Photo: Liberation News collage. Right, the aftermath of the Astroworld festival. Left, police taking selfies during the crowd surge.
On Nov. 5, 10 people died and hundreds were injured in a crowd surge at the corporate-backed Astroworld music festival. Much of the focus has been on performer Travis Scott, who founded the festival and was performing at the time of the disaster. But the major faults are systemic: failures to plan for common scenarios, cost-cutting measures that limited the capacity to deliver medical aid, lack of adequate training, and police indifference to human suffering. Like the tragic killing of Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie “Rust” just weeks before, the Astroworld tragedy is the result of capitalist greed, which puts profit margins over human life in every decision.
Spectacular failures of planning led up to disaster
Long before the festival, the ground was laid for systemic failure.
The safety plan for the festival used “boilerplate” language and did not include any protocol for dealing with a crowd surge. It did not include any preparation for mosh pits or stage diving, both common occurrences in large concerts across many musical genres. Two paragraphs cover the possibility of a “civil disturbance/riot,” but the language is unrelated to general unsafe crowd conditions caused by the venue.
The medic company staffing the festival, ParaDocs, hired more than 70 personnel for the festival. They had at their disposal a medical tent with a total capacity of 10 people, for an expected crowd of 50,000 people.
Firefighters were not in contact with ParaDocs staff. When the fire department asked for radios to be in direct communication with other emergency personnel, they were denied radios and handed a list of cell phone numbers to call instead.
It is currently unclear what the chain of command was for shutting down the concert in case of emergency. A spokesperson for Scott claims that the only two people who could shut down the show were the executive producer and concert producer. This is also part of the released safety document. The Houston Police Department has claimed that they did not have the authority to shut down the show. The Houston Fire Chief has claimed that Scott himself could have shut down the show. Scott’s attorney, Edwin F. McPherson, has cited precedent in which police have previously shut down Astroworld for running over the allotted time.
Astroworld was a private, for-profit concert taking place on public land and staffed by over 500 people on public payroll. In practice, any of the parties involved — concert promoters, Travis Scott, the Houston Police Department, or the Houston Fire Department — likely could have taken steps to shut down the concert. However, on paper, this right was reserved for just two individuals who had a financial stake in keeping the concert going.
This was the setup leading up to Astroworld: Over 500 police officers and 700 private security guards were brought in, alongside just over 70 medical staff with a 10-person tent, to handle an event of tens of thousands of people. None of them appear to have received any briefing on crowd surge management, they had only vague emergency protocols, communication between the groups was challenged or non-existent, and the chain of command was unclear. The plan was so inadequate, and the security orientation so unhelpful, that at least one security guard allegedly quit the day before the festival due to the poor preparation.
While the event relied on publicly funded facilities and personnel and could have been regulated according to public safety needs, the planning was entirely privatized and left to the whims of corporate managers. Cost-cutting measures and capitalist inefficiency paved the way for the disaster.
Police take selfies while hundreds suffocate
Details of the exact timeline are still forthcoming, but a rough timeline of events reveals further failings on the part of the people responsible for public “safety.” Key moments of police action have been bolded to emphasize the elapsed time between security’s knowledge of an incident and their response.
At 4:54 p.m., Houston police reports “dangerous crowd conditions.”
At 9:02 p.m., Travis Scott takes the stage for his performance.
By 9:14 p.m., there is the first report of a crush injury and a person struggling to breathe.
Sometime between 9:14 p.m. and 9:24 p.m., a voice over police radio announces that, “We’re having some structural issues that could be catastrophic.”
Around 9:24 p.m., Scott notices a problem with the crowd and mentions a person struggling onstage.
By 9:30 p.m., injury reports are expanded to include multiple injuries and tramplings.
Around this time, a woman is filmed trying to climb a platform to the camera crew. She and one other concertgoer scream, “There is someone dying! There is someone dead! Stop the show! Stop the show!”
911 calls begin streaming in by 9:35 p.m., with five reported unconscious persons and CPR in progress.
Just 3 minutes later, at 9:38 p.m., Houston officials declare a “mass casualty incident.” The concert continues.
Scott attempts to direct medics to an injured person around 40 minutes into his set, but continues performing.
Around 9:54 p.m., Drake takes the stage with Scott, causing another surge as the two continue to perform.
At 9:57 p.m., police officers are filmed casually taking selfies in front of the stage.
By 10:02 p.m., with the concert still going, police are seen casually strolling across the stage. The concert continues.
A different bystander films police taking more selfies at 10:05 p.m., a full 27 minutes after the mass casualty incident was declared.
At another point during the concert, police were filmed carrying a woman on a stretcher, dropping her headfirst onto a metal grate.
Around 10:08 p.m., Scott performs his last song alone and closes the concert.
It is not clear yet what Scott knew about the situation in the crowd. What is clear is that the Houston Police Department and private security guards knew about the unfolding event. Not only did the combined force of over 1,000 security personnel fail to intervene meaningfully, but they may also have even worsened the carnage, all while taking selfies with celebrities.
Live Nation’s corporate greed has cost hundreds of lives
Media coverage of the disaster often mentions Travis Scott’s provocative concert antics as a contributor to the chaos at Astroworld. Racially coded language of “hip-hop audiences” and “aggressive music” have been used for decades to blame the victims for violence perpetrated against them. Police played into this victim-blaming narrative by initially claiming that someone in the audience was pricking people, including a cop, with a needle full of “drugs.” They were later forced to walk back this ludicrous claim.
Whether or not Scott is liable in this specific case, the failures at Astroworld are par for the course in the entertainment industry. Astroworld is a corporate-backed festival run for profit. Death and injury at corporate music events is not the exception, but the norm.
The promoter behind Astroworld, Live Nation Entertainment and its subsidiary Live Nation Worldwide, have seen at least 200 deaths and 750 injuries in just 15 years. They were cited for 10 OSHA safety violations in just a 3-year period between 2016 and 2019. They are currently under a Justice Department consent decree for antitrust violation, after their 2010 merger with the notorious ticket sales company Ticketmaster.
Deaths and injuries have happened at Live Nation concerts across all genres of music, including concerts by Radiohead, Beyonce, Dua Lipa, Drake, Madonna and Jimmy Buffett.
Live Nation has a long history of union-busting. By retaliating against workers who unionize and using subcontracted third-party labor, Live Nation brings down the labor costs of producing events. The result is that lower-paid workers receive less training and are often put outside their areas of expertise. This makes conditions more dangerous for workers and audiences, but lines the pockets of company executives.
The facts are still emerging about what happened on Nov. 5. But one thing is already clear: Capitalist cost-cutting and police negligence undergird the 2021 Astroworld tragedy. Ten young people have been permanently lost and thousands more irreparably harmed by a system that sacrifices human well-being to corporate profit.