Techno Inferno

On New Year's Eve, Deon Foreman and a sport-utility-vehicle load of fellow Tempe ravers arrived at the Grand Olympic Auditorium near downtown Los Angeles about an hour before midnight. Shit was hectic.

"There were cops on the freeway trying to block the auditorium exit, and looking down you could see the building surrounded by flashing lights and a sea of ravers," he says. "We sort of slipped by the cops and drove down to the auditorium, where it was more or less pandemonium. These cops were driving all around making these announcements like 'disperse immediately,' and this girl coming out of the building said two kids had died and there were all these ODs inside.

"Then a huge bunch of riot cops came around a corner. I saw one squad of them charge these kids and sort of ram them with their shields. It was crazy. Overhead, all these kids in the [Olympic Auditorium]'s parking structure were tossing thousands of fliers from the top level, and they were dropping some larger items, too. You could tell from the sound of the impact.

"We stayed until midnight. There was a big countdown to the New Year--this massive chorus from all the people still raving outside the building, and you could also hear gunshots. The police were firing into the crowd. It turned out they were just rubber bullets, but no one knew that at the time, and everyone was still dancing."

Media coverage of the action in and around "Circa 1997--In Seventh Heaven" immediately after the annual New Year's Eve megarave went to hell was saturation level (although a void of follow-up coverage left several key details widely unreported). But for the news-impaired, here's the Cliffs Notes: Doors opened around 8 p.m. At 9:15, firefighters received a call that several people at the party had collapsed, apparently from some sort of drug overdose. They responded to find several dozen kids in bad shape, suffering from various combinations of severe nausea, shortness of breath, accelerated pulse rates and partial paralysis. The victims all reported drinking one or more vials of a liquid labeled "fX," which they said were being freely distributed at the party.

Thinking they might have "Jim Jones Goes Raving" on their hands, the firefighters called the cops, who in turn shut down the party. Or, at least, tried to. The cops barred entrance to the event starting around 10 p.m. By that time, there were already 10,000 people inside the Olympic Auditorium and its grounds, and several thousand more outside. Long story short--all hell broke loose when pissed-off people being herded out of the venue got together with pissed-off ticketholders trying to get in, and CNN got some killer copter footage for the early morning news loops. The final tally: 150 officers from three LAPD divisions, six arrests for suspicion of drug dealing, more than a dozen ambulances, 10,000 seized vials of orange, red and yellow liquid, 51 overdose victims (no fatalities, 31 hospitalizations, four serious), several hours of chaos and one overturned city bus (sans passengers). Deon met one of the ravers who had a hand in that last bit of acting out.

"A couple hours after midnight we ran into this girl on Melrose named Eve. She said she was one of the people who pushed over a bus. She was supernice, though. She said, 'Oh, you guys came from Arizona and the party got busted.' Then she went to an ATM, pulled out $300, and said, 'This is for you to have fun with tonight.' Then she bought us $120 worth of candy and disposable cameras."

The riot erupted too late for most papers to carry a story on New Year's Day, but on January 2, more than a hundred daily papers across the country ran a short wire piece on the event by Associated Press reporter Michelle DeArmond. DeArmond got off to a bad start, describing the rave as "a rock concert by the band 7th Heaven." She also wrote that 10,000 people were "crammed" into the auditorium (not likely given the size of the Olympic and its mammoth outdoor grounds), and paraphrased a quote from "concert organizer" Terry Cowan that made it sound like Seventh Heaven's promoters were the ones who passed out the vials of "mystery liquid." At that time, the substance in the vials had yet to be tested by the LAPD, but DeArmond's article speculated they could contain any number of illegal, synthetic drugs. Most of the papers that ran that first AP story never ran a follow-up (the Arizona Republic ran a brief drawn from DeArmond's piece, with no follow-up). If they had, they could have reported that the liquid in the vials, according to LAPD lab results, contained no illegal substances. Nor was it GHB, a liquid steroid currently en vogue among ravers. Instead, the liquid contained alcohol, several herbs with a high caffeine content and a root extract called kava.

Kava, which comes from the yaqona (pronounced yang-gona) bush, is a powerful, hypnotic sedative used traditionally by natives of Micronesia and Polynesia in trance ceremonies and rituals to settle land disputes and other feuds. Effects are quick-acting, and can include nausea, a feeling of euphoria, extreme muscle relaxation, and, in sufficient dosage, a numbing of the mouth, arms and legs. Ingest the right amount of kava, and you'll feel tingly, relaxed and uninhibited. Take too much, and you'll puke, go numb and pass out. Kava is a popular ingredient in "Herbal X" knockoffs--legal, herbal cocktails which supposedly mimic the physiological and psychoactive effects of MDMA, or "Ecstacy" (don't believe the hype). Like the vials confiscated at Seventh Heaven, most of these herbal mixtures mix kava with large doses of caffeine to counteract the lethargy induced by the root extract.

Terry Cowan, spokesman for the L.A.-based rave promotions collective CPU 101, says the vials were distributed at Seventh Heaven by the staff of a vendor who paid $500 for booth space at the rave. There were several dozen vendors at the rave, Cowan said, selling everything from rave fashion to candy and glow sticks.

"Media reports to the contrary, the promoters of this event did not distribute those vials," Cowan says. After the Associated Press article came out, Cowan denied all interview requests, including ones from the L.A. Times and CNN. In an exclusive interview with New Times, however, he told his side of the story: The doors opened around 8 p.m., Cowan says, and by 8:30 he saw the first sick kid on the floor. Then another, then another, then another. "I was basically scraping these kids off the floor, picking them up and carrying them to the EMTs we had on site. They were vomiting, semiconscious. They were totally wiped out. It was extremely frightening."

Cowan says two of the kids told him they had been handed vials of "fX" on one of the party's several dance floors. He said he and two or three security guards walked that floor and saw a team of people from the "fX" vending booth handing out vials free. He says they told him they were promoting a new product line (Valley head shops currently do not carry any product called "fX" among their line of herbal stimulants and "trance inducers," and employees say they've never heard of that brand name).

There were several other herbal stimulant booths at the rave, Cowan says, but they were selling their product, not walking through the party and giving it away. "The kids told us the people gave them as many vials as they wanted," he says. By then, Cowan says, his staff's walkie-talkie traffic was frantic with reports of sick ravers. Cowan says he and other CPU 101 staff members got on the mikes at all the dance floors and issued warnings not to drink the vials. "We told them it was poison," he says. "We told them it could kill them." The L.A. Times interviewed several ravers who said they heard and heeded those warnings.

The police and fire marshal ordered the party to shut down at 10:50, Cowan says. "That was a bad move," he says. "By that time, we had already asked the vending team to leave the premises, they were gone, and the situation was under control. I told the fire marshal, 'I wouldn't do that, sir. You're going to start a riot.' They're just lucky they were dealing with this scene. If it had been a hip-hop or alternative rock concert they shut down, they would have really seen a riot."

Cowan says the saturation coverage by TV media on January 2 was "reprehensible and devastating." "This is the first major story a lot of people have seen on the global, underground dance culture, and they're painting it as this incredibly violent, drug-ridden thing, which is wrong. The coverage has been the equivalent of saying the whole space program is bad because of the Challenger disaster."

--David Holthouse

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