Ozomatli: Busted in Austin

Revolutionary Worker #1235, April 4, 2004, posted at rwor.org

Austin, Texas, is both the state capital and the home of the state university. It's got a rep as the most progressive city in Texas, an oasis in the middle of yahoo country. In the music world it's known as the "Live Music Capital of World," in no small part due to the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival. Each year for the last 18 years the SXSW festival brings together the best of independent and cutting edge music, some of the most vibrant and interesting music being created today. It draws thousands of bands, performers, industry people, critics, and music lovers to the city, including performers and other folks from all over the country and the world. SXSW is the largest annual festival in Austin; it brings tens of millions of dollars into the city each year and has been instrumental in Austin developing a network of ties in 17 different countries.

Usually, SXSW is four days of parties and good music. Last year over a thousand acts were showcased at 52 different venues. Most of the live music venues in the city are located on or around Sixth Street and each year this street is barricaded off for one big days-long block party.

This year the SXSW festival got downright ugly. In the early morning hours of March 18, the manager and two members of the L.A.-based--and grammy-award-winning--band Ozomatli were arrested by the Austin police. Bass player Wildog Abers and manager Amy Blackman Romero were charged with misdemeanors, and percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi was charged with assault on a peace officer--a felony that carries a possible 10 years in jail. The Austin police claimed that the band was in violation of noise ordinances when they led a Samba line of people who had been at their earlier performance--described by many in attendance as one of the best and most intense performances during the festival. Wildog was charged with violating a noise ordinance and Amy was charged with interfering with police officers. The cops claim that Jiro whacked a cop over the head five times with his drum.

Wildog tells a very different story. "We were playing at a really small club called Exodus and we were the last band to perform. The club oversold the performance by about 300 people and they had to get at least that number out of the club. They came and told us to do the Samba line we do at the end of every performance and lead the people out of the club and into the street. This was a fast and easy way to clear the club. So we did it and as soon as we got out in the street there were five or six cops out in the streets yelling at us. They kept yelling "Noise Ordinance"--I didn't hear this but Jiro did, so he stopped playing. They told us that we needed to go back inside the club. But there was only one door and all these people were still coming out of the club through that door.

"Our Samba line is the way we relate to our audience. It's the way we break down that separation of audience and performer, break down that whole `hey look at me' thing. We're really committed to doing this.

"When the cops told us to break it up and go back inside, Jiro, who isn't a really tall guy, put the drum over his head so he could get through the crowd. That's what he normally does so people know he's coming through. I was in front of him going towards the door and when we got to the door I let him go ahead of me. But at this point there were probably still about 200 people trying to go through that door to get out of the club while we were trying to get back in so there was nowhere for us to go.

"All of a sudden I felt these hands on my shoulders. Now normally after our shows our fans will slap us on the shoulders pretty hard. That's what I thought it was; I had no idea it was the Austin police. So I kind of resisted a little bit and tried to dance away from the hands. Then I turned around and saw it was a cop so I kind of just let go and went along with the situation. He threw me against the wall and shouted that I was under arrest. I didn't really say much at that point; I just let it go. Jiro had already gone inside the club, put his drum down, and then came back outside to tell the cop arresting me that I was with the band.

"Meanwhile, the cops apparently pulled out their pepper spray and sprayed the whole audience. They had me against the wall and they turned around and pepper-sprayed everybody around me. When Jiro came out to tell them I was with the band I heard the cop that was arresting me yell, `There he is, get him.' We had no idea what was going on. The next thing we know, Jiro and me are in a van and on the way to the police station. And while we're waiting there all of a sudden we see our manager Amy handcuffed too. Amy was talking on the phone, leaving messages for our lawyer about us being arrested. Then she was asking one cop for information--where were we going and stuff like that--and next thing she knows, she's being arrested."

Wildog got out of jail 10 hours later and Amy was released about three hours later. Jiro was released after about 16 hours, on $5000 bail. And later that night they played another event. At this point, the charges against the Ozo 3 still stand and the case is being sent to the DA.

Ozomatli has a strong reputation of standing with the oppressed people and standing up against the oppression this system brings down here and around the world. They celebrate the people's resistance to oppression and their hopes for a better world in their music and their lives. And people love them for that-- as well as for their kick-ass music. Wherever they went in the city that day, people made a point of coming up to offer their support. Some fans made T-shirts that said "Free the Ozo 3" and "Free Ozo." One woman brought the band 100 T-shirts she made that said "Wanted Ozomatli" and then had the mug shots on it. Everywhere they went people came up and asked what they could do to help.

Even city officials found themselves in the embarrassing situation of having to apologize for the police action. They pretty much had to do this. After all, they are very worried about the impact this kind of assault on musicians will have on future SXSW festivals. Of course, none of these officials actually condemned the police but instead focused on needing to change the noise ordinance laws or finding the ways to solve communication problems between the police and the people.

But these are not the causes of the police attack on Ozomatli and their fans. The plain truth is, these cops probably didn't even know anything about Ozo or their music. But they did know that there were hundreds of young music fans singing and dancing in the streets. And it didn't matter that it was in the middle of a music festival. What did matter was that this was a large group of disorderly people and this is not allowed in wartime America. Fun--especially in large crowds--is verboten.

Ozomatli has suggested that people write to the mayor, city council, DA and cops in Austin protesting the arrests. And definitely keep your ears open for Ozo's new album due out on June 22. It is one beautiful CD guaranteed to deliver everything you've come to expect from a band like Ozomatli.