Don’t cancel Love Parade – make it better
The deaths of 20 revellers is a terrible tragedy, but we shouldn’t respond to such events by putting life on hold.
An estimated 1.4million people joined the nineteenth Love Parade in Duisburg last weekend. The street party, known for its open use of drugs, outlandish outfits and deafening techno music, was held in the same same hippyish vein as the original 1989 festival, which took place in West Berlin just months before the fall of the wall. But with 20 partygoers now dead and hundreds more injured after a panicked stampede by the festival grounds, peace and international understanding are the last things on Germans’ minds.
Video footage and eye-witness accounts of festival-goers desperately trying to escape the crush paint a terrifying picture. Accusations are now flying at security consultants, city authorities, the police and festival organisers. It’s too early to say exactly what caused the stampede, and whether it could have been avoided, but many have drawn the conclusion that the festival should not have taken place at all. And, adding to the tragedy, Love Parade organisers have promised that it will never be held again. That is a big mistake.
There were obviously some serious misjudgements in relation to the organisation of the festival. For instance, local media have estimated that the venue, an old freight railway station with only one entrance and exit through a long tunnel, could handle a maximum of 300,000 people. The investigation ordered by German chancellor Angela Merkel will hopefully shed some light on to the events that led to the deaths of the 20 young ravers, and clarify why the festival was pushed into this unsuitable venue. But the conclusion should not be ‘never again’, but rather ‘better next time’.
After all, Love Parade has millions of fans across the world – why should they suffer from the mistakes and miscalculations of the organisers and authorities? As Rainer Schaller, the German entrepreneur who took over Love Parade in 2006, said (before announcing a permanent end to the festival): ‘The Love Parade was always a peaceful and joyous party.’
Moreover, cancelling this festival – which has been around for 21 years and has spawned several international spin-offs, yet which has never before experienced a stampede – will only turn it into an example for why other public events should be cancelled or severely restricted. In fact, though the tragedy only happened three days ago, it is already being held up as a lesson about the dangers of out-of-control-crowds and free happenings.
In the British press, including in yesterday’s Times, the Duisburg Love Parade has been widely compared to the shocking death of 96 Liverpool fans at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield in 1989. The Times claimed that ‘the British authorities have learnt from experience how panic and overcrowding can make free public events fatal’. In the UK, security requirements are now so strict and costly that 18 festivals have been cancelled, including Glade, an electronic dance music festival near Winchester that had been going for six years. In a statement announcing the cancellation, organisers fumed: ‘We have fought hard to maintain the integrity of the event against steadily increasing restrictions imposed by local authority and police. The resulting compromises have led to increased costs, increased ticket prices and a throttling of the very essence of what we wanted to do.’
And it’s not just major festivals attracting thousands of party people that have fallen prey to the culture of cautiousness. Three years ago, spiked reported from a small community fair in north London where organisers were being asked to fulfil all sorts of new requirements. These included hiring only professional caterers who had to be registered with their local authority; making sure all staff, artists and volunteers had a Criminal Records Bureau check; and using only a gas barbeque instead of the traditional coal one that had been used for three decades. Talk about killing community spirit.
Yet for The Times reporter quoting the Glade-organisers’ dismayed statement, the flipside of overzealous policing and atmosphere-quenching rules is simply ‘a much improved public safety record’ in the UK. Of course, the way to ensure a clean safety record is to cancel public events altogether, but think about what individuals and communities would lose in the process.
As for the Hillsborough crush, held up over the years as a prime example of ‘the danger of crowds’, that is now remembered as a tragic accident, blamed variously on the poor state of the stadium and on police incompetence in dealing with ‘crowd control’. But as Mick Hume pointed out on spiked last year, on the twentieth anniversary of the crush, it happened ‘because it was state policy to treat football supporters not as people, but as a public order problem’. In other words, this was a case of the authorities’ fear and loathing of the ‘hooligan’ crowds leading to an overzealous crowd-control policy that turned out to be fatal. Yet the response to Hillsborough has been to impose even more policing, surveillance and rules of conduct at football stadiums and beyond.
A similar dynamic looks to have been at play in the evolution of the Love Parade, which grew from being a small street party with 150 people dancing around a truck in Berlin in 1989 into the world’s biggest dance festival. Since its inception, Love Parade has been involved in conflicts with authorities keen to limit its size and to assign responsibility for its administration to organisers themselves.
The Duisburg organisers have been severely criticised for chosing a highly unsuitable, closed venue for a free event with unpredictable numbers of attendees. Yet it seems the reason the Love Parade was held in a sealed-off environment rather than out in the open this time is precisely because the authorities have, through the years, been keen to push the festival aside, to keep it out of sight, preferring to banish it from Berlin and relegate it to small towns where it would cause less disruption.
As the Parade was originally billed as a political demonstration, the state was legally responsible for providing security and footing the bill for the clean-up. The authorities were eventually successful in forcing Love Parade to be billed as a commercial event and, due to a lack of finances, it was cancelled for two consecutive years in 2004 and 2005. When it returned to Berlin in 2006, over one million people took part, but, again, city authorities and event organisers did not see eye to eye and so for the next two years it was relocated to smaller towns in the Ruhr district. In 2009, the city authorities in Bochum, a town near Duisburg, heeded police warnings and cancelled the Love Parade planned there.
According to some festival-goers, the police and security staff were part of the problem at the Duisburg Love Parade. Some witnesses have blamed them for causing a panic by closing off the tunnel that served as the only entrance and exit to the festival grounds, and ordering those trying to get in to turn around because the venue was too full. At this point, people reportedly started to climb up a steep metal stairway on a ramp in front of the tunnel in order to escape and some fell into the crowd. If these accounts are correct, it suggests that the police’s crowd-control and containment instinct itself could have contributed to, if not caused, panic and tragedy.
Whatever you think of the rave scene, in these times of health-and-safety obsessiveness Love Parade was a refreshing example of people joining together for one day of carefree and outlandish public partying. Love Parade organisers should learn from whatever mistakes were made and put on an even bigger festival next year. After all, we’d all be worse off without large concerts, football matches or demonstrations – events where being part of a mass of people who are all there for the same purpose is the whole point.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
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