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OB drum circle of life, or death, or what?

“I’ve been seeing the same people every week for the past three months. Nobody’s getting sick.”

The drummers draw the throngs.
The drummers draw the throngs.

“Right now, people who come here with no masks, with no distancing, are being irresponsible, and they could get sick — deathly sick — and die. We have to get tough, and I’m telling you, if that situation that happened last Wednesday night happens this Wednesday night, there’s going to be a clampdown. So I’m telling everybody not to congregate here. Behave or you’re going to be in big trouble.”

— City Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, speaking at an August 11 gathering near Ocean Beach’s Veteran’s Plaza, the beachfront patch of grass that hosts the neighborhood’s weekly Wednesday drum circle.

Sage to keep the spirits at bay.

On August 12, they came anyway: to watch the fading orange of the sunset, to listen to the drums, to smoke weed, to dance, and to be there at the gathering. Not everybody — a number of drummers, perhaps spooked by Campbell’s warning and the vinyl orange fencing that cordoned off the plaza until the locals tore it down in the name of freedom, gathered at Paradise Point instead. But plenty. (A reporter asked a policeman at the scene to estimate how many. “Your guess is as good as mine,” he shrugged.) At least eight drummers, plus dancers, acrobats, onlookers, even a young man with a horn, bleating over the beats. A few wore masks. Most did not. Some kept their distance from others. Many did not. As the drums got going, I asked officer S. King, who was standing outside his vehicle on Newport Avenue, if he had a directive. “We’ve been told we can take it on a case by case basis,” he replied.

Two young women danced together to the West African beat; one waved a roll of burning sage around the other, sending tendrils of savory smoke through the crowd. “It’s so uplifting,” she explained, noting that “it’s to keep the bad spirits away. If people have spirits in their house, they’ll put it in all four corners, and they’ll say spiritual things, like prayers and stuff, and then all the bad spirits will leave.” A young man approached, and she waved the sage over him in benediction. “Cleanse me!” he cried, throwing his head back. “Cleanse me of all the bullshit! Much love!”

“It keeps away the corona,” suggested one girl upon hearing I was there to write about the gathering. “It fights corona.”

“It’s actually the cure!” said her friend.

“Do you believe that?” I asked.

“People instinctively want to be here and enjoy each other’s company.”

She laughed and answered, “If it makes for a good story.”

I didn’t believe it. But the smoke did put me in mind of the confusion surrounding “the corona,” and not because the U-T reported that someone shouted “How long are you going to keep blowing smoke up our asses?” at a city adviser for COVID-19 response and recovery. Instead, I thought of “Smoking and the risk of COVID-19 in a large observational population study,” published by medRxiv, “the preprint server for health services.” Its conclusion: “The risk of infection by COVID-19 appears to be reduced by half among current smokers.” And yet the WHO statement on Tobacco Use and COVID-19 reads, “A review of studies by public health experts convened by WHO on 29 April 2020 found that smokers are more likely to develop severe disease with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers.” Contradictory? Not quite: the WHO is noting that smokers who do get the disease are more likely to get severe cases, not that smokers are more likely to get it at all. Bit confusing? You bet.

Dancer Anna had come dressed for the occasion in a gold bikini and a long dark skirt that showed her strong legs as she stomped and slithered around the circle. She’s lived here since November, and comes every week because “it’s a beautiful community act of art and love and dance.” What about corona? “I’m not worried about corona because I’m young and healthy. I heard this place was taped up, which is hilarious, because it’s a peaceful gathering. But it’s not lucrative; it’s not making the city money. I think the virus is real and it’s happening, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the news was inflating the numbers. The hospitals get more money the more corona cases they have, so it makes sense that they would report more. I’m not a huge conspiracy theorist, though. I think it can take you down a really dark path.”

Anna says she leaves happier than when she arrived, every time.

Drummer Brian isn’t a huge conspiracy theorist, either, but he doesn’t “pay any attention to what the media says about” coronavirus. That’s why he wasn’t given pause by Campbell’s warning before racing down here from Yorba Linda after work, just as he does every Wednesday — he hadn’t heard it. “I pay attention to the statistics. The CDC is decent, and the California state site has to deliver the stats, just like the federal .gov site. But you have to investigate the demographics yourself. No one under the age of 24 has died from it yet, so why are our schools closed? A very small minority is actually threatened — 76 percent of those who have died are 65 or older! Why not tell everybody exactly what’s going on? Obviously, there’s an agenda, using security as a means to control. It’s partisan politics; I’ve seen both parties do similar shit my whole life.”

As for the circle, “I’ve been seeing the same people every week for the past three months. Nobody’s getting sick. By now, there would have been a trace — ‘People from that one place are getting it!’ Nothing. They haven’t even surveyed this area. They’re just getting off on fear: ‘Oh, they’re together!’ I come here because this is a grand space for my spirit, my me-ness, to expand through the music. It’s communication where we go up into enthusiasm. People instinctively want to be here and enjoy each other’s company. It’s very tribal, very human, and very cool. If this ain’t the best therapy, I don’t know what is.”

At the edge of the crowd, three police officers gathered around a swimmer with a bleeding leg. Other officers took a report from an upset woman. At 10 pm, they broke up the circle.

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The drummers draw the throngs.
The drummers draw the throngs.

“Right now, people who come here with no masks, with no distancing, are being irresponsible, and they could get sick — deathly sick — and die. We have to get tough, and I’m telling you, if that situation that happened last Wednesday night happens this Wednesday night, there’s going to be a clampdown. So I’m telling everybody not to congregate here. Behave or you’re going to be in big trouble.”

— City Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, speaking at an August 11 gathering near Ocean Beach’s Veteran’s Plaza, the beachfront patch of grass that hosts the neighborhood’s weekly Wednesday drum circle.

Sage to keep the spirits at bay.

On August 12, they came anyway: to watch the fading orange of the sunset, to listen to the drums, to smoke weed, to dance, and to be there at the gathering. Not everybody — a number of drummers, perhaps spooked by Campbell’s warning and the vinyl orange fencing that cordoned off the plaza until the locals tore it down in the name of freedom, gathered at Paradise Point instead. But plenty. (A reporter asked a policeman at the scene to estimate how many. “Your guess is as good as mine,” he shrugged.) At least eight drummers, plus dancers, acrobats, onlookers, even a young man with a horn, bleating over the beats. A few wore masks. Most did not. Some kept their distance from others. Many did not. As the drums got going, I asked officer S. King, who was standing outside his vehicle on Newport Avenue, if he had a directive. “We’ve been told we can take it on a case by case basis,” he replied.

Two young women danced together to the West African beat; one waved a roll of burning sage around the other, sending tendrils of savory smoke through the crowd. “It’s so uplifting,” she explained, noting that “it’s to keep the bad spirits away. If people have spirits in their house, they’ll put it in all four corners, and they’ll say spiritual things, like prayers and stuff, and then all the bad spirits will leave.” A young man approached, and she waved the sage over him in benediction. “Cleanse me!” he cried, throwing his head back. “Cleanse me of all the bullshit! Much love!”

“It keeps away the corona,” suggested one girl upon hearing I was there to write about the gathering. “It fights corona.”

“It’s actually the cure!” said her friend.

“Do you believe that?” I asked.

“People instinctively want to be here and enjoy each other’s company.”

She laughed and answered, “If it makes for a good story.”

I didn’t believe it. But the smoke did put me in mind of the confusion surrounding “the corona,” and not because the U-T reported that someone shouted “How long are you going to keep blowing smoke up our asses?” at a city adviser for COVID-19 response and recovery. Instead, I thought of “Smoking and the risk of COVID-19 in a large observational population study,” published by medRxiv, “the preprint server for health services.” Its conclusion: “The risk of infection by COVID-19 appears to be reduced by half among current smokers.” And yet the WHO statement on Tobacco Use and COVID-19 reads, “A review of studies by public health experts convened by WHO on 29 April 2020 found that smokers are more likely to develop severe disease with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers.” Contradictory? Not quite: the WHO is noting that smokers who do get the disease are more likely to get severe cases, not that smokers are more likely to get it at all. Bit confusing? You bet.

Dancer Anna had come dressed for the occasion in a gold bikini and a long dark skirt that showed her strong legs as she stomped and slithered around the circle. She’s lived here since November, and comes every week because “it’s a beautiful community act of art and love and dance.” What about corona? “I’m not worried about corona because I’m young and healthy. I heard this place was taped up, which is hilarious, because it’s a peaceful gathering. But it’s not lucrative; it’s not making the city money. I think the virus is real and it’s happening, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the news was inflating the numbers. The hospitals get more money the more corona cases they have, so it makes sense that they would report more. I’m not a huge conspiracy theorist, though. I think it can take you down a really dark path.”

Anna says she leaves happier than when she arrived, every time.

Drummer Brian isn’t a huge conspiracy theorist, either, but he doesn’t “pay any attention to what the media says about” coronavirus. That’s why he wasn’t given pause by Campbell’s warning before racing down here from Yorba Linda after work, just as he does every Wednesday — he hadn’t heard it. “I pay attention to the statistics. The CDC is decent, and the California state site has to deliver the stats, just like the federal .gov site. But you have to investigate the demographics yourself. No one under the age of 24 has died from it yet, so why are our schools closed? A very small minority is actually threatened — 76 percent of those who have died are 65 or older! Why not tell everybody exactly what’s going on? Obviously, there’s an agenda, using security as a means to control. It’s partisan politics; I’ve seen both parties do similar shit my whole life.”

As for the circle, “I’ve been seeing the same people every week for the past three months. Nobody’s getting sick. By now, there would have been a trace — ‘People from that one place are getting it!’ Nothing. They haven’t even surveyed this area. They’re just getting off on fear: ‘Oh, they’re together!’ I come here because this is a grand space for my spirit, my me-ness, to expand through the music. It’s communication where we go up into enthusiasm. People instinctively want to be here and enjoy each other’s company. It’s very tribal, very human, and very cool. If this ain’t the best therapy, I don’t know what is.”

At the edge of the crowd, three police officers gathered around a swimmer with a bleeding leg. Other officers took a report from an upset woman. At 10 pm, they broke up the circle.

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