Pause. Pause. Pause.
What came to mind? Possibly men with loaded weapons who know enough racist jokes to headline Clansman's Comedy Hour?
Or maybe, chivalrous Panhandle gentlemen who appreciate a well-grilled steer burger after a long day of wrangling bad guys?
You can bet variations on these stereotypes were running through the minds of Grammy-winning L.A. band Ozomatli in the wee hours of March 19. That's when Austin police piled percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi, bassist-vocalist Willy "Wil-Dog"Abers and manager Amy Sue Blackman-Romero into the paddy wagon.
"They were playing classic rock in the paddy wagon," recalls Abers, trying to find a bit of surreal comedy in the situation. "They had speakers blaring Alabama and Lynyrd Skynyrd and shit. Pretty bizarre."
Three years prior at the same event-the annual South-by-Southwest Music Festival-Ozomatli had ended its set at a bar called Steamboat by leading a samba line outside.
"It was great, because we got hundreds of people behind us when we went into the street the last time," Abers recalls. "And nothing happened, so [this year] we were like, "Oh, let's do that again-that'd be the shit.'"
Only this time, it didn't work out quite so well. Playing a showcase at the Exodus nightclub, Ozomatli cleared their idea for a samba line with the club owner. Near the end of their performance, the Austin fire marshals informed the owner that 200 people needed to exit the club, pronto.
Seemed like a good time for a samba.
Still playing their instruments, Ozomatli led a few hundred people into the street. Police were nonplussed, and ordered the band back inside. A ruckus broke out, pepper spray was sprayed, and from here, details get murky.
Abers recalls someone grabbing his shoulder from behind as he tried to fight the crowd and get back inside the club.
"It happens all the time when we do [the samba line]," he says. "Usually it's just a drunk guy who hits you a little harder than you want to be hit. So I tried to shake his hand off of me a little bit, but it wasn't violent. And that's when he pulled me back. And I'm like, "Fuck! What the fuck?!' And I turned around and saw it was a cop and that's when I just kind of let go."
Officer Justin Owings-the cop mistaken for the drunk guy-interpreted Abers' actions as "violent swinging," and pushed the bassist face-first into the wall. Yamaguchi, who had walked inside to put his drum away, returned to see Abers in cuffs. He pleaded with the officer, telling him that Abers was in the band.
"When he said that, the cop was like, "There he is! Get him!'"Abers recalls. "Had Jiro just gone back into the club and not come out, this probably wouldn't have happened. Maybe they would've put it on me."
Abers was charged with failure to obey a lawful order (a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine) and Blackman-Romero-later arrested while trying to plead her band's case-was charged with interfering with police duties (a misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail).
Yamaguchi was on the hook for something much worse.
Owings claimed in his report that Yamaguchi "took the large drum that he was holding and swung it striking me in the back of the head causing a great amount of pain to my entire head" and "then struck me several more times in the head with the drum and then ran into Club Exodus."
He charged Yamaguchi with assault on a police officer-a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail.
Videotapes of the event that later surfaced on the Internet show that Yamaguchi's drum, which he carried over his head through the crowd, may have made contact with Owings' head. But nothing resembling assault appears on the tapes (keeping in mind that the tapes could have been edited). Witnesses-including national journalists and the assistant to the mayor of Austin-were also adamant that Yamaguchi did not assault the officer.
Regardless, the three were processed at the Travis County Jail-mug shots and prints taken, personals bagged. After hours in the holding cell, Abers was the first to be released (because his last name starts with an "A'). After hearing his charge, he returned to the cell to assure Yamaguchi, ""Don't worry about it, man-this ain't shit. We're gonna get out.'"
An hour later, Yamaguchi's name was finally called. He was informed he was being charged with assaulting a police officer.
"That's when the whole shit changed," Abers says. "Everyone was having their own speculation about how this was all going to turn out and how good it was going to be. But the reality was that, in Jiro's life, imagine being faced with a charge like that.
"That was our fucking reality. And it's not fun and it wasn't funny. It wasn't cool. He was fuckin' scared to go outside, man."
The situation wasn't just bad for the band-Austin city officials seemed to realize they had a public relations turd in their hands. South-by-Southwest represents the largest influx of tourist dollars into the city, and the police had just very publicly arrested three of the event's high-profile participants. By lunchtime on March 19, the hottest items at the festival were T-shirts that read "Free the Ozo Three" (a take-off on "Free the West Memphis Three," a campaign to liberate a trio of heavy metal teenagers convicted of murder in 1994, despite little evidence other than their tastes in music).
The Austin Chronicle reported that Mayor Wil Wynn, in response to a concerned Ozomatli fan, wrote in an e-mail that he was "disappointed" by the arrests, and that it was a "classic case of the police not having good information about what was actually happening."
Some cynically suggested the arrest was a great public relations move for Ozomatli, intentional or not. At a festival where about 1,000 bands vie for the attention of journalists, radio programmers and record label scouts, Ozomatli was the undisputed buzz of the event.
Abers heard such talk, and was audibly disgusted at the thought.
"I didn't focus in on any of that kind of crap. It's like, "Who cares? My guy is fuckin' facing 10 years here.' One of our band members-one of our brothers-could potentially go away for a long time.
"We had to make sure all his car lights were working, all his registration [was current]. Everything had to be on for him to go about his daily business in Los Angeles, you know? We end up seeing a cop somewhere and he freaks out. That's not fucking cool."
Early last month, under pressure from mounting evidence that suggested Austin police were in the wrong, the Travis County prosecutors offered Yamaguchi, Abers and Blackman-Romero a deal: plead no-contest to lesser charges-misdemeanors of simple assault-and the charges will be dropped from their records after a six-month probation period.
If all goes well, Yamaguchi, Abers and Blackman-Romero might laugh about this in January of 2005. That's when time will make some comedy out of their tragedy.
Such comedy might include the story of the cop who drove them to the station; he was a rookie, so it took him hours to process Abers and crew because veteran officers kept cutting in front of him in line.
Or how remarkably heavy those orange, rubber flip-flops were, like chew-toys for Bull Mastiffs.
And how the uniforms they give you in the Austin big house are black-and-white striped, just like the cartoons.
That kind of minutiae has gained a bit of humor now that Yamaguchi's not facing a decade in the pen.
But it's not funny. Not yet.
Ozomatli plays with Kinky and Plastalina Mosh at 4th & B, 8 p.m. on Aug. 8. $25-$28.50. 619-231-4343.