I was not at Astroworld, but I can’t escape it.
Astroworld, to recap, was Travis Scott’s sold-out, two-day music festival in Houston, now in its third iteration. On Friday night, 50,000 people came to his headline performance. Crowd surges created a mass casualty event; eight people died and hundreds were injured. The show continued on for 40 minutes after the surge began.
It can sometimes be a fine line between avoiding dying and living our lives. Although I thought it was strange to have a 50,000 person concert during a pandemic, I can’t blame the concertgoers for not knowing that a concert could kill them. Who knew that one could drown in a sea of humans? Of all the deaths to fear, who knew that being trampled on should be added to the list, too?
The firsthand accounts are gruesome, but what is most brutal to me is that there are some deaths – no matter how close or how many – that don’t make a loud enough sound to stop the show.
“More people began to scream for help, some began to collapse. The music continued.”
“Like how is someone literally dying and the concert is still going?”
“In complete darkness I was hearing another girl screaming that she also couldn’t breathe, and I was simultaneously holding another person’s hand underneath everyone.”
Thirty-six hundred miles away from Houston, I can’t help but hear their desperation as an echo. Have we not heard these very same cries for the past 20 months, reverberating across our country since the beginning of this pandemic?
Out living our lives – singing church songs, saying cheers, getting groceries – who knew, then, that our social life could kill us? How could we have known that one can suffocate from the inside out – who really knew what a ventilator was, or that a hospital only had so many? We didn’t know a pandemic could be possible in our lifetime, that it would take the lives of elders and marathon runners and lovers and mothers. We didn’t know.
And then we learned. We learned that COVID spread by close contact. We learned that you could prevent it by mask wearing, social distancing, restricting travel, increasing testing, limiting large gatherings, and so forth. We developed a vaccine and we swiftly made it available. The math is there, the science is there. We didn’t know, but now we know, and it is possible to end this.
“We continued to drown. More and more. One person fell, or collapsed, it doesn’t matter how it started.”
“I’m watching people sing & dance while others & I were gasping for air.”
The story that most captivates me here is not about crowd control, but about our human nature in a crisis. Who is chanting “stop the show” and who is booing them?
I too want to live my life -- to gather and see people’s faces and not quarantine every time there’s an exposure in my work or friend group -- but how would one live with themselves as a dancer amongst the dying?
What I hear in the Astroworld accounts is an unselfish terror. I hear how life-living a person they are, and how traumatic it was to see a man next to them collapse, to see a hand under a dozen bodies reaching out, to watch an unconscious girl fall off a stretcher onto her face. The accounts are horrifying, because the helplessness of death can be humiliating, and a moral person in the face of it can barely shoulder the shame.
As of yesterday, 758,186 have died from COVID in the U.S. Although we are only 4% of the world population, we represent around 20% of the world’s COVID deaths. It is not just that one can die of COVID, it’s that we as a country have not successfully worked together to stop its spread.
If you are among those who refuse to wear a mask, who refuse to take precautions, who refuses the science of the vaccine, yet does not refuse living the life of a human in community, I have to ask: Why, how? You didn’t know, but now you know. If you were the woman who saw the floor of bodies, wouldn’t you, too, climb the ladder to a platform and beg to stop the music?
I’m wondering about the people who went to Astroworld and had a good time.
Help me out here. I don’t think this is up to us – the mask wearers, the vaccinated, the businesses still operating at partial capacity – anymore. We stopped dancing a long time ago. We are shrieking, trying to get someone’s attention, but they cannot or will not hear us.
During his 70-minute performance, Travis Scott stopped for a moment to acknowledge an ambulance making its way through the crowd. He asked folks to raise their middle finger up if they were OK, and I guess enough people flipped their bird. He went on to sing for another half hour, and when he was finished, he waved to the crowd and said, “I love y’all. Make it home safe. Good night!”
But who cares about Travis Scott. Who I care about is you. My family, my community, myself. We who deserve to be loved and to make it home safe. Here in the concert of our country, the band plays on, the crowd is swaying, our friends and our strangers collapsing.
Do you face the music or do you look away?
If there was something you could do to make it stop, would you do it?
Christy NaMee Eriksen is a poet, teaching artist and small business owner whose work is grounded in social justice and community engagement. She lives in Juneau.
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