How one music festival's theft epidemic reveals a darker side of the culture
Tessa was jumping, clapping, and shaking her hips to the beats of GRiZ. As she danced, her plastic cup full of beer swished and swayed, and all her precious gadgets rattled around at the bottom of her Camelbak.
Unfortunately for Tessa, at that happy moment, she’d become a prime target for an ill-intentioned group of pickpockets. One of them approached Tessa’s back with a pocket knife, stealthily slashed the bottom of her canvas backpack, and made away with a brand new iPhone 7.
At this year’s Okeechobee Music Festival, Tessa was only one of countless pickpocketing victims. Anecdotes of snatched belongings filled the forums of OMF’s reddit page — among them, the well-circulated (yet unconfirmed) story that a man was pulled over on his way out of the festival with over 600 stolen cell phones.
To idealistic patrons who preach empathy and community, a music festival theft epidemic goes against everything the event stands for. On occasions where a small society is living together in tented cities, sharing food and shelter, and getting high on a communal drug supply, every member strives for a sense of trust and camaraderie. But Okeechobee’s malevolent patrons revealed that this confidence in the festival community is hazardously naive.
Justin Hunt experienced this firsthand as he stood front and center to enjoy Flume. “I had my phone to record part of my favorite Flume song, and then I put it into the pocket of my dinosaur onesie," he tells us. "The set ended, and not 3 minutes later I realized my phone was missing.
“I ran back to the spot where I’d been standing to frantically search for my phone, and I wasn't the only one. I talked to at least 10 people who were looking for their phones right where I’d been during the show. One of the guys in my group realized his phone was missing too, and at that point, we knew we had been jigged.”
Throughout the weekend, Justin and his social circle heard innumerable stories of campsites raided and robbed, dozens of nearby patrons pickpocketed at particular sets, and a group of professional thieves attending the festival solely to profit off the misfortune of others.
Regrettably, when we reached out to the Okeechobee Sheriff’s Department to inquire about the abundant reports of robbery, public information officer Michele Bell told us that no arrests were made in connection to theft. Okeechobee police officers were only asked to intervene on one occasion, when MusicFest personnel wanted to trespass a young man caught with six stolen cell phones. On the chance that misconduct was handled internally by festival staff, we contacted Okeechobee Music Festival media relations to ask about increased incidents of theft, but our messages went unanswered.
Unfortunately, the absence of any arrests indicates that the bandits of plentiful smartphones escaped the festival without punishment. These unavenged offenders utterly violated the harmonious society Okeechobee attendees strived to establish. When it comes to festival fellowship, we all aim to achieve a sense of companionship and community, but a few bad apples can morph any faithful society into a distrustful one.
As Hunt phrased it, “All the theft at Okeechobee really sucked because at a music festival you want to love and trust all around you, but being stolen from puts a sense of suspicion in your heart.”
But a sense of suspicion may be well-founded. Several studies show festivals are hotbeds for crime, with theft and assault being the most common. Theft especially spikes with unattended tents and pickpocketing, and thieves will primarily target cash, credit cards, cell phones, and hip photographers’ crazy expensive DSLR cameras.
In fact, it’s estimated that one in seven festival attendees is a victim of theft, and based on an aggregate study of music festivals in the United Kingdom, approximately $250,000 worth of possessions are stolen from festivals every year.
However, Tessa, Justin, and many other victims of Okeechobee’s theft epidemic remain optimistic about maintaining a loving culture in the festival’s future. Justin even saw his loss as an opportunity to better care for those around him.
As he explains, “It worked out, because without my phone I was set free. I had nothing to worry about, so I would just look out for other people.”
When separated from society and submerged into another world, we can hope for love and companionship, but we also need to maintain some healthy cynicism. Music festivals, just like the rest of reality, contain plenty of jerks only out to hurt others and help themselves.
To be on the safe side, keep your eyes open for sketchballs, look out for one another, and try not to get so high that you can’t protect your precious smartphone. As they say: keep your friends close, and keep your valuables closer.