and crowd turned back to the club. Some crowd members were screaming at the police as they walked among the re-entering crowd. There was some kind of altercation. The police sprayed pepper gas. A cop claimed that the drummer, holding his drum over his head as he went through the entrance, had intentionally hit him with it. The police brought charges against the band's manager and two members, including a very serious felony charge against the drummer.

3) OUTRAGE: OK, enough is enough!! After 18 years of the South by Southwest Music Festival, involving dozens of clubs and tens of thousands of people, we have suffered one too many outrages at the hands of Austin's police! There's this incident and then ... well, this one and ... going back, there is ... did I mention Ozomatli?

Yes, I'm being cute. The bottom line is that 18 years, dozens of clubs, and hundreds of thousands of participants later, this is the only major police altercation during SXSW I remember. It seems unlikely that there weren't others; some of you may well write in with details. But how serious were they?

4) SXSW AND THE POLICE: SXSW, more than most major music events, is dependent on the crowd flowing along major streets throughout the central city. It is not an arena event or an outdoor festival in a contained area. It is in many, many clubs throughout the city, the expectation being that core attendees (badge and wristband wearers) won't stay still, but will walk about to catch many acts. Given the growth and success of the event, it is obvious that visitors from around the world, as well as Austinites, feel comfortable wandering the streets until the wee hours. Yet incidents have been few. Much of this is because of proactive steps taken by Austin police. It's a safe bet that they've rarely been thanked for this. In general, when the police are successful, there is an absence – of crime, of accidents, of violence. Absences are rarely noticed. The long-outstanding success of Austin police in dealing with SXSW year in and year out has gained far less notice than this one incident.

5) THE ACCURACY OF VIDEOTAPES: Any incident like this is open to interpretation. I've now looked at one of the videos several times. Eyewitnesses' accounts are not to be completely trusted, and neither should be videotaped records. When the camera is turned on and off, as well as where it is placed, affects what it captures.

6) HINDSIGHT IS A WONDERFUL THING: Still, watching the tape, I think the police mishandled the situation. Staying among the crowd as it was beginning to willingly re-enter the club seems a tactical mistake.

An ordinance was violated, so the police were concentrated on maintaining order. Still, it seems they could have just as effectively controlled the situation if they had stayed back. By not being right among the crowd, they would not have triggered the very kinds of confrontations that occurred.

The police are charged with maintaining order, but they have options as to how. Most of the crowd was following police orders, but a few were getting in the cops' faces, screaming at them, seeming less fearful of police brutality than outraged over a violation of their rights. The police, who had been dealing with crowds all night, were still handling it, but confrontations were occurring. In the videotape I looked at, it does appear as though a cop was pushed from the crowd just before it turned; when it did, it got ugly quickly.

7) GRACE UNDER PRESSURE OR THE LACK THEREOF: As I write this, I have a complaint letter on my desk. The writer says that quite unintentionally they were in the SXSW Film badge line for a Paramount screening of Bush's Brain, though they had only a film pass. Innocently, after showing the pass and their ID, they entered the theatre, only to have some jerk confront and loudly bark at them.

"In shock, I attempted to talk to him, trying to explain that it was a matter of confusion ... but the staff member didn't listen. He was too busy throwing me out ... screaming 'Badges only, Badges only!' I realize that I made a mistake that festival staff had every right to correct. I was in the wrong line and I should not have entered the theater when I did. But the situation could have been handled differently with [a staffer] telling me, 'Sorry ma'am, that was a line for badges only, you'll have to get in the line for film passes.' Instead my simple error was met ... [in a way that was] completely unnecessary and incredibly inappropriate."

I was the rude jerk. There is no defense.

If I am working a crowd, it is because I think I'm needed. This usually means there are logistical issues with emptying a venue and getting the waiting crowd inside. The aim is to do this as quickly as possible so that people don't have to wait any longer than necessary, and to keep close to the schedule for subsequent screenings.

When working a line where you let in hundreds of people with film badges, if someone walks by with other credentials, it takes a second to register, so they're often inside. When politely informed of their mistake, the confused proclaim their actions so innocent that they should be allowed admission, at least this once, while someone trying to pull something is inevitably going to give it one more try. I'm there because a responsible manager onsite, helping with the crowd, is a good idea – there is no time for discussion. Abruptly yelling orders works quickly. Which doesn't make me less of a jerk or any less rude.

8) REACTION: Outrage over what happened at the Ozomatli show led to a deluge of letters which, though lessened, has still not stopped. The Texas Legislature recently balanced the budget, dealing with a $10 billion budgetary shortfall by cutting programs that benefit the poor, the sick, and the undereducated. The health care of thousands of children was compromised, the social safety net ripped and ravaged. We received far fewer letters on this than on Ozomatli.

Most writers were indignant at this pattern of police abuse and overreaction, though they offered no other incidents. Some suggested that Austin needed to send our police to New Orleans to be trained, given how that force handles Mardi Gras. This wasn't even anecdotally based reasoning. Statistically, Austin police are among the best (safest) in the country; as of a few years ago, New Orleans had one of the country's most corrupt urban police forces. Although I think the police situation there has recently begun to change dramatically, this suggestion was so outlandishly ill-considered I offered that, since some of Haiti's Tonton Macoutes were no longer employed, they could be brought in as consultants.

9) THE POLICE AND US: We take the police for granted. When they do well we ignore them. When they are successful, there is little comment. If a controversial incident occurs, there is a large vocal group that argues the police can do no wrong, which serves to enable them, making the atmosphere for reasonable monitoring more difficult. There is a smaller group that insists the police are always wrong, accepting no circumstances or justifications without declaring cover-up; this response equally hinders reasonable review.

The police are us – you and me. This includes right-wingers, moderates, pacifists, and left-wing fanatics. It includes the neo-fascists who feel that to preserve this country we must jettison all the principles on which it is based, as well as those freethinking radicals who argued that Chronicle staff should be fired when we disputed the Statesman's numbers on police use of force. (This discussion does not include minorities in particular, as that raises issues more complicated, deeply rooted, and wide-ranging than there is time to engage in here.)

We get to do much of what we do because the police are there. Most of us accept responsibility for police actions only when we are absolutely comfortable with them, ignoring the conditions under which they must work. At least once a year, I get a letter from someone who usually acknowledges breaking the law but still indicts the police. Forgiving themselves for their actions, they damn the police for enforcing the law (since they were only breaking it a little, weren't there far more serious crimes to concern the police?), because their attitude sucked or they weren't willing to listen to the extenuating circumstances. We want the police to fairly and evenly enforce the law – but to forgive us our transgressions if we're only bending the law a little bit.

10) OZOMATLI: The real innocents in all this are the band's members. According to some accounts, they were actually asked by fire marshals to help empty the club; if nothing else, they had not only led conga lines into Austin streets before, but when they got to the club, Sixth Street was closed to traffic. When asked to turn around, they did. Again, a tape can be deceiving, but it sure looks like the drummer neither intentionally or even accidentally hit the police officer, but as he lowered the drum to enter the club, the officer was rising up.

11) QUESTIONS TO PISS EVERYONE OFF: Why shouldn't the charges be dropped? Should the City Council have invited the band to perform before the matter was completely resolved? Doesn't everyone who was there, not just the police, have some responsibility for what occurred? By so exaggerating the incident and dialogue, have fans done the community and the band a disservice? Would first acknowledging the police's overall diligence and success during SXSW have made a discussion of this incident's problems a little easier? Does hysterical overexaggeration of a legitimately troubling incident serve a purpose?

12) FINALLY, WHAT HAPPENS TO THE BAND?: Quite adamantly, I don't buy that any member of Ozomatli, especially the drummer, was an instigator or aggressor. May all the charges be dropped, especially the most serious ones.

AND SXSW: Almost certainly the police, city staff, and SXSW will sit down before next year to consider how we might all cooperate together to avoid having anything like this happen in the future. As usually has happened when we've listened and worked together, a viable solution will be found. end story

Keep up with all our SXSW coverage at austinchronicle.com/sxsw. Sign up for our South-by-specific newsletter at austinchronicle.com/newsletters/ for news, reviews, and previews delivered to your inbox every day of the Fest. And for the latest Tweets, follow @ChronSXSW.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Ozomatli, Austin Police department, APD, use of force, SXSW 2005, South by Southwest 2004, Austin American-Statesman police report, Austin American-Statesman use of force report, New Orleans police

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