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Fallout of Austin bombings exposes racial tensions, Russian bots and media distrust

James Jeffrey/FRANCE 24 | A view from Austin's East side, Texas.

Following a string of bombings in Austin early in March, the capital of the state of Texas has been plunged into national debates over race, media and foreign interference.

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When the man behind March’s five bombings in Austin killed himself after being cornered by police, it marked the end of three weeks of uncertainty and fear for the city’s inhabitants.

But questions about the manhunt, and the way unfolding events were covered by the media, continue to stir controversy.

Between March 2 and March 17, three parcel bombs and a trip-wire device had exploded around the Texas capital, killing two people and injuring four others. On March 20, a fifth device exploded at a FedEx mailing facility in the city of San Antonio, about 150 kilometres south of Austin.

Amid rising public concern and no sign of any culprit, the FedEx blast gave police a key breakthrough when surveillance video showed a man in a baseball cap and blonde wig delivering a package to the facility the day before.

Police soon located 23-year-old Mark Conditt at a motel north of Austin in the early hours of March 21. After police forced his car off the road, Conditt blew himself up.

Racial undertones

The first three parcel bombs in Austin targeted African-American households on the city’s less affluent east side that historically has housed black and Latino residents.

Despite its liberal reputation, Austin has a chequered past of racial tensions and inequality. The city also has some of the highest rates of income segregation in the country, and is one of the few American cities where the African American population is shrinking.

When the first two bombs killed two people from two prominent black families in the local community, those living on the east side began to question how seriously Austin’s police were taking the attacks. They wondered if the police would have more readily sounded the alarm if the victim had been white and it had happened in a more affluent neighbourhood.

“This community is used to institutional neglect and being marginalised,” says Kevin Foster, a professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies department at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Some people understood immediately the likelihood these specific families had been targeted but the police seemed to run away from that idea with all haste, and were reluctant to face it,” Foster added.

The police were also criticised for initially suggesting the first bomb might have been a self-inflicted accidental death, for which interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley later apologised. He also highlighted the challenges in establishing the work of a serial attacker until the next attack occurred.

“At first it did cross my mind that maybe they weren’t taking it seriously,” says 53-year-old Kevin Shaw, whose family has lived in the east side neighbourhood where the second bomb went off on March 12 since 1957. “But the police were new to this sort of situation, it’s never happened in Austin before. They’ve been doing a good job, especially as they had so little to go on.”

James Jeffrey / France 24

Biased media

On social media, a narrative gained steam about the Austin bombings being another example of media not covering tragedies in communities of color as much as in white communities. It sparked comparisons with the social media outrage over why the November 2015 Paris attacks drew more coverage than the slaughter of students at a university in Kenya the same year.

One of the reasons the Austin bombings didn’t draw as much round-the-clock coverage as Hurricane Harvey, some have noted, was because very little information about the investigation was released.

At the same time, it emerged some complaints about media coverage could be coming from less obvious sources than black Americans venting their frustrations.

Some of the Twitter activity related to the Austin bombings “appears initially to be connected with the Russian social media agitation” that’s emerged since the 2016 presidential election, reported Philip Ewing, the national security editor of NPR.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan non-profit focused on investigating what happened during America’s 2016 election, reported on its website’s tracking system that from March 19 there was a dramatic spike, a 1,000 percent increase, in activity on social media sites by Russia-affiliated accounts. This stoked suggestions that media weren’t covering the bombings because the first victims of the attacks were black or Hispanic.

Similar activity has also been linked with fanning reactions to the likes of the Charlottesville protests in 2017, when white supremacists clashed with counter-demonstrators, and the furore over NFL players kneeling during the American national anthem to protest against police brutality against African Americans.

The strategy of those behind the Russian bots, Ewing explains, is to stir up media debate on divisive issues to further divide and undermine American society.

“Russia will stop at nothing to erode trust in our democratic institutions,” US Congressman Will Hurd, a former CIA undercover officer who has been trying to sound the alarm over nefarious Russian activities, told the Houston Chronicle paper.

Bomber’s state of mind

Among the wreckage of the suspect’s car was a cell phone containing a 28-minute video confession in which Conditt spoke about challenges in his life. He didn’t, however, explain his choice of targets or provide a clear motive.

“I wish I were sorry, but I am not,” Conditt said in the recording, police said. He described himself as a “psychopath”, saying that he felt as if he'd been disturbed since childhood.

"We're never going to be able to put a [rationale] behind these acts," Manley told media. “It is the outcry of a very challenged young man.”

Manley's comment led to further media debate about whether the same level of compassion would have been shown if the attacker had been a person of colour or a Muslim. It also sparked questions over why the police weren’t referring to the bombings as a hate crime or terrorism.

The police said that neither labels applied as Conditt never mentioned race or political ideology in his video confession.

State of America

Locals are thinking about the big picture.

“I am not that surprised [about the bombings] with the way modern society is going, with the hate fomented by politicians, it’s just a question of time it’s catching up,” says 68-year-old Don Rypka in downtown Austin. Rypka moved to the city a year ago, after living in Argentina for 30 years. “Over there the violence was very one on one, but in America it is indiscriminate. I remember growing up in America when you didn’t even have to lock your doors.”

Some appear surprised that this could happen in a city as laid back as theirs.

“You hear about this type of thing with other cities not Austin,” says Brittany Parsons at a cafe in West Austin. “We’re only known for music festivals and people drinking.”

Both police and media attention are focused on trying to establish Conditt's motive, while seeing if the bombings are part of a pattern of violence.

There are no easy answers.

“In America and especially in Austin people have a sense that 'This sort of thing won’t happen to me', but now people have had to wake up,” Rypka says. “Having lived abroad I know that it can happen anywhere.”

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