Today, not only do I have the time to put together this post, but also the motivation. I am profoundly moved by recent events that are superficially unrelated but, in my estimation, are connected at a very deep level.
This weekend bleeding into the work-week, the big story in Houston has been the Astroworld disaster. In Glasgow, the big story (although you'd never know it from the lack of mainstream coverage) has been the massive youth-led demonstrations outside the Blah-Blah-Blah Convention, aka COP 26.
My big-picture assessment is that both these stories represent the responses of teens and young adults to the undeniable fact that they will inherit a world that is becoming increasingly hostile to life-as-we-know-it.
I have a lot to say about this tragedy (paywall), much of it profane and possibly riddled with typos. The whole thing sickens and saddens me, all the more because it happened right here in H-Town, a 20-minute bike ride away from where Kayleen and I live.
For those who haven't followed this particular item in the news, Astroworld is the name of a music festival assembled under the auspices of Houston-born rap mega-star Travis Scott (not his real name—peculiar stage name for a rapper, eh?). The festival gets its name from Scott's 2018 album, which in turn gets its name from the theme park that stood across the I-610 Loop from the Astrodome between 1968 and 2005.
Scott's Wikipedia entry now contains a subsection that he will rue for the rest of his days. In fact, the tragic event now has its own wiki page. I'm neither afraid nor ashamed to say that I feel bad for him. He's about the same age as my son. My son has made a few mistakes, just as his parents have, but (as far as we know) none of those mistakes have resulted in deaths and mass hospitalizations.
This year, the third Astroworld festival has put Houston 2021 in company with Cincinnati 1979. The latter was the site of a stampede, before an arena concert by The Who, that ended with nine deaths and countless injuries. The Cincinnati tragedy made the phrase "festival seating" scary forever after. A few days ago, Houston was the site of a "crowd crush" that occurred during Scott's performance that resulted in at least eight deaths.
If even half of what I've heard and read about this year's "festivities" is true, it is a multi-dimensional clusterfuck that will put an end to music festivals of any kind in Greater Houston. Other cities will think twice and twice again before allowing anything of similar scale within their jurisdictions.
The rest of the festival had to be canceled. We will not rehash the details of the crowd crush here. You can read about it elsewhere. But it's only part of the larger picture.
The deadly crush is grabbing the headlines, of course. Some of the press articles mention, several paragraphs down, that even before the crush there was a problem with gate-jumpers. An eyewitness told me that large numbers of mostly young people, mostly without tickets, forced their way through or around the COVID screening station onto the festival grounds. Houston Police, including some mounted patrol officers, and event security staff wound up having to chase down anyone they had a chance of catching during the mad scramble.
Fans who had bought the expensive tickets—many of whom had traveled from points all over the continent and booked rooms in hotels ranging from the sublime to the sketchy—could not have been too happy that hundreds of kids crashed the sold-out festival or at least tried to. And they certainly must be disappointed that the remainder of Astroworld was canceled. While out on my weekly grocery run Saturday morning, I saw clumps of festival-goers walking around the NRG Park area to and from local shops and restaurants. At least they'll get to see more of Houston than their hotel rooms and the festival grounds.
Via Facebook friends, I have seen second-hand reports that the drugs circulating at the fest were not limited to the usual rave fuel. There was some mention of drugs laced with fentanyl. What kind of genius actually sells that shit—someone who hates festival rats and wants them to die? the CIA, perhaps? Even before the crush, several patrons were hauled out in states of cardiac arrest and treated by emergency medics. A friend of a friend who works in an emergency room said that ER's at both county hospitals (LBJ and Ben Taub) were full Friday night, with not enough staff to treat the hundreds injured.
As humans will do, humans are busy working out where to point the finger of blame. The answer, unfortunately, is that we don't have enough fingers of blame to go around. Scott is getting a large chunk of it. Live Nation certainly deserves a share, as it has a history of concert events going horribly wrong and hasn't done enough to fix the problems. Some folks are casting blame in the direction of HPD and the 367 officers deployed at Astroworld; I hate being in the position of defending HPD for anything, but I don't think this is their fault.
The biggest finger is pointing at the many festival goers who felt compelled to get as close to the stage as possible when Drake made a surprise appearance on stage during Scott's set, compressing the crowd until people passed out from lack of oxygen.
Based only on my observations, not on any peer-reviewed studies of the empirical evidence, I think it runs deeper than that. These "kids" engage in high-risk behavior—risky not only to themselves, but to others—because society doesn't offer them positive alternatives. They may not even know consciously that they are reacting to a society that doesn't value them, treats them as disposable, subjects them to a world of war and climate chaos, but they are seeking short-term thrills as if they have nothing to lose. They certainly have little or nothing to gain by staying with the confines of the law.
Even young people raised in $300,000 suburban homes and well-resourced suburban schools don't see much of a future. In my youth, we only had to live with the threat of nuclear annihilation, and we knew that, even with Ronald Fucking Reagan in the White House, there were enough smart people in positions of power to prevent a nuclear exchange (except for those time when a false alarm almost triggered automatic launch of the whole Soviet or US arsenal).
Never underestimate the potential for dangerous stupidity when people assemble in large groups—or the potential for rudeness. I went to Free Press Summer Fest twice, and it cured me of ever wanting to bother with festivals again. Both times, when I was trying to enjoy whichever act was on whichever stage, people were constantly working their way toward the front of the crowd, not caring whom they stepped on or pushed out of the way, not caring how many bodies per square foot there were, not caring that when someone moves toward the front it inevitably pushes some less rude folks toward the back. And then, once they reach the front, they keep up a conversation during the performance loud enough to hear over the music. My impression is that they don't even know that their behavior is stupid and rude.
This is nothing new, of course, and it is not limited to festivals. But now it is worse than I and others of my acquaintance have ever seen. In the bigger picture, it is connected with a worrisome percentage of young Americans who see criminal behavior as normal—or even as a competitive endeavor, to see who can flout the most laws and societal norms.
It is connected with the way young people are driving on Houston's freeways and streets. Well, I assume that they are young, driving muscle cars with no regard to speed limits, lanes, traffic lights, etc., like stereotypical testosterone-poisoned youth, with tinted glass so you can't see who's behind the wheel. There have always been maniacal drivers, true (well, since there have been automobiles). But I have lived in Houston for almost 50 years it total—my mother took me to Astroworld during the first week of its existence—and I have never seen so many driving so aggressively as I have seen in the past two years.
There have always been young people who liked to ingest toxic substances, but it was generally just those two or three guys who cut class to sniff glue. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the Tide Pod generation.
There have also always been young people stupid enough to buy drugs from strangers, and strangers who took a certain psychopathic glee in selling tainted substances at huge profit margins. But now, they seem keen to ignore generations of acquired wisdom.
In sum, I am convinced that post-Millennials acting like the pre-pubescent monsters who end up in charge of the drug trade in Cidade de Deus are blowback for our imperialist-capitalist empire create a world that doesn't give a shit about them. Again, it's a small percentage, but it's a large enough percentage to be dangerous.
Another way to respond to the fucked-upness of the world is to take the fight directly to the fuckers in charge. To paraphrase Utah Phillips, those who have fucked the world have names and addresses.
We cannot pin the blame on any single individual, because the System itself is responsible for perpetuating the evils; however, those who perpetuate the System need to face a great reckoning, by whatever means.
Greta Thunberg has turned "blah-blah-blah" into a rallying cry. It summarizes all the PR-flavored bullshit that emerges from the Conference of Parties (COP) year after year, with insufficient goals for reduction of greenhouse gases and inadequate timelines. Last week in Glasgow, she surprised and delighted the global climate activist community by dropping a spontaneous F-bomb during a speech.
To Thunberg's delight, but not to her surprise, COP 26 has drawn large numbers of protesting youth, not just from Europe and North America but also from the countries in the Global South suffering the worst effects of climate chaos. What is surprising is that the protests are receiving some mainstream coverage, although nothing like the amount of televised huffing and puffing in which CNN and MSNBC indulge whenever, e.g., Donald Trump says something outrageous or some blonde Instagram idol goes missing.
NPR programs like 1A and Here and Now have covered the protests more than the commercial outlets. NPR's channel on Sirius XM also broke into one of its shows to air President Joe Biden's speech. Despite his informal, conversational style, Biden sounded like he knew what he was talking about. He tried really hard to drive home the point that getting more than 100 countries to sign an agreement to curb methane emissions was really important. Then came the questions from the press, and he sounded like a cross between Donald Trump on tranquilizers and the doddering old sod that Biden has become. Answers that could have taken half a minute took two minutes, although he did make sure to use different words when repeating the same point two or three times.
Democracy Now! is looking more like the DN! of old, rather than the establishment apologists who suppressed coverage of Howie Hawkins's Green presidential campaign in 2020 after giving Jill Stein so much airtime in 2016 (and catching heat for enabling her to "steal" votes from Hillary Clinton). Amy, Juan, and Nermeen are interviewing activists who eloquently express the intersectionality of the climate crisis—i.e., the importance of climate justice as a part of the overall solution. Speeches from the political celebrities at COP have at best given lip service to climate justice and a just transition away from fossil fuels.
These young people know that Steven Donziger is facing persecution from a corporation for the crime of winning a lawsuit against it on behalf of indigenous nations in Amazonian Ecuador; they also know the horrible precedent set by Chevron appointing the prosecuting attorneys in the criminal case it has ginned up against Donziger—and how it has rendered blindingly obvious the fact that corporations are running the show, not elected national governments.
In short, they know how interconnected these multi-pronged issues are. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, the people in power don't know about the interconnectedness because their salaries and corporate profits depend on their not knowing it.
In shorter, they know the motivations for their actions, they know how fucked-up the world is, and they know that they want to unfuck it.
I wish I could say that these young people and their actions give me hope for the future. As Thunberg would say, they're not in the business of providing hope. I'm rooting for them, just as I have rooted for the Houston Astros and Dynamo through some of their leanest years. The activists may win an occasional, short-lived victory,—but then the corporatist empire takes a little time to regroup and devise new strategies to make folks think it gives a flying fuck about the future of life on this planet. (Spoiler Alert: It doesn't. It cares only about profits.) The protests will not change the hearts and minds of corporatists determined to maximize profits. But merely saying out loud, in the face of certain futility, that our so-called leaders and the systems they have built are fucking up the planet forever is important.
About that system: Through generations of law and practice, our society has established that the primary duty of corporations is to maximize shareholder value. Literally everything else is secondary to that. If actually caring for workers, the community, and the environment served to buttress bottom lines, then corporations would do that. Textbook free-market capitalism says that customers who don't like a certain companies labor or environmental practices can take their business elsewhere; real-world capitalism says that the companies you hate have already bought controlling interest in the companies you like. This situation has also created generations of Americans who have been propagandized into believing that it is the best system for all concerned, who can't imagine that any other system would work at all; the most propagandized are those who have taken economics and business classes at virtually any American university or college.
Whether or not the protests accomplish anything, I wish that I could be in Glasgow, marching alongside this mass movement for a livable planet. (I've wanted to visit Scotland, the homeland of some of my ancestors, since I was a teen, long before Kayleen turned me on to the Outlander series.) I could probably join a handful of comrades from our local Extinction Rebellion chapter who have been staging protests at the Houston Zoo, but of course it wouldn't be nearly as satisfying as standing on the right side of a quarter-million humans from all over the world.
Last month, joining about 175 riders in Austin's World Naked Bike Ride was quite a rush. But, despite the slow pace and the constant dangers of treading on the heels of marchers in front of me, I have never felt any rush as profound as demonstrating against Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm with 200,000 or more in DC in 1991. That march didn't accomplish anything either It may not beat the rush of, say, cutting class to sniff glue, but it's much healthier.