Let’s get at the root cause of Astroworld tragedy. It’s bigger than Travis Scott

Let’s get at the root cause of Astroworld tragedy. It’s bigger than Travis Scott

Nine days after at least eight people were killed during rapper Travis Scott’s set at the Astroworld festival at NRG Park, journalists are asking all the right questions. What could have been done to prevent the tragedy? Who should the onus fall on to ensure crowd safety? Knowing what we know, what we have known for decades, why are these tragedies still happening? I would add another essential question to the list: How do we avoid one set of rules for Black musicians and another for white?

It’s a question that would be too late to ask in other entertainment businesses, namely nightclubs at which it’s common practice for venues to drive up the cost of entry or staff added security on their one hip-hop night a month. Black nightclub owners marched through Chicago’s Near North Side last June to protest discrimination and racial targeting driving them out of the area. Asa “Duce” Powell, a nightclub owner and long-time promoter, told the Chicago Sun-Times that the city police department’s Near North Side District has been running Black people out of downtown “simply because of the color of their skin for at least 20 years.”

Promoter Monique Taylor told the Portland Mercury a year earlier that so many Black-owned hip-hop clubs have been shut down in the last decade in Portland, Oregon that she can’t keep track of them. She described “constant police surveillance of her parties, and discriminatory club policies she’s seen go unchecked by law enforcement.” When she once asked an officer why he frequently stood outside one hip-hop club, she told the Portland Mercury his answer was: “‘We don’t like hip-hop. We don’t want all these ghetto Black people in here.’”

It is sentiments like that of the officer’s that make any conversation about greater restriction in the name of public safety an issue of race requiring legislation applied equally to protect all concert crowds. Keith Still, a visiting professor at the University of Suffolk and a crowd safety expert, told The Washington Post “sadly, the music industry hasn’t learned anything” from its decades-long history of concert stampedes. In 1979, 11 people were killed when thousands of people packed the outside of a Cincinnati music venue in the hopes of seeing the British rock band The Who, the Post reported. In 1991, three teens were killed when an AC/DC crowd in Salt Lake City rushed the stage, crushing the children.

Still suggested looking at a performer’s history during the safety planning process. “You have to look at the sort of problems at events that are similar in nature and design a safety system around those risks,” the professor said. The Post mentioned Scott’s disorderly conduct charge, which ended in him pleading guilty in 2018. The rapper, who’s from Houston, was shown on video encouraging a fan to jump from a second-floor balcony at a concert on April 30, 2017 in Manhattan, Rolling Stone reported. He’s been known to encourage fans to rush the stage and form mosh pits and as NPR noted Scott is known to some as hip hop’s “King of Rage.” He, however, isn’t the first musician to encourage a concert fan to behave recklessly nor is he the only one to have earned a criminal conviction. 

“Look, we had issues with his concerts in the past in Houston. There’s been issues with his concerts in other cities.” – Former Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo discusses safety concerns at Travis Scott’s Astroworld. pic.twitter.com/GVXJYUYYD2

— OutFrontCNN (@OutFrontCNN) November 9, 2021

New York Times music critic John Rockwell posed the question in 1979: “Is Rock the Music of Violence?” The journalist wrote of the Who guitarist Pete Townshend that he “is an avowed mystic, a follower of the late Meher Baba, the Indian guru.”

“In the days after Cincinnati, many thoughts swirled through Mr. Townshend’s head, and among them was the notion that ‘the whole purpose of a rock concert is for people to forget themselves, to lose their egos in the crowd and to disappear — a temporary sort of flight,'” Rockwell wrote. “It is an alluring idea, and one that helps explain not only the positive connection between rock and violence, but also the Who’s own seemingly bifurcated image as the band that, on the one hand, introduced ritualized destruction to the rock stage — the smashing of guitars and drum kits —and, on the other hand, created an entire “rock opera” about transcendental experience in ‘Tommy.’”

Ultimately, Rockwell ended up both recommending that rock concerts be run “in such a way that young people are encouraged to behave responsibly” and noting “a danger of overreaction” in dismissing rock as violent.

He wrote, “it would seem that so‐called ‘festival’ seating of the sort used in Cincinnati — unreserved tickets that lead to a buildup of impatient fans at the gates followed by a mad dash for the best positions when the hall finally opens its doors — will be curtailed. And legislation may be enacted to ensure a proper degree of concert security.”

That did not happen, according to the account of Paul Wertheimer, dubbed “the marshal of the mosh pit” and chief of staff for a task force to investigate the 1979 stampede. He told The Washington Post in a recent interview that despite his calls for stricter national standards and a required crowd management plan for concert organizers, there have been no such rules for managing large crowds.

“Overcrowding and crowd crushing is the original sin of event planners and promoters,” Wertheimer told the Post. “The crowd in Houston never should have gotten that big and dense. It was a preventable tragedy that happened because safety precautions were ignored — and have been ignored time and time again because there are millions of dollars to be made here.”

Darius Williams, a security guard who quit the Astroworld event, told CNN he walked the perimeter of the venue the morning of the concert and didn’t feel there were enough police for the some 50,000 people who were expected to attend. He said his station at the front gate “just didn’t seem secure or safe.” “So for the safety of myself, I just decided it would be best to just leave for the day,” Williams said.

These stories are heartbreaking! Astroworld Fest attendees unknowingly bought their death tickets, and many of the other concertgoers left traumatized. This tragedy could have been prevented with proper safety precautions… ALL involved should be held accountable!! pic.twitter.com/pBdIEVNgvf

— Ben Crump (@AttorneyCrump) November 13, 2021

Ben Crump, a noted civil rights attorney, has filed 93 lawsuits representing almost 200 people, his team told NBC News on Friday. Both Scott, who’s been holding Astroworld since 2018, and Live Nation, the company promoting the festival, are named in civil suits. “If Travis Scott is accountable, he absolutely should be held accountable,” Crump told journalists in Houston. “But don’t forget that Live Nation does these every day, all day, (in) every part of the world. So if we want the change to make sure people are going to be safe, we got to be talking to the person who is the parent corporation, the industry leader. That’s the only way you get change.”

But it’s not. Legislators can force the hands of organizers, which is exactly what happened in Britain when 97 people died following the FA Cup semi-final in Hillsborough on April 15, 1989. The British government enacted safety and security standards and legislation, The Sport Journal reported. There is no such federal legislation ensuring crowd safety in the United States.

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