Anthony Stephan House

Anthony Stephan House

Mark Anthony Conditt’s reign of terror lasted 19 days, from the time he placed his first bomb outside the house of a prominent member of the Black community until he blew himself up while fleeing police. What happened in Austin is a case of the racist mishandling of an investigation; police and media collusion to paint the perpetrator as the victim followed by an attempt on the part of the most reactionary parts of the community to capitalize on the crisis.

This is how the Austin bombings unfolded from the point of view of local organizers.

Austin police blamed first victim for his own death

The first victim, Anthony Stephan House, was a 39-year-old father and the stepson of the Reverend Freddie Dixon.
When House received a hand-delivered package that exploded upon opening on March 2 – a shocking act of spectacular violence – the Austin Police Department responded with accusations of drug dealing, even suggesting that House may have built and detonated the package himself. As Conditt prepared more package bombs to send to Austin’s Black and Latino communities, the APD pored over his first victim’s financial records, looking for some motive that might point to drug crime or malicious intent.

When APD made the assumption that House’s murder was drug-related and possibly self-inflicted, they revealed their de facto criminalization of Black communities. The police would waste 10 precious days pursuing a nonexistent drug connection before two more attacks forced them to take this case more seriously.

Black families and church communities struck by terror

Draylen Mason

Draylen Mason

It took two simultaneous bombings on March 12 before the story became a blip on the radar of national media. Draylen Mason, the second victim, was an up-and-coming young musician. Mason was the grandson of LaVonne Mason, who, together with Reverend Dixon, founded the Austin Area Urban League in the 1970s. While the police were still responding to Mason’s death, a second package exploded across town, injuring 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera.

The church has long been a pillar of Black communities, and Black churches have endured assaults and acts of terrorism from white supremacists for centuries. With two bombings in ten days targeting prominent Black families, both connected to Wesley United Methodist Church and the Austin Area Urban League, there was little doubt among most Austinites that these were racially motivated acts of terror.

A terrorist by any other name

After a few days of evolving tactics, the manhunt escalated very quickly, then was over. Even before the police cornered the bomber, the media distortion of white terrorism began. When the fourth bomb was detonated by tripwire, a change in tactics, local media began to speculate that the bomber was of “above average” intelligence. The very nature of measurable intelligence has its roots in racism and eugenics, so it’s no wonder that corporate media latches onto this assumption with every act of spectacular violence by white men. Trump, after all, described the Vegas shooter as “probably smart,” and the genius of serial killers assumed to be white and male is a common trope across the media landscape.

But the most blatantly racist media distortion began after the bomber was killed. Mark Anthony Conditt was a white man of at least some privilege and extreme right-wing ideology. In blog posts for an Austin Community College class, he compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality. He held other right-wing views that were vehemently pro-death penalty and anti-reproductive rights. He was described by a close high school friend as “really rough around the edges,” “very assertive” and “kind of dominant and intimidating.”

In Conditt’s 25-minute confessional video, he showed no remorse for his crimes, described himself as a “psychopath,” and said that if he were cornered, he would go into a crowded McDonald’s to blow himself up. It broke soon after his death that Conditt was part of a so-called “Christian survivalist group” known as Righteous Invasion of Truth (RIOT), in which young people studied the Bible and were taught gun skills.

With help from the cues of Interim Police Chief Brian Manley, national media discarded any notion that Conditt was a terrorist and instantly latched onto the “troubled youth” narrative. Manley set up the national discourse by describing this chilling confessional video as “the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.” According to Manley, Conditt “does not at all mention anything about terrorism, nor does he mention anything about hate.” At this rate, it does not seem that APD or other law enforcement agencies will attribute any motive to Conditt’s terror, despite the fact that his admittedly methodical attacks first hit two prominent Black families connected to a historic church.

Racist media doubles down

More people are finally realizing the double standards inherent in cases of spectacular violence. White victims elicit immediate investigation and high alert; Black and Brown victims are considered low-priority and often even blamed for their own deaths. White perpetrators of spectacular violence are often described in euphemism; only Muslims and Middle Easterners are routinely labeled as “terrorists.” White perpetrators of extreme violence seem to be always innocent, even when they’re beyond guilty.

Any potential motive may be cleared up if APD releases Conditt’s confessional video, as the Austin chapter of the NAACP is calling on them to do. But right now, police hold all the cards, and refuse to release the last testimony of this so-called “very challenged young man” until what could be a nebulous investigation is over.

Austin police engage in post-bombing disaster capitalism

We have seen how the racist police response and the racist media work hand-in-hand to reimagine victims as killers and killers as victims. Now, let’s take a look at the material effect this is likely to have on the city of Austin as a bumbling, racist, tone-deaf response by local law enforcement is spun as selfless heroism.

APD is engaging in a sort of “disaster capitalism,” using the collective terror wrought on the city to leverage more money and possibly a permanent chief position for Manley. The idea to bring Manley on permanently, which would cancel the nationwide search for a new police chief, was brought up by two Austin City Council members on the council’s online message board. In addition, APD is using this moment to declare their “need” for over 300 more officers to patrol Austin streets.

This would be a slap in the face to Austin’s Black and Brown communities, who during the crisis were treated with contempt and face daily oppression from Austin’s police forces. As with almost every major police force, APD lunges from one racism scandal into the next with complete impunity: the violent arrest in 2015 of Breaion King, a Black teacher, who was told by an arresting officer that Black people have “violent tendencies;” a federal lawsuit currently against APD for Officer Joel Kuchenski’s violent use of a taser against a Black teenager; the 2015 data on police traffic stops that show vastly disproportionate traffic citations for Black and Latino people. These data show that Black people have a 1-in-7 chance of being searched by APD and Latinos have a 1-in-9 chance, while white people have merely a 1-in-21 chance of being searched.

The uses of a terror campaign

The bombings come at a crucial time, when APD has been struggling over a city police contract. In December, over 200 citizens showed up to protest an $82 million contract that would have extended broad protections for cops accused of misconduct while maintaining a virtually worthless civilian “oversight” system. The Austin City Council rejected the police union contract and the negotiations stalled.

It is possible that the Austin bombings will bring about enough goodwill in the City Council to renew the contract with the police. Councilmember Garza has asked the council to renew the contract and has the support of Manley in doing so. This will bring tens of millions of dollars and additional legal protections to a department facing national criticism and at least one brutality lawsuit.

As we see with other highly visible acts of violence and catastrophe, the Austin bombings have enabled the city’s most reactionary forces to capitalize on disaster, leading only to more oppressive state violence. Mark Anthony Conditt terrorized Austin for three weeks. City police terrorize oppressed communities every day. Austinites need to work together to prevent APD from seizing this moment, or else the result will more intensive surveillance and repression.