As Texas bishops urge solidarity, Austin seeks answers to continued bomb attacks

An employee wrapped in a blanket talks to a police officer after she was evacuated at a FedEx distribution center where a package exploded on March 20, 2018, in Schertz, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)An employee wrapped in a blanket talks to a police officer after she was evacuated at a FedEx distribution center where a package exploded on March 20, 2018, in Schertz, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Residents of Austin, Tex., are on high alert after the fifth bombing in less than three weeks occurred early Tuesday morning. A package bound for the city exploded at about 12:30 a.m. at a FedEx facility in Schertz, about 60 miles away near San Antonio; this was the first of the recent bombs to have been mailed.

The serial bombings began earlier this month as the Texas capital was teeming with visitors for the annual South by Southwest music-and-media conference and festival. The homemade explosives—four in packages and one left on a roadside—have killed two people and injured five more.

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Federal officials from the F.B.I. and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have joined local law enforcement officials in the investigation. The City of Austin is offering a $100,000 reward and Texas Governor Greg Abbott is offering a $15,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case. Austin Bishop Joe Vasquez and San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller issued a joint statement on March 20 condemning the attacks, calling for solidarity and offering a prayer for safety and peace.

“The randomness of these attacks and their increasing frequency are perhaps meant by their perpetrator to spread fear and cause division in our communities,” the bishops said. “However, as we have seen time and time again, tragedies such as these strengthen our bonds and bring our communities together in prayer and recognition of the sanctity and preciousness of life.”

Texas bishops echoed Chief Manley’s appeal to the community. “We ask all people in our dioceses to remain vigilant, and to pray and work for peace,” the bishops said.

The first bomb detonated at about 6:55 a.m. on Friday, March 2, killing 39-year-old Anthony Stephan House, who picked up a box left on the front porch of his home in northeast Austin.

Ten days later, on March 12, at almost exactly the same time, a package bomb left on the front porch of a home in east Austin killed 17-year-old Draylen Mason and critically injured his mother, Shamika Wilson. Mason was an upright bass player who had recently been accepted to the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas. He wanted to become a neurosurgeon.

Later that morning another device detonated a few miles away in southeast Austin, causing life-threatening injuries to 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera, who had picked up a package left outside of her home.

The fourth bombing occurred around 8:30 p.m. on March 18, in an affluent planned community in southwest Austin, injuring two men in their 20s who were passing through the residential area, one on foot and one on a bicycle. Unlike the previous explosive devices, which had been contained in shipping packages, this one was left on the ground attached to a “For Sale” sign. It was apparently triggered by a tripwire, demonstrating “a higher level of sophistication, a higher level of skill” than the previous bombings, according to Austin Police Chief Brian Manley.

As investigators search for clues and identifying characteristics in the bombings, there has been much speculation among Austin residents and civil rights advocates about racial motivations for the crimes.

Both Mr. House and Mr. Mason were African-American males. Both had family ties to Wesley United Methodist Church, an institution in a historically African-American neighborhood on Austin’s rapidly gentrifying East Side, where Mr. House’s stepfather, Freddie Dixon, was pastor for 22 years, and Mr. Mason’s grandparents, Norman and LaVonne, are fellow members. Mr. Dixon is also known as a founder of the Austin Area Urban League and currently serves as a special assistant to the University of Texas’s vice president of diversity and community engagement.

“We cannot rule out that hate crime is at the core of this. But we’re not saying that that’s the cause as well,” Chief Manley told local media.

Austin has a long and fraught history when it comes to race relations. In 1928, the city approved a plan that effectively created geographic segregation by concentrating all services for black residents on the East Side. Today, according to the Atlantic Monthly’s CityLab, Austin ranks as the 10th most income-segregated metropolitan area in the country.

Though racial injustice persists, it has not gone unnoticed. Mayor Steve Adler created a task force in 2016 to address systemic barriers and inequalities in the city. Similarly, Austin Bishop Joe Vasquez, a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, has encouraged local Catholics to participate in its Courageous Conversations events, which seek to raise awareness, create dialogue and build bridges to repair the damage done by racism.

Austin, one of the fastest growing cities in the country, may not yet have outgrown its long history of racial inequality, but the fact that the third bombing victim was a Hispanic woman and that Monday’s bombing took place in a largely white community suggest that the motives of the perpetrator or perpetrators may not be related to racial prejudice.

Still, answers remain few and tensions are high as beleaguered residents grapple with fear and uncertainty. Police have gone so far as to make a public appeal to the perpetrator or perpetrators directly.

“These events in Austin have garnered worldwide attention, and we assure you that we are listening,” said Chief Manley during a news conference. “We want to understand what brought you to this point, and we want to listen to you.”

Chief Manley also addressed anxious Austin residents. “It’s not time to panic,” he said. “It’s time to pull together as a city and a community and solve this.”

In their joint statement, the Texas bishops echoed Chief Manley’s appeal to the community. “We ask all people in our dioceses to remain vigilant, and to pray and work for peace,” the bishops said.

“We know that law enforcement agencies are diligently striving to solve these cases and bring those responsible to justice,” they said. “We place our trust in the Lord, as it states in Joshua, ‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Richard Booth
7 months ago

Our esteemed bishops are to be commended for their talk. After all, that is what they do. They can urge prayers, but I never see them with their people during the tough times. This has been generally true of the episcopate, historically, for many centuries. Remote. Safe. Failing to lead. The Church in America and other places is falling apart, so they should urge prayer. But, can't they DO something else, too?

J Cosgrove
6 months 4 weeks ago

Now that the bomber has committed suicide by bombing, we should move to strengthen our bomb control laws.

Ban bombs!!!

Ban chemical sales.

Ban exotic batteries.

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