SXSW has something to offer for everyone — even political junkies

I’m reconnecting with an old friend this year.

After a few years of slight disconnect, we seem to once again have a lot in common. My friend — the annual South by Southwest Festival — and I go back 20 years.

In our earlier years, SXSW gave me all I wanted and needed as a fan and writer of music and film. Access to new artists and filmmakers — by way of screenings, shows or panels — made my job easy. But what I really appreciated were those pioneering talks of activism and politics I’d find at interactive conference panels where debates focused on the many then-unknowns of the Internet. Back then, my head spun with excitement for just about the entire length of the event, which spans more than a week.

However, in the last couple of years I found it more difficult to connect with SXSW programming. I’ve grown up and my priorities have changed. Another factor: I lacked the enthusiasm to deal with the headaches — such as battling crowds and traffic — that come with getting to just about any SXSW event.

The inconveniences, however, have been the city’s gain —specifically the money SXSW brings to Austin. Last year, the festival had a $325.3 million impact on Austin’s economy, according to figures from festival organizers. That’s a lot of buck for a short-lived inconvenience. I recommend Austinites keep that in mind these next eight days. (I also recommend Austinites take advantage of some of the free and no-badge-required events.)

Yes, I still enjoy the music of familiar artists and find thrill in looking for gems in the film lineup. And I’m happy to attend the Interactive branch, which continues to serve up panels that address tech industry issues that interest me – like the lack of diversity in the sector. Still, South-by (as it’s known by many) left me hungry for more on issues on everyone’s minds.

This year promises to be different. The 2017 festival offers more of what people like me — political junkies who love music and film — crave, including topics that go beyond the tech world. From police brutality to heath care, SXSW panels take a deep dive into national issues.

A quick search on the SXSW website dishes out panel titles like these: “Activism in the Era of Social Media Surveillance”; “How to Fix America and Stop Screwing Up the World”; “Arabs Be Like: The Modern Middle East”; and “Swiping Left on Civic Engagement.”

That’s only a small sample. The list of politically themed events is long and comes with big names.

It includes a potential presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who spoke at the festival Friday. Booker is a national leader who advocates for common-sense criminal justice reform — a bipartisan issue that conservative and liberal groups in Texas support.

Reform is also the focus of the March 18 panel “Artist to Advocate: Fighting for Criminal Justice” featuring rapper Snoop Dogg and Extravagant Records founder Weldon Angelos. Snoop and Angelos will join Vikrant Reddy of the Charles Koch Institute and Mark Holden of Koch Industries — yes, those Koch brothers!

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, was set to speak Friday on the intensifying debate on women’s reproductive rights in Texas and other states.

On Sunday, Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith will sit down with Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt for a talk on hate crimes and how the league is fighting bigotry in the U.S. Also on Sunday’s scheduled lineup: New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and media columnist Jim Rutenberg will discuss journalism in a “fake news” era, and Vice President Joe Biden will talk about his cancer initiative plan.

On Monday, Michael Brown Sr., father of the Ferguson, Missouri, teen shot and killed by police, joins a panel of filmmakers to talk about the events that occurred August 2014. The killing of Michael Brown Jr. inspired the documentary “Stranger Fruit,” also screening at the festival.

And while FBI Director James Comey canceled his appearance at SXSW, FBI General Counsel James A. Baker is set to have a conversation about national security, technology and First Amendment rights.

The robust selection on national issues makes me wonder if SXSW and I are back on the same page: grown-up with shifted priorities. Either way, it’s good to be excited to see a friend again.

— Gissela SantaCruz

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