More than 400 Austinites gathered Thursday night at Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church, less than a mile from the home of 17-year-old Draylen Mason, who was one of two people killed in three package bombings in Austin this month.
Organized by the Austin Justice Coalition and Austin Black Lives Matter, the gathering was an opportunity for neighbors to come together and get to know one another. For police and city officials, it was an opportunity to hear the community's concerns as the investigation into the bombings continues.
“I don’t think the community is responding in a way of fear,” said Chas Moore with the Austin Justice Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for economic and racial equity. “It’s just about, ‘OK, what can we do and how can we come together to either prevent these things from happening or be there for each other if things like this continue to happen?’”
The event focused on simple solutions, like talking to kids about the danger of opening packages left in front of homes, for example. But the one thing that everyone came to a consensus on was the importance of simply getting to know their neighbors.
While she didn’t know any of the three victims personally, Angela Benavides-Garza said, she was raised in East Austin. She said listening to each other and watching each other’s backs is what’s important.
“Everybody who came together, all relations, and the way that we came together in such a caring way and not a way to bash anyone,” Garza said. “It was also to accept responsibility in how we’re going to help each other and bridge.”
That responsibility was also emphasized by interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley.
Police initially thought the first explosion, which killed 39-year-old Anthony House at his North Austin home on March 2, was a drug-related homicide. But the department changed its theory after the two bombings on Monday. Draylen Mason, 17, was killed and his mother was injured in the first incident; 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera was injured in the second. Manley said he’s listening to the community and taking steps to prevent another bombing.
“We need the communities' eyes, the communities' ears,” Manley said. “We need to know when people see something suspicious.”
Manley said the devices used were relatively sophisticated, but because they were made from common household items, it could be difficult to find the person or persons responsible.
More than 300 federal agents are helping Austin police investigate the bombings, which some believe may be racially motivated because both Mason and House came from prominent African-American families.
In the meantime, Garza said, people of color in the area have to stick together.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about love overriding, you know, hate,” she said. “And it’s all about the light blasting out darkness, so that we do bridge back together and we’re not separated or divided or conquered in anyway.”