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Why Exactly Did the Police Nix Boiler Room’s Weekender Festival?

The scene at the Friday after-party in the Lodge at Boiler Room’s Weekender Festival. (Photo by Luis Best for Boiler Room)

It was a grand experiment—bring New York’s underground to the country, trading the city’s sweaty clubs for a lakeside locale nestled in Pennsylvania’s Poconos Mountains. The Ray-Ban x Boiler Room Weekender Fest was imagined as a two-day resort takeover, bringing the Boiler Room aesthetic to a sprawling all-season complex called Split Rock. There were live performances from the likes of Blood Orange and Kamasi Washington; DJ sets booked by NYC crews including Fixed, Wrecked, Mixpak, and GHE20G0TH1K; virtual-reality exhibits, film screenings, and of course, sunrise after-parties.

But by 2 a.m. on the second night, a 19-year-old black woman named Kaylan Jones had been arrested and held on $50,000 bail, several people were roughed up by security, and the entire festival was shut down. Asked to go home or back to their rooms, attendees and performers alike were left wondering what the hell had just happened. It was a beautiful dream. It was also probably a little naive.

Firmly ensconced in Trump country, the Poconos hosts a NASCAR race and has historically held conservative values. For Split Rock, Ray-Ban’s desire to rent out the entire resort on an off-season weekend must have looked attractive, but it’s clear now that the facility was not prepared for what was in store. Boiler Room itself has come a long way from its 2010 inception in the London underground, live-streaming secret parties with a single webcam. For this event, they had 12 different rooms, 360-degree VR cameras, and thousands of guests. The lineup was diverse, forward-thinking, and exciting, bringing techno, dancehall, house, and even ballroom vogue culture together. The bill was so adventurous, in fact, that it seemed unlikely that anyone could book it and turn a profit. So they didn’t even try.

Given free reign by Ray-Ban, Boiler Room booked artists and promoters from all over the world without having to worry about selling any tickets. To get people to come, Ray-Ban passed out booking codes through Boiler Room and the promoters. On September 23, if you were lucky or fast enough to get a code, you could book a room for 2, 4, or 6 people, put down a deposit to hold your room, and get the money back upon check-in. Attendees were assembled by word-of-mouth—you had to be plugged in to have even heard about it in time, and since no tickets were for sale you couldn’t buy your way in, keeping the douche quotient low.

Kamasi Washington plays the Keystone Ballroom Friday night. (Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz)

Friday night was a slow burn. The first acts started around 5:30 p.m. to mostly empty rooms, as guests trickled in from the two and a half hour ride down I-80. Kamasi Washington played a rousing set in the 1000-cap main ballroom that was about 90 percent empty. The rooms—the lobby, two ballrooms, an arcade, a tennis court mezzanine, and what appeared to be a yoga studio—were spread across two massive rectangular buildings at the center of the complex, called the Town Center Galleria.

Around 2 a.m., the real party started. Short buses started carting guests from the Town Center to a rustic lakeside building called the Lodge, where four promoters were were set up in four different rooms, each tasked with keeping the music going well past 7 a.m. The vibe felt more house party than club night, as people moved from room to room as it suited their moods. As the lights got lower, outfits got skimpier—one woman shed her shirt for a set of pasties—and dark corners hosted multi-member makeout sessions.

Still, Friday night felt almost tame, perhaps because the guests weren’t amateur partiers. There were no reported overdoses and—on the first night, at least—no reports of violence. “I haven't had that much fun in a while,” rapper Nasty Nigel, of the Queens crew World’s Fair, told Pitchfork. Everyone seemed to be smiling, almost in a sense of disbelief that this was actually happening. A safe space out in the country for the downtown kids to let their freak flags fly? DJs from around the world who might otherwise never share a bill? It almost felt too good to be true. And it was.

The first signs that something was amiss came early Friday night. As guests poured into the resort, the lobby was a bit of a madhouse; while the staff was mostly friendly, security was clearly overwhelmed. As they desperately searched bags and wallets for drugs upon entry to the event spaces, it felt like they were almost expecting something bad to happen.

Scenes from Sublimate’s Friday party at the yoga studio. (Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz)

Saturday also started slowly. As the hardest partiers slept off their chemical haze, the family-friendly water park adjacent to the Town Center played host to a daytime dance party. Hosted by NYC promoter Mixpak, the party saw King Addies Soundsystem, El Freaky, Lil Haiti, Maleek Berry, and Dre Skull bring dancehall, rap, and tropical-house vibes to the water park’s synthetic beach, as guests rode fake waves and slid down massive waterslides. People of every size, shape, color, and orientation strutted around the park in swimsuits, seemingly free of judgement.

As guests started to stream out of their rooms after dinner on Saturday night, the police presence inside and outside the Town Center had noticeably increased from the night before. New security checkpoints were set up near the entrance to the building where the arcade, mezzanine, and yoga studios were located. Dev Hynes’ played a low-key solo set in the Keystone Ballroom, performing songs from across his oeuvre a with a cello, guitar, synths, and two dancers. When his set concluded, people started to gravitate towards the other ballroom, where the GHE20G0TH1K party was going down, Hynes included.

Inside, the Venus X-helmed party was building towards a performance from Divine Council, the burgeoning Virginia crew that had dropped a remix of their song “Decemba” featuring André 3000 and $ilk Money back in September. Andre was seen in this same room the night before, anonymously chilling during Kanye associate Virgil Abloh’s set. He wasn’t scheduled to perform, but everyone was hoping he’d bless the mic for his new friends.

But around 2 a.m. Sunday morning, just as Venus X called Divine Council to the stage, the music was cut off, and everyone was herded outside. Security shut down fire exits, moving guests away from the main entrance and out of the building. Just outside the Governors Ballroom, a young woman had been arrested, and nearby, a man was injured after a run-in with security. Within 15 minutes of the first incident, the entire festival had been shut down. All the after-parties were cancelled, and security patrolled the resort for the rest of the night to ensure no one tried to have any more fun. The timing was certainly curious. A Boiler Room event staffer who requested anonymity told Pitchfork, “One theory I have is that the resort security and staff were looking for an excuse to shut the event down at 2 a.m. because they could no longer sell drinks, due to Pennsylvania state law.”

When Pitchfork spoke with a member of the collective NON Worldwide, which co-hosted one of Friday’s after-parties, he said he was roughed up by a security guard as he tried to film the arrest, and that a woman working the bar outside the Governors Ballroom snatched his phone. (He asked for his name to be withheld, for fear of retribution.)

Powrplnt’s Angelina Dreem witnessed the immediate aftermath of the arrest, saying that there were “so many cops, security guards that swiped at me filming and threatened to arrest me. I’m sober so I didn’t have the paranoia that everyone else did—but even I felt intimidated by the extreme militarized security presence.”

Several artists have levied accusations of racism or homophobia. All of the rooms at the Town Center had security with bag checks at their entrances, but the police presence at the Governors Ballroom, where the GHE20G0TH1K party was held, was by far the most intense. Was it a coincidence that the party that featured the most performers of color was also the most aggressively policed? (As of press time, neither Split Rock nor the Kidder Township Police Department had returned Pitchfork’s requests for comments; we’ll update if they do.)

The NON member we spoke to was convinced that the GHE20G0TH1K party was specifically targeted. “They were targeting people of color. They put a heavy police presence in front of GHE20G0TH1K… everyone was going to that, because it's probably one of the most important things that’s happened in New York City club culture in the last ten years. With Boiler Room booking that, the only thing I think they're really at fault for is not realizing the bigger issue at hand. This is what happens to people of color every minute, every hour, every day of the week.”

Bali Baby performs Saturday during the GHE20G0TH1K party, shortly before the shutdown. (Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz)

Boiler Room issued a second official statement earlier today condemning the actions of the resort staff and security, clarifying that the use of local security went against their wishes: “Split Rock steadfastly insisted on using local law enforcement and local security, instead of our intention of bringing in trusted staff from New York. Those local law enforcement and security showed a shocking lack of respect and professionalism to our attendees. We established a detailed framework for how they were to act and keep the event running safety and smoothly; these protocol were consistently broken, and we will be investigating our recourse in this respect.”

“Overall, security was pretty horrifying,” the Boiler Room event staffer told Pitchfork, adding that there was a bias from a mostly white security staff against people of color. “They were shaken down a lot more often and much harder than everyone else. The cops definitely made no attempt at de-escalating situations with people of color, from what I noticed. I overheard a security guard mocking a queer person of color Friday night after he went through a checkpoint. It wasn't blatant… he made a limp wrist gesture behind the guy’s back as he walked through, after submitting to a search.”

The selective enforcement of drug citations and arrests were difficult to ignore. Upon learning that the young woman who was arrested faces possession charges, Nasty Nigel claimed that “[his] white friends who got caught with weed and blow, all they made them do was throw it away.”

“The BR staff was aware of how guests were being treated,” the event staffer said. “Certain stage managers and other key staff expressed frustrations on multiple occasions, going so far as to complain to the resort about how security was handling situations. I witnessed security hassling Blood Orange's dancers for being backstage because they didn't have an artist escort. It was ridiculous.”

At the outset of the weekend, it appeared the Weekender would be a shining example of corporate benevolence, a Red Bull Music Academy-style tactical marketing scheme that makes the brand look good while funding great underground art. But by Sunday morning, what it seemed to prove was the growing divide between our liberal cities and the conservative country.

“The larger issue is that safety needs to happen with corporate companies wanting to promote culture,” the NON member said. “They don't realize that it's still 1965… black people make really amazing music, but that doesn't mean we get really amazing treatment.”