How a 17-year-old’s birthday party in a California beach town became the biggest thing on the internet

In an image provided by Billy Captain Soncho, thousands of people gathered in Huntington Beach on Saturday, May 22. Seventeen-year-old Adrian Lopez was just an average high school student in Eastvale until a digital flyer he created inviting friends to Huntington Beach for his birthday went viral. (Billy Captain Soncho via The New York Times)

A week ago, 17-year-old Adrian Lopez was just an average high school student in Eastvale, California. But after a digital flyer he had friends invite to Huntington Beach for his birthday went viral — to the point of attracting thousands of strangers to the beach and an event space in Los Angeles — he became a household name on social media.

Related: Records show majority of those arrested at ‘Adrian’s Kickback’ were from out of town

He launched the invitation on Monday, specifying a time (7:30 p.m.), a place (foyers) and a date (May 22). “Slide tru this Saturday we will eventually arrive!!!!” read the bottom of the image, which was titled “Adrian’s Kickback”.

“It was supposed to be for my school,” Lopez said.

In an attempt to generate more interest, Lopez’s friend Yahir Hernandez, 16, posted the flyer on Snapchat and then on his personal TikTok account. “Tuesday morning is when Yahir did the TikTok,” Lopez said. “I was going to school and there were only 40 likes so I ignored it.” But over the next few days, the video took off. Something about the invitation details was hilarious to those who met him. “Who is Adrian? people commented.

The video took hold of TikTok’s powerful “For You” recommendation algorithm and went viral. Overnight it became a meme. Internet celebrities and creators including music artist 24kGoldn, FaZe Clan members and Noah Beck have posted about it. By the weekend of the event, TikTok videos with the hashtag #adrianskickback had attracted nearly 280 million views.

At first, Lopez and Hernandez thought the viral attention was fun. They were enjoying their 15 minutes of fame, DMing with personalities who had made the buzz on the event. “We’re bonding with artists, we’re bonding with high-level people,” Hernandez said.

But on Friday night, they started to get nervous. People were posting information about flights from all over the country for the event. One person said they drove 18 hours with a group of people to be there. And on Friday night, the day before the bribe, about 1,000 people showed up in Huntington Beach looking for a party. The police quickly shut it down, but Hernandez and Lopez no longer felt in control.

Worried about getting in trouble for inciting a riot, Hernandez began working with an older friend he had met in the events business. “Honestly, we were scared, so we thought about getting a venue,” Hernandez said.

They’ve teamed up with popular sneaker and streetwear store Cookies N’ Kicks to sell $40 tickets to the event, and have changed the venue to an undisclosed space in Los Angeles which will be revealed shortly before the party. .

On Saturday afternoon, a line of kids waiting to buy tickets for Adrian’s bribe at Cookies N’ Kicks stretched around the block. Teenagers online said they thought it was going to be the party of the century and they had heard top content creators would be making appearances.

Connor Hickman, 16, who came to Huntington Beach on Saturday, echoed that sentiment. “Because of COVID, almost everyone has been indoors for a year. My school was online until about two months ago,” he said. “We welcome the opportunity to get out there and do something fun.”

Due to the viral nature of the event, it also attracted content creators. YouTubers, TikTokers and live streamers went to post about it for the millions at home who couldn’t attend. Jamar Zelaya, a 19-year-old YouTuber who waited outside Cookies N’ Kicks on Saturday, planned to capture footage for his channel. “The chaos, the fun, the electricity – people want to see people go wild and look stupid,” Zelaya said. “If you don’t go, you miss the story.”

A 14-year-old content creator known as Donlad, who dubbed himself “America’s richest kid,” organized a limo to take Lopez, Hernandez and their friends to Los Angeles for the festivities of the Saturday night. “I saw this on TikTok and I was like OK, I want to be in on this,” he said. “I don’t just want to go for the bribe, I have to meet this kid.”

Given teenagers’ inflated expectations of the event, it was still likely to disappoint, but signs of real trouble began to appear on Saturday night. Lopez and Hernandez had said they would announce the address of the bribe location at 9:30 p.m., but when the time ran out, they pushed it back to 11:30 p.m., leaving teenagers who had traveled to the city anxious.

Meanwhile, many other people had not learned that the event had been moved to Los Angeles, and a crowd began to grow in Huntington Beach. Thousands of teenagers poured onto the beach ready for a party. They formed a mosh pit, played music and cheered as some took turns climbing a flag pole and climbing atop a red light. Some set off fireworks, crossed intersections or jumped from high places into crowds below.

Emily McIntosh, 19, a hostess at Duke’s restaurant in Huntington Beach, said employees were stuck inside the restaurant for hours after closing as the situation outside became too dangerous to leave. “It was a little scary, I went through with my roommates,” McIntosh said.

When the police started trying to disperse the crowd, things turned violent. The windshield of a police car was smashed and people threw bottles and other objects at the officers. Police fired non-lethal bullets into the crowd. Eventually, authorities declared an emergency night curfew and nearly 150 attendees were arrested.

Back in Los Angeles, Lopez’s official bribe was also doomed. The address, which was never officially shared with ticket holders, has leaked. By midnight, a crowd had come to the site. After a police officer intervened on the scene, the party was interrupted before it even started.

By then, Lopez had deleted all of her social media content in an effort to downplay the event, but the backlash had already begun. “I’m nervous,” Lopez said Saturday. “My parents don’t know and they’re going to find out,” he said, “so mom and dad, I’m sorry but I don’t know what to do.”

Hernandez spent Sunday afternoon trying to dispel the idea that the party was a scam. He organized refunds for those who bought tickets through Cookies N’ Kicks and on Sunday another line of children formed at the store to collect their money. On Monday, Lopez released a statement through a manager he had started working with the day before. “I did not initiate or encourage any illegal activity!” Lopez said in an emailed statement. “Safety is and always will be my first concern for myself and others. I have not won any money related to Adrian’s Kickback.

Kai Watson, 20, director of content for The Sync, a podcast network, was in Huntington Beach on Saturday and described the scene as a “zombie apocalypse” of “17 to 19”. “I think it was a mix of timing, rolling out the vaccine and a lot of things opening up,” he said.

Social media has already sparked mob-like events. In 2012, riots broke out in the Netherlands after a 15-year-old girl created a public invitation to her 16th birthday party on Facebook. In 2016, more than one million people responded positively to a quinceañera celebration for Rubi Ibarra Garcia, a teenager in Mexico, after her father accidentally made the event public on Facebook. In 2019, dozens of UFO enthusiasts showed up at a Nevada site after a viral Facebook event announcing an Area 51 “raid” went viral on TikTok.

“It really shows the power of TikTok,” said Isaiah Shepard, 21, a YouTuber known as Steezy Kane who visited Huntington Beach on Saturday night. “Someone can crack a joke and it can randomly catch on and bring thousands of strangers to a beach in a matter of days.”

Watson said he believes there will be more mass mobilizations as more people take advantage of the platform’s accelerated reach. “Seeing what happened because of TikTok in less than a week is a feeling I’ve never had before with social media,” he said. “If anyone is able to recreate even 1% of what was done this week for Adrian’s kickback with something that matters more, like a political candidate or a protest, that would be amazing.”

On Saturday, Lopez and Hernandez said they plan to hold more “kickback” events across the country. “We’re having events soon,” Hernandez said. “We’re going to have one in Texas.”

On Monday, however, Lopez’s manager said his client’s mood had changed. “The last thing Adrian wants to do is party,” said his manager, Estevan Lopez, 20, who is not related. “But this may be the start of his influencer career.”

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