Highland Mall Riot

Highland Mall: Was it a "riot" because they're black?

Highland Mall: Was it a "riot" because they're black?

Highland Mall
The majority of the crowd involved in the incident were  African-American teenagers. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/ Wikimedia Commons
SXSW crowd
A typical weekend on East Sixth Street Courtesy of South by Southwest
Highland Mall
SXSW crowd

Around midnight on Saturday, October 26, about 30 members of the Austin Police Department converged on Highland Mall, host of the House of Torment, after "hundreds of people" gathered and then refused to leave the scene when officers arrived.

APD's Air One helicopter was dispatched and, though the film is shot in infrared and makes it hard to determine with certainty, seems to have caught on video dozens of people —mostly teenagers — walking around the vicinity in large groups. The film also catches a fight that quickly breaks out between two individuals and just as quickly dissipates.

For every Highland Mall "riot," there is an unruly crowd at Beauty Bar. For every business that shutters for the Texas Relays, another one amps up for the ACL Fest. 

Eyewitness accounts are scarce. Even in the age of social media, there are few firsthand YouTube videos, Tweets or Instagram photos depicting the event (though one of the few Instagram photos had the hashtag #teenageriot). Because of this, much of the information has come from APD, which says rocks were thrown at officers (though no police were hit) and cars were jumped on.

After about an hour, the crowd as dispersed. Seven people were treated for minor injuries, and five individuals, most aged 17 or younger, were arrested for such crimes as "resisting arrest," "running from officers," "participating in a riot" and "providing false identification." While one mugshot, that of a juvenile, was not released, the four that were made available reveal that the others who were arrested in the incident are young, African American men.

Commander David Mahoney, who oversees the district in which Highland Mall falls, tells CultureMap that the crowd was composed mainly of African American teenagers. "Kids congregate there on Saturdays," explains Mahoney. "Kids from different high schools and social groups."

What sparked the incident is still unknown, though Mahoney said that some officers noted that kids were wearing blue and red, colors traditionally associated with gangs (and also, you know, colors that people wear sometimes). No weapons were found.

According to the official definition, as written in in the Texas Penal Code section 42.02, what occurred during the wee hours of Sunday morning at Highland Mall was indeed a "riot": seven or more people were assembled; they obstructed police intervention and damaged property. Almost immediately, local media began reporting on the riots, and the segment was a top piece on evening newscasts for local affiliates of all the major television networks.

To some, the Highland Mall riot recalls an incident that occurred in March 2011 outside of the old Beauty Bar location on East Seventh Street. Death From Above 1979, a Canadian punk rock band, emerged from retirement to play a secret show at the venue during the last few days of SXSW. According to Texas Penal Code, the reaction was riotous: while hundreds of young, mostly white festival-goers looked on, a dozen or so tried to break down a chainlink fence around the venue. The crowd threw debris, hitting officers on horseback, and when the police responded with pepper spray, the crowd remained, some chanting, "spray me again!"

The police never labeled the DFA 1979 concert a riot, instead calling it a learning experience for future SXSW festivals. While some national media outlets did label it a riot, locally it was reported as "an unruly crowd," "mayhem" and "a problem." Even CultureMap brushed it off as a "mace and Taser fight."

But these two incidents are hardly isolated. For every Highland Mall "riot," there is an unruly crowd at Beauty Bar. For every business that shutters for the Texas Relays, another one amps up for the ACL Fest. For every riot at a rap concert by Juicy J, there is a crowd control problem at a Strokes show. The only real difference between these things? Well, we can see only one.

If Austin wants to grow into the creative, supportive, progressive community we claim to want to be, we need to stop thinking, seeing and reporting in black and white.