A three-day concert last weekend by the Athens, GA-based band Widespread Panic, popular among college students, saw 200 fans arrested on drug charges by law enforcement authorities at the Oak Mountain Amphitheatre in Pelham, AL. One woman died after apparently taking ecstasy, according to Pelham police; another "spreadhead," as the band's fans sometimes refer to themselves, committed suicide at a nearby motel. But the deaths were not the cause of the arrests, which were part of an operation planned in advance before the shows.
The arrests in Alabama are a harbinger of increased police drug enforcement activity at rock concert, raves and other music venues as the summer concert season looms, but concertgoers need not remain defenseless before the narcs. They can instead educate themselves about how to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and then do so, said Steven Silverman of the newly-formed organization Flex Your Rights (http://www.flexyourrights.org). Other activists have suggested proactive responses as well.
At Oak Mountain, the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the Pelham Police Department carefully crafted "Operation Don't Panic" to target drug use and underage drinking at the concert. According to the Birmingham News, the operation "involved thousands of dollars, hundreds of worker hours and dozens of uniformed and plainclothes officers. It was one of the biggest ABC operations in recent memory," the newspaper noted.
Teams of undercover agents prowled the parking lots and concert grounds before and during the shows, attempting to purchase drugs from unwary vendors and to arrest distracted users. According to press accounts, the line-up of the arrested was a veritable cross-section of young, white America: a prison guard, a high school student, a criminal justice major, a Department of Energy employee, a construction worker, an itinerant vendor. Police reported seizing marijuana, cocaine, Oxycontin, nitrous oxide and ecstasy, among other proscribed substances.
"What they did to me was totally uncool," said Jason Bartlett, 30, a spreadhead and self-described ski bum from Colorado, who was arrested Friday and spent 20 hours in jail before a friend posted bail for his misdemeanor marijuana arrest. "We don't want to lose our scene. We are trying not to lose our vibe, but we are definitely scared."
Widespread Panic, a band that has taken up the mantle left first by the Grateful Dead and then by Phish as the band to follow across the country, was an obvious target -- or more precisely, its fans were. Widespread Panic shows saw 40 arrested at Valdosta State University in Georgia last October, 45 arrested in Charleston, SC, last November, and 53 arrested at Mississippi State University in April 2001.
But they aren't the only ones. With a bill in Congress targeting music event promoters for drug activity at their events (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/233.html#federalmethbill), the war on rave culture is already well underway, and with summer blockbuster tours such as Ozzfest and the Vans Warped Tour preparing to hit the road, rock and rave fans will be in the law enforcement crosshairs.
Many of them can avoid being arrested if they learn how to properly exercise their constitutional rights against unlawful searches and seizures, said Flex Your Rights' Silverman. "These folks need to understand that police officers see rock concerts as a target-rich environment," he told DRCNet. "People need to be in a self-preservation mode considering the zero-tolerance atmosphere in which we live," he said.
"Avoiding arrest on a drug charge is harm reduction," said Silverman. "We believe that the worst danger, especially with marijuana, is that of being arrested. If we can reduce the likelihood of people being arrested, we are doing harm reduction, from the perspective of both the individual and society at large," he explained.
"Do not do anything illegal in public," advised Silverman, who recently began taking his Flex Your Rights presentation before college student audiences. "Don't have contraband in plain view. If you are doing something illegal -- which we don't condone -- do it in the privacy of your own home."
But Silverman acknowledged that many people will possess and consume illicit drugs at concert events. In that case, Silverman said, if they encounter police, three rules should guide their conduct. "First, concertgoers do not have to talk to a police officer. If there is a problem, the question you always want to ask is, 'Officer, am I free to go? Or simply say 'I'm leaving' and then leave. If the officer prevents you from leaving, ask, 'Am I under arrest or being detained?' If not, you are free to leave. Do so. Immediately. And don't go back. Be courteous and non-confrontational, always call them sir or ma'am," he counseled. "We are not against the police, but we are trying to prevent police misconduct." That misconduct occurs any time police officers attempt to persuade or intimidate citizens into forfeiting their rights, Silverman said.
"Second -- and this is our single most important bit of advice -- never, ever consent to a warrantless search. Let me repeat: Never, ever consent to a warrantless search," Silverman emphasized. "If the police officer is asking your permission to search you, your car, or your property, that should be an alarm. He is telling you he does not have probable cause to search. He is saying, 'I can only search with your consent.' Do not consent. You have nothing to lose by not consenting and everything to lose if you do. Once you have consented to a search, you have waived your Fourth Amendment right to be free of unwarranted searches and seizures."
"Third," Silverman enumerated, "if you are arrested, keep your mouth shut. Don't think you can persuade the officer to let you go out of the kindness of his heart. Most likely, the officer will use anything you say to build a case against you. You have the right not to talk to the police without an attorney present -- flex that right," said Silverman.
Drug-using concertgoers need to pay attention to their surroundings, said Silverman. "You should plan for these places to be swarming with police and undercover officers," he said. "Watch out for them. And never give even a small amount of contraband to someone you don't know at a show," he said. "Your potential possession charge just turned into a possible felony distribution arrest."
Avoiding arrest is one thing. Helping others avoid arrest can also be done, often merely by alerting inattentive crowd members to the presence of police. The Birmingham News reported that at various points during police operations at Oak Mountain, operations were disrupted when undercover agents were loudly outed by cries of "narc" or "six-up" [an apparently distorted reference to "Hawaii Five-Oh"]. Spontaneous actions by the crowd at the 4th of July smoke-in in Washington, DC, last summer served a similar purpose. At that event, sharp-eyed and militant crowd members fanned out ahead of approaching police warning unwary tokers of the danger while other crowd members surrounded and loudly berated the woebegone -- and now quite ineffective -- narcs. The police gave up their forays into the crowd, instead limiting themselves to the event's fringes in hopes of picking off a young victim.
In some cases at smoke-ins, concerts, and political protests, people have "unarrested" others detained by police, physically wresting the detainee from police and allowing him or her to disappear into the safety of the crowd. This tactic, however, is rife with danger because it could lead to melees, police riots or felony assault arrests.