I have been reading about the tragedy at AstroWorld Festival in Houston Texas today and felt like speaking to it. I read a really great take on collective desensitization and compassion fatigue by Lean Axially on Facebook:
I started to share that post and realized that my own thoughts are really far greater than fits in that setting, so brought my musings over here for a longer unload.
I think that this sort of negative feedback loop of disconnection and detachment from a sense of collective care is terrifying and a completely natural evolution given the conditions that we are living in.
I spent 5 years working festival harm reduction at Shambhala Music Festival in Salmo with ANKORS. I carefully re-corralled the cue to our drug testing tent when the crash cart ORVs would peel in sirens flashing. The volunteers and staff in that field hospital were absolutely top notch, without question the best care available in the (remote) region, especially for things like sprains, poisonings, and heat exhaustion. I watched those carts roll in at all hours, from the stages, the campgrounds, the food areas. I could hear sometimes too well through the couple of layers of tent as a patient coded and was being resuscitated. Only once did I have to hear a T.O.D. called and that was devastating. The weight that hangs over a party when some one has died is tangible, or my experience of it was, I can’t imagine a party that carries on as raucous as ever when there are dead and unconscious bodies around the venue. But most times, folks were brought in, and then eventually, they left. Some people got shipped off to the hospital off site when that was needed, but most folks walked back out. You can have a big party, even a big party where lots of people are using drugs, and they don’t need to be dying. If/when they do start dropping, there are systemic measures as well as cultural ones that can change the response efforts, but I mostly want to focus on prevention.
Firstly, I must speak to the drug war. Since the 1980s, and Reagan declaring the WAR ON DRUGS, the police and the prison systems in Canada and the USA have been in a civil war against the people they supposedly work to serve. Prohibition based drug policy is a war on drug users. Humans have altered their consciousness and perception for as long as we have had any documented record of human (or even proto human) civilization. Trying to tell people that they must not do this, or must only alter using the state approved substances, is not effective measure of protection, control, or safety. I don’t need to argue for an end to prohibition based drug policy, that has already been done so well many times over. What I will do is name the impacts of the drug war in this situation. Toxicology reports will not give the answers about if there were drugs involved in the AstroWorld story for a few weeks yet, but in a more general conversation, it is safe to assume that people will be altering their consciousness or perception when attending a large, loud, public event. We can talk about the harm reduction measures a party can have, knowing that even if a party ends up being completely sober, being prepared for the first aid emergencies that we can predict means that people get to live to party another day. And if all the old ravers I have partied with taught me anything, it’s that
We can prevent people from dying at parties. As people who love to party, I see this as a sense of responsibility that we have to each other. Not every person might do everything thing on this list every time, but I hope you are doing whatever you can to help keep yourself and the people you are partying with as safe as possible in this bizarre transitional time where many of us have not been in crowds or public events for a long time, as we may start to again. Let’s go about re-starting the ways we gather that proactively take some of the lessons of the pandemic and make a world that works even better than what we left behind. I personally can’t see myself heading back into a giant festival context anytime soon. The potential for a devastating outbreak still feels too high for me to be back in the sweaty pits of hot heavy breath and grindy bodies and E farts. But for those of y’all who are heading back into things like big parties, raves, and festivals, whether you are an organizer or an attendee- I hope you can find some things here that may help you party another day- cause whenever I do feel ready to re-enter that sort of thing- I want us to get to dance together.
- Safe Supply & Smart Policy: I mentioned the role of the drug war in fatalities at parties. Now of course we don’t have the science to know if tainted drugs were a part of the safety issue at AstroWorld yet. But we have seen this enough times in enough places that we can say, people are dying, at parties, but also at home, on the street, in supported housing from a drug supply that has been consistently dangerous for decades, but in the last 10 years we have lost 1000s of people. In BC the rate was 5 people dying from the opioid crisis every day, but the 2021 numbers are so much higher, that stat probably doesn’t hold up. The projects that connect users directly to safe supply of their drug of choice (or a safer proximal) have shown over and over, safe supply saves lives. We don’t have to look overseas or imagine something impossible to save the lives currently being lost because of the dangerous and unpredictable presence of Fentanyl and other additives in the opioid supply. When folks can’t know for sure what they are taking, because the options, by way of prohibition, are basically mystery package 1, 2, or 3- they can’t know how to be safe. Unless you know what you have, and at what concentration, dosage can vary. Safe supply is not something that we can’t imagine. It looks like the markets we have for recreational alcohol sales, cannabis sales at the retail and medicinal levels and pharmacies (both sides of the counter). Obviously some of the ways those markets operate aren’t perfect, I would say they all have their pros and cons, but it feels helpful to ask ourselves, why not? If we could have a mechanism set up where people could buy their substances from a reputable supplier, who conformed to some amount of safety regulations regarding labelling, cuts, and was distributed with relevant harm reduction information and supplies, it would put some grey and black market street level vendors out of work at first, but ultimately would completely change the landscape for folks in survival addiction who can be stuck spending the majority of their time taking care of the business of getting the fix under prohibition, including the same pressure to be participating in grey and black market work in order to finance the inflation that a prohibition market enables. Basically, the “hard on crime” approach to drug use does the exact opposite of what it says, by really further deepening the exclusion from above-board society and affiliations, increasing the influence of “criminal” players while further endangering the folks most actively struggling with safe use.
- Party Ethos: This is something that falls on organizers as well as festival goers. I came up in parties that grew from the PLUR tradition. Peace, Love, Unity and Respect were a raver code long before I ever made my way into the deep bass, but its legacy lives on. I remember asking folks at Shambhala about what helped them feel safe there. Often, folks would cite the signs on the way into the party, that reminded folks to drive safely and courteously at the farm speed of 5km/hr, drink water, get consent. These signs aren’t everything obviously, and the evolution of the festival shows lots of different mechanisms including the women’s safe space, roving harm reduction safety volunteers, a psychedelic first aid/mental health sanctuary space and the drug checking service that I was a part of. A party that has measures happening from the bottom up AND the top down to help keep everybody safe requires a foundational value of party goers. The tickets sold aren’t just dollars in someones pocket, they are participants in an experience and their well being (and survival) are important to everyone from the security guards, to headliners, the festival CEO and the person who is (hopefully for a reasonable wage) cleaning out the portapotties. Parties that are all about prestige and big money big money big money, bigger sound, bigger lights,(which side note can also trigger seizures and could be a potential contributor to random drops in a party) bigger headliners can get lost in their pursuits of profit and forget that a party is about people gathering together in celebration. Profits have no place in a modern society, especially when it comes to things like housing or incarceration, but I think that this could be a case study for the argument that profit motives have no place in event organizing either. It may cost more money to have staff who know the venue, have adequate safety equipment, functional communication channels (the EMS who tells his experience at Astroworld explains that radio channels were out of reach due to the volume in the event), and to limit ticket sales to a safe attendance number that may be lower than fire codes or public health guidelines, but these costs add up to the realistic capacity of your events’ risk management. When profit motives are deciding how many tickets to sell, or how many EMS attendents to have, or how much naloxone the event has on hand, or whether attendees can access water without paying or lining up longer than an intoxicated person should be expected to line up for…. well…. sucks to have to say, but people die. Profits cannot be the ethos that informs how we gather. Profit doesn’t care if we live or die. Profit isn’t here to party with us, it just exploits our long held ancestral desires to gather, dance, move, celebrate, alter our consciousness, participate in ritual and appreciate art.
- Hydration: I mentioned this as a part of the PLUR/profits ethos point, but it’s solid enough to stand on it’s own. Being in a space where there is a crowd of people is dehydrating. Add heat, movement, and the potential of any number of things that may bring about anything from dry mouth to hypohydration (again, tying back to the matter of drug policy that hurts drug users- this was seen acutely in the late 90s and early 00s as MDMA crackdowns led to an influx of PMA & PMMA in the supply. This led to a number of rave deaths and fuelled further paranoid attempts to “Control the Dangers of E”. Most folks of course remaining ignorant to the fact that the effort to control was what created the danger.) People need to be able to access drinking water (like always and in general- *nudges JT about reserves with standing boil water advisories and the city of Iquauit having hydrocarbons in their water supply- side issue). In a party environment that often means counters with disposable water bottles a-plenty that are free of charge and available easily from multiple places within a large space. In a party that is taking environmental impact to heart and not supplying plastic bottles, this means having refill taps around the festival grounds as well as opportunities for party goers to purchase or get replacement drinking vessels. However people are getting it, they need water. Dancing people, cheering people, and high people all really need to be able to access hydration. Placing a pay wall, or a stupid long line up, between party goers and safe hydration levels is dangerous. Again, I hate to have to say it so bluntly, but it is really one of those choices that the wrong choice: people die.
- Performers can often not really have a sense of what is happening in the crowd. Under the bright lights, and behind the monitors, they may have no idea what is happening. But ultimately, performing a live show is a ritual of building and feeding off of collective response energies. When you are performing, you hype the crowd and have an influence on what happens with that mob energy. In the case of Astroworld, participant accounts say that there were people climbing up posts and yelling at the stage “People are DYING, STOP THE SHOW”. This seems to be something that is not a new thing for the performer responsible for hyping the crowd to stampede levels. Travis Scott has previous charges of inciting disorderly conduct and has been recorded calling for fans to rush the stage and RAGE! I don’t want to come off saying anything that is twisted to be read as a policing of the 100% justified rage of Gen Z Black men in America or what have you, but in contrast, I want to hold performers capable. I believe working with a crowd energetically is a responsibility. As a live performer, you get to work with the energy that your fans bring in for you and with you, and all emotions being valid emotions- of course we must have cultural ritual to meet us in all of that. I don’t think we solve the problems of our lives or our society by just facing the light or pretending that things are fine, they aren’t. And, the role within culture to invoke and work with collective emotions like RAGE, comes with a responsibility. I don’t see a performer working with a crowd responsibly in this case. Maybe it’s a matter of being so celebrity in a literal elite family of celebrity cult, that “the people” don’t seem real anymore. Maybe it’s about an industry that tries to supersize and cut corners, applying profit gaining measures to human safety. Maybe its a perfect storm of all of it. I don’t think a creator has to hold sole responsibility for the actions of their fandom, but if they are repeatedly inciting scenes of violence, then promoters, venues, etc should not be inclined to book them because the cost of safety should be seen against any potential profits. And if promoters or venues are repeatedly endangering party goers with their irresponsible choices, artists should feel free to take their work elsewhere out of concern for their fans.
- Clarity in communication. A part of what is cited as a contributing factor at Astroland was a change in opening times, which left the festival understaffed and overwhelmed with patrons before the crew was really ready to have the gates open. Going back to my experience with Shambhala, I will share a story where I feel like I saw a situation managed poorly. In 2017 I was working the festival, and had an 8 month old who was still breastfeeding on the daily. My mom came up to camp with the baby just outside the festival grounds and I worked split shifts with a milk run each day. The forests were on fire not too far away, and as the winds shifted the smoke got closer and closer. One of the days that I came out with the milk, I saw that my mom had packed up her whole camp and was hanging out with the baby, ready to follow evacuation orders. I had been across the street, on radio, as a shift lead in a large department under Health & Safety. We hadn’t been told anything about evacuation. The village of Salmo was all prepared to roll up and out, while the rave by the river raged on- most party goers completely oblivious to how close the fire had gotten. When the festival usually ends early Monday morning, it can take well over 24 hours to get everyone who is trying to leave out, and the full strike and getting crew out spans closer to weeks than hours. When I realized that the town had been put on an alert level that indicated they should be prepared to evacuate with less than 2 hours notice I was questioning what decisions were happening in the managers room to keep the party rolling out without slowdown or projected early ending. When they did finally call it on Saturday night, I was running the Harm Reduction drug checking and I instructed my staff to pack it up. I didn’t want to hold any volunteers in harms way longer than necessary. Our facility usually took a full day to strike, it included high tech lab equipment, lighting, temperature sensitive supplies and all the furnishings we needed to serve 1000s of drug users who want to know whats’ in their drugs every day at the festival. We packed it all up after closing early on Saturday, and volunteers who had been scheduled for the following days shift were released to evacuate at their earliest choice. The festival had given a soft warning, that was interpreted by some as a “we will be evacuating tomorrow, this is the end of the festival”, but not across the board. Lots of folks took the drugs they had originally planned to spread out over the whole weekend at once. The night was wild, people partying with the “partying at the end of the world” vibe close to the surface. The more cautious and pragmatic packed up and headed out over the late night hours and early morning on Sunday. I was in the Fractal Forest at around 9 or 10 that Sunday morning, in what had been projected to be the closing set; when the sky opened up, and it rained. Not a lot, but after days of dust and smoke, clear moist air felt like a godsend. Starting as rumours, which eventually became true, the festival reversed their decision to evacuate the rest of the festival, and they carried on Sunday as originally planned. Obviously this had a huge impact for the the vendors, food services, and everyone else who is relying on that night of the festival being how they get paid, and of course money was a factor in the decision to carry on. But, as they had already given the evacuation notice to their crew, many volunteers including our drug checking service, but across all departments, health and safety, sanctuary etc, people who would’ve been working had taken off in caution, while the folks who stayed and partied were those who decided to not take the safety instruction to an actionable point. I was one of the ones who took off, so I can’t speak to how it unfolded, but I would not want to be trying to be responsible for the well being of 1000s of people with a skeleton crew. Knowing that the people who are working security, harm reduction, first aid, etc know to be at work at the appropriate time, they are well trained, they are appropriately compensated to risks involved, they have the supplies they need to do their jobs well and that there are enough of them, throughout the event and that they are also taking guest safety seriously and aren’t just getting high themselves are all pivotal pieces in a safe festival. Changes like if a party is on, or when, if an area is closed – or needs to be closed, those are the sort of changes that should be coming across radio to staff through the event. There should be someone (like a stage manager) who serves as an intermediary between this line of communication and the performer(s) when needed. In this case, the people who climbed camera towers and were begging folks on headsets to stop the show were ignored and the show continued on for over an hour after the crowd started suffering fatalities. Astroworld was one of those times where the gaps in communication between management, security, first aid, performers and guests were so huge, that lives were lost.
- Traffic bottle necks: In listening to some analysis of the events, I also learned about the physics phenomenons in play during a mass trampling event as seems to have been a part of the events at AstroWorld. Basically when bodies begin moving in really close proximity to each other, the pushing movements started by some, will begin to spread through the crowd like a wave through water or sound. As would be expected, the waves crash or break, and if there are things like hard barricades, doorways or walls, the bodies at that crash point are subject to experience the break. Once someone becomes knocked over in a a trampling, especially if the waves of push energy persist, getting up right is challenging and getting out is nearly impossible. This sort of crowd density may have led to limp bodied party goers being crowd surfed out of spaces that were too dense to get help into, but it sounds like other folks were knocked down and trampled to their death as well as the many more who survived but may have serious and/or lifelong injuries. After the past 20~ months of social distance, being packed in like sardines is insane to me, firstly, cause the pandemic is not over. 68.1% of the eligible population are fully vaccinated at current in Harris County/Houston. This vaccine rate only takes those over 12 into consideration, and considering that the youngest fatalities was 14 and that injured parties are as young as 9 tells me that the mixed age crowd would likely have a median vaccination rate under 68%, which doesn’t really grant any sort of significant herd protection , especially from variants. But, even if we could hypothetically trust that covid transmission was a non-issue, the matter of thousands of people (including children) being jammed into a tight space, with incredibly loud music, show lighting (note about seizures) and a lowered collective tolerance for all of these things… it wasn’t going to turn out well. I think organizers need to take into consideration the additional space most of us have become accustomed to during social distance as well as the ongoing mental health crisis that ripple out from all the loss, isolation, fear, and tensions of the last couple of years. I have always been an advocate for parties including sanctuary spaces, chill rooms, outdoor fire pits, aftercare spaces and crash pads for folks who may not being able to get home safely without a little rest first. I think in this period of post pandemic parties, these things have become even more important. If folks are packed in to spaces so tight that they physically can’t get out when they need to, any respite spaces that may exist become moot. In the case of concerts, venues with amphitheatre style slope design, mean that more people can see and take in the stage show without feeling like that requires rushing the front.
- Party with crew you trust: Just like elementary school, the buddy system is nothing to shake a stick at. Having a friend of crew of friends who are looking out for each other is always recommended in these big events and can reduce risks and complications from physical injuries, drug poisonings, sexual assaults. It also can be meaningful to have friends with whom the events of the night can be recounted and debriefed. When I think back on certain epic nights, I am grateful for the friends I can corroborate my memories to after the fact. When someone does drop at a party, if they have a buddy with them who knows things like their name, what they may have been taking, potential allergies or pre-existing conditions – the care the EMS crew can offer is better.
At the end of the day, I want to party with you another day. Let’s take good care of ourselves and each other so we don’t need to stop doing what we love.