At checkpoint one, an orange shirted collection of volunteers and semi-professional security contractors organize bag searches and document inspection. This is the only civilian entrance through the perimeter fence that rings all the way around the interior. Uniformed police on motorcycles and dirt bikes or mounted on horses make paces up and down the fence, scattering away anyone who gathers for too long to peek inside. In some places, a layer of horse shit has been applied to the base of the fence, as if to say, “You want to sneak in? Fine, but you’re going to crawl through shit first.” But this is no militarized zone. This gulag isn’t motivated by a national border dispute or a political cold war. This is the atmosphere of a summer day in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, on the outskirts of the Outside Lands music festival.
The festival sits down on top of the park with all the subtlety of a baby on fire, sprawling across acres of normally free land. On the initial approach, you can’t help but assume that there has to be some way in. Given this much land, this many people over three nights and all these dozens of bands and vendors and flat beds and sound checks, there must be some weak point. Someplace where you can walk in easily and pass undetected among everyone who paid 125 dollars to be here over the weekend (or 75, just for the day).
A lot of people must have assumed this, because they’ve all camped out together beyond the fences. They sit in trees and dance with hula hoops on a hill that overlooks the thousands of people on the inside. Policemen sit on horses between us and the fences. Underneath the trees, groups of street kids lay sprawled on mats of pine needles and old blankets, advertising illegal drugs on hastily scrawled cardboard signs. Improvisational hippie folk bands spring daisy like out of the mulch. It’s the nightmare of every visiting church group embodied in a thinly packed strip of bare mid riffs and contact juggling.
On the other side of the park, a hill overlooks the main stage. The bass is loud and the lyrics indistinct, and through a long grove of trees the crowd is a kind of hive beneath the far off mega monitors. And here people have laid out blankets and tied their dogs and their bikes around trees. There is a resigned contentment, watching from beyond the gates, catching the echoes of performances miles in the distance. Somewhere, Al Green is singing. The beer must taste just as good here, the grass just as green.
But this is only half of the community. The rest prowl the outskirts, memorizing the locations of loose fencing, where it can most easily be pulled up and slid underneath. A man in his middle forties spends hours attempting to organize a critical mass of bodies with which to ram fences. He has already been escorted out by security twice, with no consequence more than a firm warning not to do it again. He compares the whole business to a video game. Twice I join him in a hesitant mob, marching along the fence, trying to gain momentum, only to lose it as people trail off, flake away. He keeps openly wondering where the solidarity is? Wasn’t it just last year that some mythical group of people broke the fence down? So why, he wonders, is it so hard to form a group, at least one group big enough for a cut and run strategy? Just get enough people on the other side of that fence and haul ass in enough directions, and there will be no way the security can catch everyone.
But even on this, little is certain. There are those who insist that the solution isn’t to go with the group, but wait them out. They’re sure that once the security catches the first group and escorts them towards the exit, a hole will be left open with which a few select folks can slip in quietly and stroll their way inside.
The first problem is the wilderness beyond the fence. Out here with everyone on the outside, the security is nice enough to give you vague advice on where the best place to sneak in could be. Out here, a little bit of flirting or kind words can earn you valuable infiltration information or, at the very least, the acknowledgement of shared humanity. But on the inside, they break out the ATVs.
Sit on the hill long enough and the far off rock concert quickly becomes less entertaining than the spectator sport of watching people booking it across the wilderness between the fence and the stages. Groups of half a dozen sneak looks up and down the length of the perimeter, then duck down to raise the fence like the hem of a couch about to have dust swept beneath it. Then underneath this slides a friend who, once on the other side, raises the fence for their companion to follow. And then they bolt across the woods. Boyfriends ditch their girlfriends. Groups of friends try to stick together, only to lose their composure and split up.
In pursuit come the four wheelers, appearing from stands of trees, the Blue shirts in tow. These aren’t the helpful but firm Orange shirted lifeguards of the perimeter. This far in all you get are anxious bull dogs, with linebacker shoulders and bald heads supported by folds of neck fat. They appear from behind bushes, from the crooks in trees, emerging with all the magic of pernicious leprechauns out to defend their gold.
And then beyond what you can see from the hill, everything turns into rumor. Someone mentions horses in the forest. There is a colorful but unlikely story about bee hives situated in the path of potential runners. The unsuccessful mob organizer in the camouflage provides a single stark warning: “If they tell you to stop, keep running. If they say they’re going to get the dogs, stop.” Even if you can get past all of that, the cops, the Orange shirts, the first fence, the quarter mile sprint and the Blue shirts in their land rovers, you still have a second fence to jump, and a second mad dash into the anonymity of the ticket holders.
Even this far in there’s no guarantee. There are rumors of random spot checks and paper searches. A man with a leashed dog and a vaguely western European accent tells of his son’s failure. Not at the hands of the security, he got through them. No, the man says, his son was turned in by one of the spectators, who caught him and pointed him out to security. “Fucker,” the man says. “He had rock and roll in his head, and Hitler shit in his heart.”
A bearded boy with a mandolin in his backpack tells of being roughed up and threatened by the Blue shirts on the inside, and the experience has drained him. Now he sits with the old men and the dog owners, content on the hill. He says that yesterday he spotted Alex Ebert, of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, making his way past the fence. He yelled his name, and the man sat beside him and they shared break-in strategy together. With this he has found his experience. With that mandolin in his backpack, he never would have been let in anyway. Here at the Outside Lands Music Festival, as detailed in the “What not to bring” section of their web site, musical instruments are strictly prohibited.
My own attempt failed along with most of the others. I joined up with a pair of girls from out of town, who stuck with me past the first fence and all the way to the back end of a police station. And while the police escorted us out, the security guards laughed the whole way out. The girls vanished as they joined up with another group, headed down the fence, looking for that magic spot.
The show soon takes on a sense of self-parody, a border town masquerading as a rock concert. All day people compare the breaking in to video games or heist movies or a complicated form of tag. You can’t help but compare the whole thing to its “real life” counterparts. We would likely seem even more silly, in our world without consequences, to anyone who has ever had to sleep out for a night in a rat infested drain pipe or trust their fortune to nameless men in clapboard border towns. This fence may be high, but we still have a guarantee that eludes millions of people eyeing life across artificial boundary lines. Because tomorrow, our fence will come down, while theirs remains. And here we are, playing the Immigration Simulator, the Disney version of the Arizona profiling law.
As the day ends, I walk back to my bike along the outside of the fence, finally done with this whole business of being in the right place at the right time. Everywhere you look there are people pulling up the fences, darting across that old familiar no man’s land. People creep through the woods not ten yards from the fence, headed towards what any experienced jumper would know is just another waiting security guard. Do they know about the second fence? Do they know about the second security force hiding in the bushes? Everyone is so conspicuous it becomes impossible to believe that the security is doing anything but laughing at us.
So would it have been easier to sit and enjoy the show from outside, then? I did spend a good ten minutes in a tree, watching Edward Sharpe from above the heads of horses and the spikes of fences, before security kicked me out. Isn’t there something to dancing with the mid riffed girls and sharing warm beer with new friends. Doesn’t the beer taste the same, regardless of what side of the fence you’re on? I can’t help but feel a sense of frustration at the sight of all those thousands of honest ticket payers, tucked away safely on the inside. Why do they outnumber the infiltrators? But then again, this is the way of things, isn’t it? Everyone being polite while a few people sit on a hill and gleefully misbehave.
And yet if I’d stayed in that crowd, maybe I would have been there for what happened during Chromeo’s set; for that moment when a group of kids rose up out of nowhere and rushed the fence. And, to cheers from the crowd within, they knocked the whole thing right over and rushed inside and blended in, disappearing into the crowd. I was just in the right place at the wrong time. I must have missed it by that much. If only that bunch of kids had dodged instead of weaved, if only they’d hopped instead of dug, they’d be on the inside right now. And with that kind of thought in the back of your head, how can you possibly just sit in your tree?
But then I try to remember why I came here in the first place. It wasn’t for some spectacular musical line up. It wasn’t for any kind of atmosphere. The fences, the guards, they’re a challenge. An opportunity to say that no matter what is built, myself or someone else will find a way to smash it down. Though we may not have as much at stake as a people faced with true and permanent borders, this is more than some dumb game. It’s one hand fighting the other hand, human ingenuity and creativity up against walkie talkies, metal detectors, horse shit, night sticks, dogs, bees and machismo. With the whole masses of private security organized against you, how can you not be tempted to give the whole operation the finger, shouting “I’m smarter than your machines, I’m faster than your dogs, I break down fences and damn, I look sexy doing it.”