The days of “mic checking” are a few years gone and, instead of disrupting, I work SXSW as a journalist when I can. I’m going back this year, and while I’m not planning to do any protesting, I do plan to ask some hard questions.
I didn’t officially attend SXSW 2012, but it was the first year I got into the convention center.
I was invited to share my experiences with Anonymous at a panel about the documentary “We Are Legion,” which played at the film festival. I had plenty to share — most notably, Anonymous helped us identify Austin Police officer Jason Mistric after he threatened me with pepper spray on the night Occupy Austin got evicted from its encampment in 2012.
We probably got evicted in order to make sure we weren’t cluttering up the city hall steps when Southby came to town, so what came next felt a bit more righteous than it might have otherwise. After the panel, I gathered with two other occupiers that had found their way into the convention center and mic checked a speech by George Friedman, the CEO of Strategic Forecasting, a corporate intelligence agency which had helped infiltrate and spy on Occupy along with other activists groups, and helped send political prisoners like Jeremy Hammond to prison.
Of course, security soon got called.
Running away would have attracted suspicion, so we started speed walking away from the auditorium on the second floor of the Austin Convention Center.
But when we came to a set of stairs leading down to a back exit, we hesitated because there was a strip of caution tape across the top. The stairs were perfectly safe, simply closed for traffic flow purposes, and we could have slipped away, but somehow our societal instincts to obey had already kicked back in.
In the end, the cops asked us to leave, and they took my day pass so I couldn’t slip back in.
I was quite surprised when the first other person I saw as I walked around the convention center, away from my police escort, was none other than perennial presidential candidate and would-be dictator, Vermin Supreme.
I don’t remember what we said to each other, but I do remember feeling as though the universe was smiling on me with a visitation from, if not a saint, then a living treasure of radical trouble-making. It was a momentary meeting of two people disrupting a broken system in ways both important and ridiculous.
I saw Vermin again a few days later, at the Million Musician March For Peace, a small musical march that was held annually for many years during SXSW. Vermin commandeered a pedicab to ride alongside the march.
As he bounced along, he called into is microphone, “What do we want?”
“Peace!” the crowd responded obediently.
“When do we want it?” asked the pony lover and future world dictator.
“Now!” we shouted.
“What are we going to do when we get it?”
Stunned silence. No one had ever asked us that.
I still don’t know the answer, but I like to think tricksters like Vermin Supreme bring us one step closer to finding out.