If you have been privy to recently trending photos on social media, you’d see that the debate of whether summer is over or not remains in full effect. Whichever camp you are in, I hope that you can agree that spending time in the great outdoors, perhaps enjoying a festival or two is not a bad way to enjoy the heat. (Truth be told, this extended summer is equal parts “state of mind” and a result of climate change, but that’s for another article.) What I’d like to do is pull up a lawn chair, push back my cat-eye sunglasses and chat about the militarization of public spaces.
This train of thought was sparked when a friend of mine posted a screenshot of the newly updated Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival rules on Instagram. Hardly Strictly began in 2001 and is an annual, outdoor music festival in San Francisco. The festival held in Golden Gate Park has been made possible by the financial support of Warren Hellman.
Hellman and his family have close ties to institutions in the Bay Area, such as Mills College, where he served as a board member of the college from 1982-1992. Hellman, whose years of generous donations helped fund public projects in San Francisco and resulted in the renaming of Speedway Meadow to Hellman Hollow, where the festival has operated unticketed and free for the past 17 years.
The fact that Hardly Strictly is not only free, but has traditionally been a laid back environment despite its large scale makes this event unique. That’s why I was taken aback after learning that the event will have a heightened police presence, prohibiting the use of any and all coolers along with hard alcohol. Festival-goers are required to bring their items in transparent bags and prohibited items will be confiscated.
For the record, organizers of Hardly Strictly addressed the public concern over the new changes affecting past Bring Your Own Booze (BYOB) policies. Hardly Strictly noted that concession stands will be available to purchase food and non-alcoholic drinks. Beer and wine will be permitted so long as they are not in glass containers (canned or boxed only).
Now as a first-generation San Franciscan, I have some biases. Namely, that I like gratuitous musical medleys, at the peak of summer, with a cold one.
Libations aside, these changes are a manifestation of broader societal values that legitimize militarism to achieve optimal behavioral control. This is reflected in the heightened reliance on police officers, who serve as arms of the state, as a false equivalency for public safety. Especially within the context of officer involved shootings that disproportionately impact people of color and marginalized communities.
After the Odessa, Texas shooting on Sept. 2, 2019, the Hardly Strictly rule changes were posted on the event’s Facebook page on Sept. 3, 2019:
“Dear fans, in an attempt to keep YOU safer, we’ve adopted some changes this year. We made these in conjunction with law enforcement and based on best safety practices that are in place at all music and sporting events. We have been fortunate to have this event with minimal restrictions in the past, understand the list of items we have asked you not to bring are for the safety of everyone and we need your help to comply.”
According to the New York Times, from Memorial Day to Labor Day this summer there have been 26 mass shootings, leaving 126 people dead. One hundred twenty-six lives cut short in a manner that is both senseless and cruel. These stories are heartbreaking, and affect a multiplicity of communities. They vary on a broad spectrum from suburban—as with the Gilroy Garlic festival—to urban, meaning that no one is exempt from the impact.
While any death feels unwarranted, these mass shootings spark an inner turmoil within the American psyche. This unrest that exists within the tension between individual liberties ingrained in the Second Amendment and the broader obligations of the government to exercise control over the sale of products that have been proven to be cataclysmic to public safety.
It is this duality in loyalty between capitalism and the American public that is really at the forefront of this gun debate issue. That is why certain members of Congress (here’s looking at you, Mitch) continue to offer tweets and prayers instead of comprehensive gun reform because the National Rifle Association (NRA) makes exorbitant political campaign contributions that leave politicians at an impasse. It is this tension between individual rights and broader public good that feeds the outrage cycle.
The counterclaims made by the far right and the NRA lobby to gain a profit from weapons of war, such as the AR-15 style rifle, are immoral and the logical conclusion of the growth for growth’s sake which, objectively speaking, is cancerous. The gun industry and NRA pitch the AR-15 as an all-in-one defense weapon, because the AR-15 can shoot 10 rounds of ammo per second.
However, in reality the AR-15 rifle is neither an adequate hunting tool nor home defense weapon. That is because the sheer force of the weapon destroys the intended target, minimizing any gains potentially made from said hunt. This sort of rapid-fire artillery also eliminates the need for precision to hit one’s target—making the AR-15 completely antithetical to the sport of hunting.
They are also not as useful as a handgun during a home invasion, which, according to Slate, is because of the long frame of the gun which can be difficult to use in tight quarters. When fired, the force will extend far beyond the reaches of one’s intended target, penetrating walls and potentially impacting neighbors and passersby.
The trajectory that the U.S. is on is both unsustainable and reckless. There are too many instances of public spaces that have been violated by angry men with access to guns that have opened fire in houses of worship, schools, work, shopping centers, festivals, and bars—this doesn’t include instances of intimate partner violence and suicide that don’t make the headlines and constitute a majority of recorded gun deaths.
While the measures that Hardly Strictly Bluegrass have taken are done with the best interest of their fans and the public in mind, they do not warrant the increased presence of police in order to do so. The lack of comprehensive legislation has resulted in the literal shrinking of the public sphere in exchange for a semblance of security. The real threat is not in the nature of festivals and public gatherings themselves but rather the lack of mental health resources, comprehensive background checks and a limit on the type of hunting equipment available to the public.