The reputation of Woodstock '99 has taken several hard hits in the weeks since it ended, but the continuing controversy surrounding sexual assaults alleged to have occurred at the festival may be the sternest blow dealt so far.
Representatives from the National Organization for Women gathered outside the New York City office of Woodstock promoter John Scher's Metropolitan Entertainment yesterday to hold a press conference addressing what they consider to have been the co-promoters' mishandling -- in terms of prevention as well as response -- of the situation.
"According to reports we've heard, there were attacks on women that were occurring, that were not being stopped," said N.O.W.'s New York chapter president, Galen Sherwin. "I think that it's the responsibility of the promoters to take theses allegations seriously and not just deny them. I think there could have been more security presence that was more responsive to reports of violence against women. I think that there could have been more of a police presence on the scene."
"I don't know that you can ever, in a population of a quarter of a million people, cover every eventuality," said Woodstock producer Michael Lang, calling from Rome, N.Y., Friday morning. "A lot of the responsibility rests with the individuals who were there to conduct themselves in a civilized way."
But, based on the flood of reports her office received from Woodstock attendees, Sherwin complains that the atmosphere at the festival "reached a level of unbridled machismo and aggression that was really, really disturbing and terrifying, frankly, for many of the people who were there."
One of the primary sources of N.O.W.'s charges against Lang and his co-producers has been the testimonial of a woman who claims to have been met by indifference when she reported an assault to the production office during the event.
"We have asked state police to launch an investigation into the recent accusations of obstruction of justice leveled against us," said the producers in a statement issued earlier this week. But Lang pointed out that the woman who issued the testimonial has returned neither his nor the police's phone calls about the alleged incident. "It's so hard to make an assessment based on a rumor," Lang said.
"They're trying to downplay it, they're trying to dismiss it, they're trying to discredit us," said Sherwin. "They're trying to discredit the people who spoke out as witnesses."
Lang and his co-producers, meanwhile, accused N.O.W. of similar spin doctoring. In their statement, they expressed their "shock in discovering that a reputable organization such as N.O.W. would blatantly misrepresent our position on the subject of these allegations of violence against women.... While we too would like to use this situation as a springboard to generate public awareness of violence against women, this is not the way to do it."
Sherwin has said that N.O.W.'s demands are pretty simple. In addition to demanding that the producers issue an apology, she explained: "We've called for an investigation into what happened, into the allegations that the promotions and production staff wasn't doing anything. Certainly that doesn't correct the damage that was done. But what it does is it sends a very clear message that this kind of behavior won't be tolerated, that we expect and demand that violence against women be taken seriously. And so I'm for holding their feet to the fire, even if it's after the fact."
And, even as his toes get singed in the process, Lang acknowledged that, ultimately, it is his and his co-producers' responsibility to make sure that this issue is addressed. He said: "As Harry Truman said, 'The buck stops here.'"