"What's the protest?" asked a tourist from London, as she and her husband walked along Fifth Avenue on Tuesday morning. For about three blocks, between 70th and 72nd Streets right outside Central Park, at least a hundred people—most of whom look like college students—were bundled up, sitting under or over tarps behind a police barricade. It looks a little like a scene out of Children Of Men, or as if Occupy Wall Street has returned to the city. But it's not.
"It's not a protest," I explained. "It's for BTS."
BTS, the K-pop band that has taken the world by storm—three number 1 albums on Billboard charts; appearances on Ellen and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon; sellout concerts in Europe; nearly 20 million followers on their official Twitter account (which is mostly in Korean); an appearance on Saturday Night Live—are performing on Good Morning, America, as part of the morning talk show's summer concert series, on Wednesday. In spite of the cold, rainy conditions, loyal fans were waiting for a chance to see Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook at SummerStage.
And they have been waiting since last Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning.
Trust us we’re just as excited as you are about the #BTS (방탄소년단) @bts_bighit concert @SummerStage next Wednesday, but...
For your safety, camping in the concrete jungle is not permitted. Please don’t pitch tents ⛺️ in or outside #CentralPark. #NYC #BTSarmy pic.twitter.com/g2feQF1TX0
— NYPD 19th Precinct (@NYPD19Pct) May 10, 2019
"We have full camping supplies," said Mira Cho, pointing to her belongings on the sidewalk. "We have a tent, sleeping bags, air mattresses, we have everything."
Cho, a Los Angeles resident who previously camped out for BTS for 10 days and has been a fan since 2014, "only" got to the line on Monday. She is following the band during their Love Yourself: Speak Yourself tour and had just come from Chicago. When asked why she likes BTS, she answered, "Why do you like anything? You start with liking the music, and then you end up liking them because of the artist and who they are and what they represent, what their message is."
Another nice thing about BTS fandom is the community—BTS fans are know as ARMY. "If you know someone else is ARMY," Cho said, "you know you have something in common."
"What's your bias"* is usually the first thing the fans ask each other, according to Amanda McKenzie. (*For an old like myself, it means asking who your favorite band member is.) McKenzie, a college student, has been on line since Friday, and said it's been a trying few days, especially with the pouring rain and unseasonably cold temperatures. "There are people getting pneumonia, there are people on the verge of getting hypothermia, and it's cold at night—it's concrete we're sleeping on!" she said.
Another person said she vomited after feeling suffocated in a tent. "We're trying to stay safe out here," McKenzie said. "We work in shifts all the time—we go back to the hotel or home or Airbnb or wherever we came from to clean up or get supplies, dry our blankets—"
"Or take a shower," a friend piped up.
"—and then come back," McKenzie said. She thinks that the BTS ARMY is special: "There are other fans who didn't get tickets"—this is the only ticketed GMA concert, so you won't have to camp out for Blink-182—"and they drove by and help drop off supplies."
She also had thoughts about the NYPD's tweet (see below) asking fans not to camp out. "They have to say that, so people won't come and camp," but camping is a natural part of the process for BTS devotion, she believes. She credited the security team for being really nice and even helping them set up or fix tents that were waterlogged.
Checking in on the #BTSarmy waiting for Wednesday’s @BTS_twt (방탄소년단) @GMA Concert. #BTSonGMA 💜
Officer Nuccio even learned the Korean hand 💜 gesture from some dedicated fans, not letting the rain & cold dampen their spirits. Stay safe Army—take turns in line to keep warm! pic.twitter.com/poPb4SQ8vX
— NYPD 19th Precinct (@NYPD19Pct) May 13, 2019
The fans self-organize the line, with people at the head becoming the unofficial "line leaders." They try to keep order so other parties (like the police) don't have to come and intervene. The line leaders then start a list of people and their positions, but even with a list, there was an undercurrent of frustration among some fans about line positions and whether some were "cutting" the line, while some people have been committed to waiting outside the park. For instance, Sarah O'Keefe has been commuting three hours from NJ to wait on line—she stayed Friday through the weekend, left Sunday, and then came again on Monday.
At one point, security told two women who were trying to join one of the groups at the front of the line that they couldn't enter and had to go back to the end of the line. One of the group members, Derek Castro, said that his group, which communicates about going to shows through a group text, had decided on shifts: "Obviously some of us have school or work, we scheduled who's going to be here at what time, like three or four or five people to hold our spot and represent."
He pointed to a number on his wrist, "They started numbering us, and the leaders started a list, and I'm number 58... And since our group is so big now, because people decided to come at once, to the people behind us, that's scary because they didn't seem them over the weekend. But that's because people had shifts."
Fans were also fiercely protective of their privacy: as journalists arrived to interview them and shoot pictures or video, some claimed that the reporters, photographers and camera crews had no right. I was told I had to ask permission first, even though they were on public property—a sidewalk—and was grabbed by two people on line as I tried to capture some video of the group.
There were different kinds of worries elsewhere on the line. "We just arrived this morning because it's finals season for a lot of college students, so we couldn't be out here very long," Sklyer Green, a freshman at Columbia University, said. "I have a final this afternoon, and one on Thursday." She had waited outside Citi Field last year (waiting time: two days) and at 30 Rock for their SNL performance (waiting time: about four days).
"I'm just really excited hopefully to hear things from the new album—or hear some old things," Green said. "I think the ARMY is one of the most diverse fan bases out of any fanbases. They are so welcoming. Because BTS is a Korean band, being an ARMY that's international, it's really great to see the connection they have with their fans... Most fans are some form of social and people will have special events. I know there are special events just run by fans before their concert in New Jersey this upcoming weekend. Fans just like putting on events for each other, give each other free things—it's very loving."
Most people on line were annoyed with how the media characterizes them. Alonso spoke of being called a "crazy" fan and the stigma attached to it. She, McKenzie, O'Keefe, and Stephanie Clausing pointed out how there were fans who were in college and well into their 20s—"they're not all teens."
McKenzie was aware of how they might appear to outsiders: "We look like hobos, but we're not." As for the heightened nerves among fans on the line, she added, "We're trying to keep positive...We all just want to see BTS and have a good time."
Update: BTS thanked ARMY (ARMYs?) for their very long wait: