June 30, 2015
By- Mitchell Gomez, DanceSafe National Outreach Director
Hello everyone! Electric Forest has ended, and as those of us who were onsite know, this year the event producers ordered DanceSafe to shut down the booth early on Friday. Although we are still unclear on why this occurred, we feel it’s important for the community to hear about our experiences. We are hopeful that clear and factual conversations can help everyone to understand this past weekend and help figure out ways to move forward.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with who we are, DanceSafe is a 501(c)(3) non-profit public health organization with a mission to promote health and safety within in the nightlife and electronic music communities. Using harm reduction and peer-based education as our guiding principles, we provide a range of free information and services including safe spaces to take breaks and engage in conversations about health, drug use, and personal safety; water and electrolytes [to prevent dehydration and heatstroke]; earplugs [to prevent hearing loss], safe sex tools [to avoid unwanted pregnancies and spread of STI’s]; honest, fact-based, unbiased information on drug effects and potential harms [to empower people to make informed decisions]; and provide drug checking [to avoid overdose or death].
We were founded in 1998 in the Bay Area, and since have grown to over a dozen chapters, with hundreds of volunteers worldwide. We are primarily known for being the first entity to bring free reagent testing to nightlife settings in the United States, 17 years ago. Reagent testing is a method of drug checking used to identify drug contents. It’s limited in that the chemical analysis is only able to identify what chemical is mostly present, not purity, potency or all cutting agents present. Although this is the service that we’re most widely known for, in recent years we’ve worked with many event producers who are uncomfortable with providing this service onsite, and in cases where we’ve been asked not to, we never test onsite, sell kits, or provide any other service that is not wanted.
For instance, at festivals such as TomorrowWorld, Imagine Festival, Mysteryland, and Lightning in a Bottle, we’ve had an official presence onsite to provide our other services listed above, but do not sell kits or provide free drug checking services. Even in cases where producers re-evaluate what services they want provided after DanceSafe is already set up onsite, if asked to stop or change anything, we always immediately comply. We also generally have items in the booth for sale. The only products we sell in our booth are either those directly related to harm reduction (such as high-quality earplugs or re-usable water-bottles), or items for patrons to wear in order to show their support for our cause (such as T-Shirts, our Grassroots Hat, Pins, etc…). All sales and donations during events go back into the organization and are used to support further outreach.
Since 2011, Electric Forest has provided DanceSafe with booth space, but classed as vendors, placed in one of the vendor areas, provided us with vendor wristbands, and generally treated as vendors in every way.
Thus, this was DanceSafe’s fourth year onsite, and it was our third year in the ‘Craft Vending’ village near the Ranch Arena. Our crew was comprised of myself, our Visionaries Program Coordinator (Emma Jacobson), and four volunteers from our Midwest Chapter. There were two additional volunteers who had purchased tickets and scheduled to fulfill shifts, and 10 members of our Visionaries Program who had purchased tickets and were scheduled to fulfill shifts under the supervision of the program coordinator. Unfortunately, nearly half of the Visionaries never had a chance to fulfill what would have been their first onsite shifts as DanceSafe volunteers.
Each year we’ve been in the Forest, we’ve provided our full range of services, and we’ve always had a fantastic working relationship with the event producers and staff. In fact, in the past, Electric Forest has donated GA tickets to DanceSafe to auction off as part of a fundraiser, which we were extremely grateful for. We were even a big part of the festival’s official Non-profit Ninja Challenge last year where we were able to help get the word out about dehydration and heatstroke. The winner of the challenge won tickets and a hot air balloon ride over the festival with The Glitch Mob! Excitingly, while testing onsite last year, some individual law enforcement officers were (quietly) supportive of our presence onsite, coming by to thank us for being there and picking up some of our literature. The support we received from the festival was simply amazing! Sadly, the story was very, very different this year.
We loaded in early evening on Wednesday, set up, and got to bed early to prepare for the weekend ahead. On Thursday morning, after operating as normal for a few hours, we began to receive a series of complaints from the Craft Vending Coordinator, asking us to change certain services. Even though she wasn’t able to tell me who was ordering these changes or why, we complied immediately. At first we were just asked to stop doing free onsite testing and selling kits, which we did.
Less than an hour later we were visited again, this time in regards to a different service we provide. Although it isn’t well known, sharing a snorting apparatus like a bill or straw is a vector for spreading Hepatitis C. In order to mitigate this risk for people who are already using substances this way, we provide clean, safer snorting straws. At least we do if we are allowed to, and after mid-Friday, we weren’t allowed to anymore. At this point, I was finally able to speak to the person who was making these decisions, a very high level representative from Madison House Presents: the production company who makes Electric Forest possible.
During this meeting, the representative bizarrely insisted that DanceSafe had never been allowed to test onsite or sell kits, despite the fact that we have been doing so for several years and drug checking has been included in every proposal we have sent them to date. She also told me that I had to stop giving out the informational card we have on Heroin, as it was ‘too promotional’. Although I deeply disagree with ever censoring information, once again we immediately complied.
At every stage, no matter what the request was from the festival, DanceSafe staff and volunteers complied immediately. We even took down our small 10×10 that we were using for shade in front of our booth (the only shade in the “Craft Vending Village” that wasn’t inside someone’s store), despite the fact that it was acting as our primary signage. Strangely, we were told that the festival was going to ‘take it down themselves’, even though we had never been asked until then not to have it set up. By Friday, it had become abundantly clear that something larger was going on, and that the festival was determined to shut us down.
Because of this, I was entirely unsurprised by a visit from a group of three individuals late on Friday: the Madison House representative I had been speaking with, another top-level producer of the festival, and a gentleman who I believe they stated was their head of security. They asked me to ‘step away from the booth to talk’. Although I thought it was a real possibility that I was about to be asked to leave immediately, they were far more tactful than other recent, but disturbingly similar, incidents that have occurred. Thankfully, they were not there to eject or arrest any of the DanceSafe staff or volunteers, seize our kits, merchandise or donations, or to treat us the way that the Bunk Police (a for-profit testing kit vendor) were recently treated at Bonnaroo.
However, after stepping away from the booth, I was told by the Madison House Presents representative that we were being ordered to immediately shut down the booth, and that all of our volunteers would be allowed to stay onsite so long as we agreed to switch our vendor wristbands for GA wristbands and move to GA camping. I politely asked if it would be possible to close the booth and leave out a table with free water, condoms and earplugs with no DanceSafe branding at all, and my request was flatly denied.
I then explained that due to a documented knee injury of mine, moving to GA camping wouldn’t be possible as I would likely be unable to reach the venue on foot each day. However, I made it clear that I would immediately close the booth. I asked if it would be acceptable to stay onsite where we were currently camped, and suggested that if that were not possible, we would leave the venue immediately. Thankfully, they agreed to allow us to proceed with my suggested plan of staying where we were.
Then, I was told by the security guard that I had “till the end of String Cheese” to close my booth, and that if I had not done so by that time, it would be done “his way.” I was deeply upset by this unnecessary threat, as we had been 100% compliant during every one of their requests. At no time during this interaction or any other interaction was the merchandise we sell in the booth (to fund outreach) mentioned to us, although that is now what the festival claims was the cause of us being shut down.
It was at this point that the incident occurred which precipitated my writing of this blog. I asked the representative from Madison House why we were being shut down, as we had been complying with all of their requests. In one of the strangest encounters of my life, the representative refused to answer me. I was told that we could “discuss it later.” I pleaded for some small explanation to give to my boss for this turn of events, and was told that it was not going to be discussed, and that I was being ordered to close my booth immediately.
So I did.
I even did it quickly enough to catch the last few minutes of Cheese.
Although this type of change mid-event has happened to DanceSafe before, it has never happened to me. The flat refusal on the part of the event producers to discuss it was strange, and the fact that I still have not received any explanation is problematic, but not nearly as problematic as other things I saw onsite this year. I think it is important that we, as a community, discuss these problems, and I think it is pertinent we do it NOW.
This year at The Electric Forest, I saw up to four hour lines to get from GA camping into the venue, with no free water, shade or medics in the area. This year at The Electric Forest, I saw a population grow by nearly 10,000, with no noticeable increase in the amount of water refill stations, resulting in nearly two hour lines just to refill a bottle of water. This year at The Electric Forest, I saw a festival shut down a group of volunteers dedicated to providing health and safety information and resources to the community without a single valid explanation. And I, for one, would like to know why I saw these things.
I understand the concern on behalf of the producers about the perception that they are ‘allowing’ or ‘encouraging’ drug use at their events. That being said, simply recognizing some inevitable use at an event isn’t encouragement, and I think that there is a place for real solutions. These solutions can replace the current model we’re using, a model that is actively harming a community that I’m a part of. Under our present laws, a venue or company faces some very real risks if the government decides that their event is “maintaining a drug-involved premise.” But– to the best of my knowledge, the presence of harm reduction services has never been used as a part of any RAVE Act prosecution (although the law should still be changed). The fear that these services would be grounds for a RAVE Act prosecution are theoretical, and the result of a prosecution on such a shaky basis is far from clear, but the injuries and deaths caused by these fears are not theoretical. These injuries and deaths are real, and they are happening far too often.
The bold truth, that we must all speak loudly, is that in a world where correctional officers cannot keep drugs out of prisons, there is simply no way for a promoter to stop incidental, but inevitable use at their events. No matter how sincere the promoters effort, no matter how zealous and abundant the security and police, no matter how hard we try, those who wish to consume mind altering substances will always find a way to do so. However you may feel about this truth, it is reckless to deny. Once we accept that some use is unstoppable, it is our moral obligation to do everything within our power to reduce the risk of harm to those who do choose to use.
Frankly, the solutions to many of these problems are not difficult. Make it easy for people to find out what they are actually consuming by allowing onsite testing and allowing people to have drug checking kits of their own. Make sure that people have access to accurate, unbiased information about all drugs. Make it easy for people to stay cool when they are dancing by having chill-out areas that are physically separated from the dance floor so they don’t become overrun. Make sure that people both in the venue and in line to get in have access to shade, adequate and easily identifiable water, and medical services if they are needed.
Recently, I was part of a stakeholder group which developed a government funded report on preventing drug- and alcohol- related harms at Music Festivals, and I am happy to consult, for free, with any festival that desires it. And DanceSafe is ready and willing to be onsite, with whatever services an event desires. All that a promoter has to do is ask.
This is larger than DanceSafe, and it is larger than Electric Forest. It is far past time for us, as a community, to demand that all the health and safety of all participants are taken seriously and is prioritized. It is not an option for us to ignore these problems anymore.
I sincerely hope to see you all next year in the Forest.