A Meditation on Tragedy, Safety, and the Perils of DIY Culture
Update: Minor grammatical and content changes for clarity. Sources and images updated.
I’m sure by now we’re all more than familiar with the terrible fire that happened in Oakland over the weekend. I’ve seen a looot of stuff get posted to social media in reaction to the tragedy ranging from heartfelt tributes to late friends, condemnation of the Oakland housing crisis, and anger directed at the space’s organizers/owners for holding events in a space that they knew, or at least were warned, was dangerous. At the time of writing, emergency crews are still working hard combing through the blackened wreckage and indeed, the wounds of the tragedy are still fresh.
In the face of tragedy it’s instinctual to search for blame. How did this happen? Who let this happen? How can we make sure it never happens again? I won’t sit here and pretend to have all the answers to some of life’s most painful questions, but its worth the time spent thinking about what this kind of event means for a culture that I’ve both benefited from and been outspokenly critical of. Think of this essay as my thoughts out loud, an attempt to process this tragic blow to my tribe and an attempt to personally make sense of the chaos of grieving to move forward particularly in the interest of safety and inclusivity. What follows are all just feelings, I’m still mentally sorting much of this out.
One of the first things I read about the fire after hearing about it was posted to a local group on Facebook called DIY Chicago, which is a group people mostly use to argue with strangers online where occasionally a show is booked and promoted. Someone linked a piece from Wear Your Voice Magazine that you can read here whose thesis states that the Oakland housing crisis was responsible for the fire, not the culture that the tragedy took place in. I largely agree with most of the author Antwan Herron’s arguments, indeed I think that criticizing the culture over individuals doesn’t do much to solve people’s grief and anger and does nothing to prevent catastrophes like this from happening again. I also agree that the skyrocketing rental rates in Oakland and negligence of the property owner probably exacerbated the tragedy or at the very least contributed to the conditions that led to the fire, but Herron’s absolving of the organizers/owners/tenants personal responsibility for the fire gets at an issue I’ve had with DIY culture that I’ve quietly kept to myself for some time.
Personal story time, a few months ago I was on an East Coast tour with my band and we had just gotten done playing a show in a basement venue in Allston, Massachusetts. We were loading our stuff out of the basement and onto the porch, trying to weave our way around a kid also on the porch who ranked among the top 10 drunkest people I’ve ever seen. This kid was leaning against the house on the rail-less porch vomiting on his shoes and quietly muttering gibberish to himself, while his friends happily carried on with a conversation several feet away from him. Our guitarist stopped a few times to tell his friends they should probably take him home, but they ignored him and carried on with their own business. We had finished loading our gear into our truck, and were finishing up our conversations with old friends when the light, fun atmosphere of the night was suddenly shattered by the sound of a bang and a plume of ash from a fallen grill.
This beyond drunk kid had taken a nasty spill off of the porch and was lying unconscious, bleeding profusely in the yard of this punk house having hit his head on a charcoal grill and a concrete brick on his way down. Everyone went silent, people sheepishly approached him and knelt down to see if he was okay. He was not. The silence was broken by our guitar player shouting “Someone needs to call an ambulance right now” he yelled at the unconscious kid’s friends. Ignored. I looked one of his friends in the eye and added “get your friend medical attention NOW” Ignored. I suspect that these kids (probably underage and definitely drunk) were unwilling to call an ambulance for their friend due to a mixture of the fear of law enforcement, shock at their friend knocking himself out, ignorance over what to do in a crisis situation, and a misguided belief that he’d be okay if they just left him alone there on the ground. Whatever their reasoning, they were shamefully letting their friend bleed out on the ground unconscious like big, stinky cowards.
My throat began to close up in panic as our guitarist pleaded with the injured kid’s friends at least 6 more times to call an ambulance before the decision was made to leave and drive to our next stop on tour. I remember we stopped at a nearby gas station and my bandmates basically gave me a giant group hug until I calmed down enough to be able to process the fuckery we had just bore witness to. On the ensuing night-drive thoughts and questions started to race through my head: What if that had been me? If I got mortally wounded or was in danger at a show would anyone care? Would they even notice? How many times have I been at a show where someone was hurt/in danger and I’ve been too drunk or stoned to notice? It chilled me to my core, I didn’t sleep much that night.
Several weeks after the accident in Allston I was having a conversation with a close friend about house shows in Chicago. I was telling her about my growing unwillingness to attend house shows thrown at “DIY spaces” in this city because of issues I had been having with the culture, both practical and ideological. My attitude began to change in early 2016 when one of the larger house venues in Chicago, which shall remain unnamed, went belly-up. The story goes that the organizers let an outside promoter book a Metro afterparty at their house/venue, the promoter pushed the show hard on Twitter, too many people showed up, shit got out of hand, and the night ended with someone’s jaw broken and the cops raiding the joint. I wasn’t at the event that killed this place but I remember one thing very distinctly from the fallout of their closing: the crew fervently defending themselves and their intentions despite a clear indication that their lack of judgement and disregarding of their patrons’ safety led to the fist-fight that got their house venue shut down. It was disturbing to see their complete lack of remorse for putting the attendees of their event in jeopardy, and their complete refusal to acknowledge their fuck-up as anything other than a police conspiracy. In fact, you can still go to their events in bars in Chicago, spaces that they had previously condemned as unsafe and detrimental to the city’s art scene. Why would a Do-It-Yourself collective throw an afterparty for a venue that represented the dialectic opposite to everything their movement stands for? I suspect money was involved, but I can’t substantiate that. Regardless of what caused the commotion, this lack of personal responsibility and accountability demonstrated by the crew of the house venue, now event service, rears its ugly head often in this subculture. I saw it with that drunk kid in Allston whose chickenshit friends wouldn’t call an ambulance for him, I saw it when the aforementioned house venue facilitated a kid getting his jaw broken when they prioritized their events over their patrons’ safety, I’ve seen it a bunch of times in my tenure as a musician, and now we’ve all seen the horrific consequences of this kind of negligence in Oakland.
The more I think about these things, the crummier it makes me feel. I get the feeling that much of the community aspect of DIY is a smokescreen for building and expending social capital. I saw close friends, artists of color and LGBT status get shut out of the discourse that claimed to be places of elevation for them. Shit sucks. Were my feelings valid? Maybe, maybe not, but I’ll personally maintain that something fucky is going on, at least in Chicago. Along with the lack of true safety I note the hypocrisy of holding an event that’s supposed to be free and open to anyone regardless of background being beholden to rules and social mores that facilitate an air of exclusivity. Sure, anyone can come to this show, but you have to ask someone who may or may not give you the details of the show depending on how you look who you know or where you come from, not even mentioning the litany of ways a person can get mistreated at one of these events an ugly truth that most house venues would prefer to sweep quietly under the rug. I gotta ask myself are this DIY thing and the people in it really that much better and safer than the bar scene it claims to rebel against? I really, really don’t know.
Buuut I was taught by my parents to never complain about problems without offering up solutions and I’ve thought long and hard about what I can do, what we can do, to ensure the safety of ourselves and those around us. I see a lot of people right now that are motivated to make their house venues/art spaces safer for everyone, and it’s great that practical safety is now becoming something on the mind of house venue owners. I’d like to throw my hat in the ring and come up with a few ways to move forward, shout-outs to the venue owners, and you know who you are, who influenced this list and have talked the talk and walked the walk:
- If you throw shows or parties in your house and do not have the holy trinity of smoke detectors, working fire extinguishers, and adequate exits then fuuuck you, you are putting every one of your guests in danger. Stop throwing events. This one has now become frighteningly obvious after the Oakland fire, but it needs to be said.
- Everyone thinks your warehouse is really cool, and that your homemade rooms and electrical systems are neat. Get a building inspector or someone with engineering experience to look at your structures before allowing people to come party in them. Chicago building codes are listed in the public record here, there is no excuse for ignorance. If you have time to throw shows, you have time to read. There is a list of people who can offer you assistance with these things here and again, there is no excuse for ignorance or in this case criminal negligence.
- Don’t let people smoke inside and don’t sell booze at your shows. Sorry kids, I know this is a big part of the punk identity and I like to get loaded at these kinds of events as much as the next person, but sometimes you have to be the grown-up. You are responsible for every person that walks in your door, harm reduction and risk management are the names of the game. People are gonna bring their own substances from home anyway, so the only reason you’d sell booze is to be a capitalist ding-dong.
- Buy first-aid kits and learn how to use them. So easy, so often overlooked. If Cub Scouts can figure this out, so can you.
- Stop with having “liaisons” and “conflict resolution personnel” at your shows. The presence of these personnel only serves to reinforce that safety is someone else’s problem. All it does is create a bystander effect where if someone’s safety is threatened, people can ignore it with the satisfaction that someone else is taking care of it. If you see someone getting messed with stand up for them, don’t wait for someone else to step up and do it for you because they probably won’t.
- Facilitate handicap accessibility whenever possible. One time I went to a benefit show for the Illinois Disability Association that was up three flights of stairs. What are y’all thinking?
These suggestions form just the tip of the safety iceberg, but I feel they’re good places to start. I’ve talked at great length in this essay about safety, inclusivity, and ways to move forward after the terrible heartbreak that occurred in Oakland this past weekend. It’s got me thinking a lot about so many different things, but while all my friends in Oakland are safe let’s remember there are many more whose lives will be permanently affected by this horrible loss of life, let’s keep those people in our thoughts and reflect that there’s still much healing that needs to be done.