South by Southwest faces severe scrutiny due to a contractual stipulation threatening to notify US immigration authorities of any foreign bands playing unauthorized shows. The festival was quick to downplay the clause, calling it a “a safeguard to provide SXSW with a means to respond to an act that does something truly egregious.” For a festival so fundamentally dependent on (the perception of) counterculture, this is no excuse. South by Southwest wields its overarching power over performers and expects a free pass because of its claim of promoting the arts. But art is not unassailable, and as the multi-million dollar industry of punk nostalgia illustrates, pushing radical acts isn’t radical in and of itself. Willingness to collaborate with immigration enforcement agencies that quite literally deport migrants to their deaths shows where South by Southwest’s true political commitments lie, progressive rhetoric notwithstanding. Who benefits when art is consumed outside of a broader sociopolitical and economic context?
This isn’t an isolated incident: examples abound of the commodification of the arts, often with deadly results. Developers and speculators use artists as the first line of gentrification—where artists go, rising property values soon follow, pricing out long term residents and paving the way for luxury accommodations. This doesn’t take place in a vacuum, of course: gentrification is a structural problem, necessarily accompanied by staggering cuts in public housing and social services. Artists, however, serve as transitional residents in low income communities, providing a cultural revalorization that soon leads to an economic one. The predatory nature of the relationship soon becomes clear, as artists are inevitably priced out before long. Art is weaponized against the people it claims to serve.
The festival’s nonchalant deportation threats are particularly vile in the face of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s emboldened approach to its work. Just last week, activist Daniela Vargas was detained immediately following a rally where she expressed her fears of being expelled from the country. ICE now plans to deport her without a hearing. ICE is making an example out of activists who speak up and assert their fundamental rights to safety and human dignity. Laying low won’t help, either. Though the Trump administration claims to be rounding up criminals with prior convictions to keep the nation safe, this is empty posturing. Many of these “criminals” are sent off for minor nonviolent offenses like traffic violations or using fake social security numbers (that they can’t cash into, but need in order to work).
Undocumented immigrants who are arrested have their fingerprints immediately sent to federal agents for prioritization and ICE agents have been caught posting up outside of misdemeanor courtrooms to take migrants into custody immediately following their court hearings. Broken windows policing only exacerbates the problem, with lower class communities of color targeted by police for minor infractions as upper class and white neighborhoods go unquestioned. ICE terrorizes migrant communities, employing intimidation tactics and excessive force against vulnerable populations while facing shockingly little oversight.
These actions are clearly at odds with South by Southwest’s stated values. The festival claims: “South by Southwest opposes discrimination of any kind, and has taken a public stand against President Trump’s travel ban and proposed legislation like SB6 in Texas. We have and will continue to support human rights for all. In this political climate, especially as it relates to immigration, we recognize the heightened importance of standing together against injustice.” A statement of this sort is meaningless if the festival reserves the right to call ICE in at any moment in order to protect its profits. Solidarity isn’t selective; something that can be turned on and off at your convenience. South by Southwest condescends to the music community in espousing anti-racist rhetoric while working alongside the very enforcers upholding this system.
It does this in a multitude of ways. South by Southwest has the gall to promote a panel on reducing violent police interactions while reserving the right to call ICE on its own performers. How can the two be reconciled? Only by acknowledging that the festival packages radical rhetoric for consumption. By recognizing that it would exploit the horrors of police brutality to advance its brand.
Vicious backlash has led the festival to state it will revisit its contract for next year. Don’t they owe us more than that? What about funding legal representation not just for its own artists but for the families being torn apart by deportation raids across the country? What about investing in public housing for long-term residents who have been priced out of Austin due to gentrification and spiraling real estate prices spawned largely by the festival’s popularity? With admission costs of up to $1,650 per ticket, none of these are unattainable demands. Does South by Southwest truly intend to stand together against injustice? Let’s see it.
Natascha Uhlmann is a writer and activist from Sonora, Mexico. Follow her on Twitter.