By explaining how asset forfeiture laws are used with drug prohibition to single out members of the festival community, I hope that I can clarify how many members of the festival community could end up in Rachel Hoffman’s position, murdered after being forced to work as a Confidential Informant, due to drug prohibition and the wealth promised to law enforcement through asset forfeiture. There needs to be greater outrage over her death within our community. I think that sometimes Rachel’s story does not have the impact that it should when people don’t understand the policy behind it. I think many in the festival community see the fact that she was murdered attempting to buy a handgun and a large amount of cocaine and have trouble relating to that situation because they can’t imagine the amount of stress that Rachel must have felt talking to police after a felony drug arrest while on drug court probation. I noticed that a common reaction to my first piece was that she was a snitch and deserved it. To be clear, Rachel’s “choice” to become a CI has nothing to do with the point of the article. She ended up in an extremely dangerous situation because she refused to snitch on anyone in her circle of friends or anyone selling marijuana. I don’t believe she really had a choice—this situation was predetermined by structural circumstances like prohibition and asset forfeiture and Rachel’s loyalty to her friends. There would not be narcs and snitches if police did not have the incentives that they do to enforce drug laws so aggressively. While explaining the profit incentive created by asset forfeiture and drug prohibition, I will outline some situations that people may more easily relate to or understand while exposing the ways in which local, state, and federal law enforcement are targeting members of the festival community in an attempt to destroy our culture. The seizure of Camp Zoe and arrest of Jimmy Tebeau represent a recent attack on festival culture that finally hit home for many people as Tebeau recently entered federal prison.
There are many examples throughout history of governments that attempt to destroy a society’s culture, art, and symbols to consolidate power or crush resistance to the status quo. Modern examples of war crimes against culture have occurred in Rwanda, Afghanistan, Croatia, and elsewhere—the Nazis in Germany famously hoarded countless precious works of culturally-significant art. I would argue that the U.S. government’s practice of targeting the festival community is a serious crime being perpetrated by the U.S. government and its states and municipalities against their own people. Through a combination of prohibitionist legislation, bad police practices (unregulated use of CI’s, refusal to focus on violent crime, low homicide clearance rates), and the temptation of asset forfeiture profits, law enforcement agencies are doing what makes the most financial sense for them at this time, which is going after anyone associated with drugs in order to seize their assets while using fewer resources to protect citizens from violent crime.
Festival attendees are often low-hanging fruit for highway patrolmen or small town sheriffs to target because the people who go to festivals are often young, ignorant of the law and not necessarily aware of their rights. Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the AMPLIFY Project work to hand out “Know Your Rights” materials at numerous events, including shows and festivals, to educate people on what to do when stopped by police. The best advice for anyone suspected of a crime or arrested is to stay quiet and not say a word to police even if you are completely innocent. Some insignificant, offhand comment could be used against you by prosecutors if it happens to conflict with something you say later. The police are not authorized to make deals without involving the District Attorney, despite their attempts to make scared young people believe that they do, as Tallahassee PD apparently did with Rachel Hoffman. Unfortunately, just knowing your rights is often not enough to avoid arrest or asset seizure. You must be sure to exercise your rights, which police may tell you that you do not have, and, if you have something that the police want (like cash), then they’ll take it and send you on your way without making an arrest because you don’t have any right against civil asset forfeiture. The police are not technically violating your rights by taking your property through civil asset forfeiture, which is why forfeiture policy reform is so important to festival culture since it is an out-of-control practice that law enforcement uses to wage war on the festival community.
Many festival attendees and vendors do not keep their money in banks or use credit cards and, therefore, carry large amounts of cash. Cash (meaning a few hundred dollars) can be seized without an arrest being made or any crime being committed if a preponderance of the evidence suggests that the cash may have come from criminal activity involving drugs or may be used to purchase drugs in the future. Festival attendees are often far from home, lacking the resources to return to the county in which their assets were seized to go to court with a forfeiture attorney who will likely not get them all of their assets returned. While there are attorneys who may work on forfeiture cases pro bono, many victims of asset seizure have legal fees they must pay out of their stolen assets. Luckily, organizations like Americans for Forfeiture Reform exist to provide help to the helpless. And when police look for forfeiture victims, you can be sure that they go after the people who will be left helpless after being robbed. Kaley vs. United States will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in the fall and will essentially decide whether or not asset forfeiture laws and practices prevent defendants from hiring their counsel of choice (a right guaranteed by the 6th Amendment) due to the fact that federal defendants often have all of their assets frozen, leaving them unable to hire attorneys they are confident will best defend them. This is truly a frighteningly powerful weapon that the federal government has unleashed on citizens, encouraging the violation of rights by law enforcement agents. When you are lost and pennyless following a highway robbery by law enforcement agents, AFR has associated volunteers and attorneys who want to help, but asset forfeiture is simply too big of a problem for just one organization to tackle. By adding the outraged voices of the festival community to the discussion, I hope that we empower our society, our community, and each other to make meaningful change in the realm of forfeiture reform and other areas of drug policy reform.
The “War on Drugs” name has been retired by the federal government, but prohibitionist policies have not changed and police and prosecutors continue to wage war, specifically against young people of color and anyone involved with festivals. Since the policies haven’t changed, the war is still on and American law enforcement agencies are committing a grievous and unforgivable crime by targeting art for destruction.
Festival attendees are part of a larger culture and work of art simply by attending and targeting any individual member of the festival community for prosecution of a non-violent crime in a systematic way (road-blocks near festivals) should be considered an incredible injustice if that person was reasonably suspected to have been targeted for their participation in a festival, particularly if they produce physical art or do performance art, both essential aspects of festival culture. The U.S. government is not going to charge federal law enforcement agencies or state/local police departments with war crimes against American citizens, but the festival community must recognize that law enforcement is actively engaged in a war against music and art festivals, to the point that they are willing to break international law to wage this war. The festival community is involved in a war with the U.S. government and numerous law enforcement agencies and, while the government wages a dirty war against our culture, we silently lament the loss of friends, property, or festival grounds without making our voices heard in the media or even within the drug policy reform community.
Festival attendees increasingly are becoming part of the culture, art and experience as there is more and more dialogue between audiences and festival bands. The whole festival community works to break down the idea of a hugely popular band playing to a crowd who idolizes them. At festivals, artists mingle with attendees and the audience plays an absolutely vital and active role in creating a successful show and experience. The best shows are not shows in the traditional sense, but shared experiences with large groups of like-minded people where the invisible wall between “performers” and “observers” completely breaks down. The idea of “us and them” is dying as the festival community grows stronger and matures, meaning that police persecution of one member of our community ultimately hurts the entire community and culture.
Papadosio has captured and understood the role that fans play in their shows better than any other festival band of this generation, having recently released an album entitled T.E.T.I.O.S. (To End The Illusion Of Separation). When the police target one member of our festival community because of their beard or dreadlocks or musical instruments or camping gear, then everyone who has found something special in the festival community must speak out against this persecution or risk the destruction of our culture and the art that molds our individual and collective identities. Dopapod relayed a particularly disturbing story before their first Summer Camp set: police stopped them on the way to the festival and searched their van because their instruments “smelled like narcotics” (police found nothing because there were not any drugs in the van). It’s time for the festival community to grow up rather than drop out because we are a massive group of mostly young people who have the ability to change the policies that are destroying the lives of our brothers and sisters and preventing effective harm reduction services from being performed, such as reagent testing substances to determine their contents. Testing reagents are considered drug paraphernalia by most states.
So what does asset forfeiture mean for the festival community? The government is waging a war against music festivals by using the prohibitionist policies of the drug war, often using laws in ways they were not intended to be used. A widely-known example is the seizure of Camp Zoe and Jimmy Tebeau’s plea agreement after being charged with maintaining a drug-involved premises at Camp Zoe, despite not having been caught with any drugs himself or being connected to any specific drug deals, for which he received 30 months in prison on top of a large fine, community service, and agreeing to forfeit the Camp Zoe property. Ironically, the “crack house” statutes used against Tebeau were a result of him telling security to ban dealers of hard drugs, including crack, from the festival grounds. This was arguably an implicit acknowledgement that psychedelics and cannabis were being used at Camp Zoe and led to his arrest and the forfeiture of his property through a plea bargain, where he received 30 months in federal prison and was forced to forfeit Camp Zoe, a culturally significant piece of property valued at ~$600,000. Tebeau’s forfeiture of Camp Zoe was certainly a factor in reducing the length of his sentence and, from my understanding, was used as leverage in forcing Tebeau into accepting a plea bargain.
Asset forfeiture is often used similarly to draconian mandatory minimum sentences to frighten people charged with drug crimes from going to trial. Perhaps the police were aware that they were standing on shaky ground when they seized a piece of land that has undeniable cultural significance to the festival community because they were never particularly willing to acknowledge that music and art were not only present at Camp Zoe, but were likely the main reason people attended festivals there, along with the desire to feel a sense of community within the festival culture. Acknowledging that legitimate art was present at Camp Zoe would have hurt the government’s case that Tebeau was knowingly running a drug-involved premise (again, the law meant to prosecute owners of crack houses).
Why has the festival community not mobilized around this unthinkable seizure of property? The seizure of Camp Zoe, police checkpoints near festivals (sometimes featuring paramilitary asset forfeiture teams), undercover festival sting operations, and other attacks on festival culture are an open declaration of war by the U.S. government on music and arts festivals and, far too often, the response from festival attendees and people who consider themselves part of the festival community has been to just keep on partying. I’ve even heard people say things like “at least the police on the way to or at one festival are not as bad as they were at another festival,” as if being treated like criminals is an expectation. Even people who have been stopped on the way to festivals seem to view it as a risk involved with the scene when it does not have to be that way.
Portuguese festivals are much safer than their American counterparts because they make sure that reagent testing and even quick GC/MS testing is available to all attendees. Why is that possible? Because Portugal has decriminalized all drugs and created a more civilized and less violent society as a result. As Ethan Nadelmann suggested in a recent speech at Club Health San Francisco in May 2013, perhaps advocating for stiffer penalties for people misrepresenting the drugs they are selling is a way to get politicians interested in harm reduction, particularly reagent testing (the session was titled “Why is this moment different from all other moments?”). Many festival attendees in this country simply take the abuse from law enforcement, lose their assets, and find a way to make it to the next festival. Dropping out of society to go from festival to festival is not necessarily a bad thing if you are working to improve the culture from within, which certainly is necessary, but seeing festivals as an end in themselves is a dire mistake. Dancesafe is a great example of an organization of people who have varying levels of involvement in festival culture, all attempting to improve festival culture from within by providing harm reduction services and education without necessarily engaging in much direct policy change. Dancesafe’s work with the AMPLIFY Project has allowed both organizations to become more proficient at harm reduction and policy reform advocacy. Looking forward all year to your favorite festival without working to improve society or festival culture between gatherings is a pretty sorry way to live your life. If you go to festivals without working to improve them internally or advocate for social change between and/or at events, then you are willfully ignoring the messages underlying festival culture, missing opportunities to enact real social change, and short-changing both our community and yourself and underestimating or ignoring the impact you can have.
Hunter S. Thompson commented on one of the fundamental mistakes of the hippie movement in the 1960s: “There had to be a whole new scene, they said, and the only way to do it was to make the big move & either figuratively or literally & from Berkeley to the Haight-Ashbury, from pragmatism to mysticism, from politics to dope… The thrust is no longer for “change” or “progress” or “revolution,” but merely to escape, to live on the far perimeter of a world that might have been.” The idea of dropping out of mainstream society and simply living within the festival community is an extremely tempting route to take, but it is a fundamental pitfall that festival attendees must avoid because doing so turns beautiful festival experiences into simple escapism. There’s quite a bit of talk about justice and change and peace at the festivals I have been to and the vast majority of the festival community is against the prohibitionist practices of our government. Even for someone who has worked on social justice for years while attending festivals to gain and focus their energy, there is a temptation to just say, “fuck it, society has nothing for me” and make festivals the entirety of one’s existence. Festivals, when done correctly, should not be an end to themselves and I think that they are generally not meant to be. Festivals should be a source of inspiration as members of our community see that creating a peaceful, loving community is possible.
The festival community must not seek to cut itself off from mainstream society, but rather needs to bring the values and ideals of festival culture into the mainstream. Drug prohibition is the largest obstacle to making festivals safer through harm reduction and bringing the ideals of festival culture more into the mainstream. At Club Health San Francisco, we were able to identify drug prohibition as the single greatest barrier to making nightlife and festivals safer because prohibitionist policies generally criminalize most harm reduction techniques. Drug policy reform, including forfeiture reform and harm reduction, is an issue that all members of the festival community should be able to get behind. Ending prohibition would stop police from harassing members of the festival community and robbing them of their assets and it would make festivals safer as harm reduction practices such as reagent testing or even ultra-fast GC/MS testing become a standard part of gatherings so people know what drugs they are taking (if they choose to use drugs). The substances sold and ingested would be pure and people would not be able to profit from selling chemicals as something that they are not, which would keep people safe and remove these predators from our gatherings. I’m not saying that everyone at festivals uses drugs because that simply is not true and is a frequent misconception. However, there is a certain amount of drug use associated with festival culture and everyone needs to be able to look out for each other. The big issue that the festival community must get behind is forfeiture reform or we risk continued government seizures of culturally significant property and the financial ruin of many festival attendees.
The truly important work must be done outside of the festival grounds in the offices of congressmen and city officials. The San Francisco Entertainment Commission is a wonderful example of a non-law enforcement organization that has been empowered by the city to regulate and improve nightlife, recognizing its cultural significance to the city. More cities should follow the lead of San Francisco by allowing people in the industry and familiar with the industry to enforce regulations and work with venues/promoters having difficulty keeping their events legal rather than simply referring the issues to law enforcement, who are not experts on nightlife and have limited options for dealing with violators. Law enforcement agencies must be held accountable for biased policing practices when it comes to forfeiture law and the simplest way to do that is to force these agencies to report the circumstances surrounding civil asset forfeiture cases, including the person’s race, amount seized and the location and circumstances of the stop. Police departments currently do not keep or release statistics on civil asset forfeiture and the first step towards passing forfeiture reform laws is proving police bias in the way they use asset forfeiture, which a reporting law would almost certainly do. The War on Drugs is a War on the Festival Community and we must unite to make our voices heard–we will not continue to accept this intolerance and open war against our works of art and our culture. If you do not speak out against this destruction of culture by working to end prohibition or removing its teeth through forfeiture reform and an overhaul of our Confidential Informant system, then you are allowing this to continue happening, and are complicit in a war on the festival community, on other young people, and on art. Can you live with that?
I suspect that many people unfortunately can, always ready to rage the next show or festival, not giving a shit about any aspect of social justice or drug policy reform. If a large, conscientious, and vocal portion of our community does not stand up against the government and law enforcement agencies by advocating for policy change, then we risk destruction of our entire festival culture in the U.S. It’s time to fight for your ability to produce art, expand your consciousness, and be free from government oppression in the name of the drug war. Whether or not you consume drugs, if you consider yourself part of the festival community, then you must fight to end prohibitionist policies. Those in the festival community who do not choose to fight against drug prohibition and forfeiture abuse are part of the problem because they accept the status quo, free-riders on the hard work of policy reform activists. I can no longer accept the status quo, which is a nasty war waged by the U.S. government against the festival community. Join me in demanding an end to the government’s oppressive War on Festival Culture in the name of the War on Drugs. Check out the AMPLIFY Project to learn about how you can get involved with drug policy reform advocacy and harm reduction efforts at shows and festivals in your community.
I would like to include a brief thanks to Stefanie Jones from the Drug Policy Alliance and Missi Wooldridge from Dancesafe and everyone who attended for putting together Club Health San Francisco May 28-30, 2013, the first time that this revolutionary nightlife safety conference has been held in North America. The Drug Policy Alliance’s dedication to the issue of festival and nightlife safety and inclusion of harm reduction providers in the drug policy reform movement is a HUGE step in the right direction towards reforming drug laws that directly affect the festival community, particularly those that stand in the way of sensible harm reduction practices. Please join us in advocating for safer nightlife and festivals through harm reduction and policy advocacy to end the disastrous drug war and prevent the continuous destruction of elements of festival culture.