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The Altamont Trial: How It Happened

Page 6 of 6

But as he took some drags on the cigar the softness of him was covered over by a tough, con-wise expression on his face. A man must not show feelings. His wife, Celeste, had recalled: "Alan, when we first met, hated to have me take his arm. He was afraid it would make him look like a sissy."

At Altamont Alan had proved to his brothers that he was not a sissy. He and his brothers had given their proof abundantly that afternoon. It might be said that they overdid their proving because the superstar they were hired to defend had raised a great turmoil of ambivalent vibrations in the crowd. Here is how Robert Hatch, writing about Gimme Shelter in The Nation, saw Mick Jagger as he was filmed at Altamont:

"He hits the crowd with his pelvis, flings his scarf around his shoulders, jabs nervously at his flowing hair, mouths like a woman in heat, jerks with an aggressive, staccato beat that is as explicit as an anatomy chart. The ambiguity of his sex, the spectacle of raper and victim in one body, threw the witnesses into convulsions of excitement."

(It's enough to drive a man to read a psychoanalyst. In Soledad, Alan Passaro read The Trial and The Understanding of Dreams. He said: "I'm writing a book about how we got to white culture groups like the blacks and browns have to hassle out problems with the institution. About the indeterminate sentence. About the sham of rehabilitation. A lot of guys just hang up their paroles at the gates. They know they're coming back.

("Rehabilitation for what? To sit around on your ass some more like I done in here? I'm signed up for a course in butchery, and I cut hair sometimes, but it's bullshit. Mostly I just read philosophy and psychology and wait for my wife to come down. And my kid. He's five now.")

The jurors, after 12 1/2 hours of deliberation, rejected Burke's argument that Passaro was guilty of premeditated murder because: "He goes at a man with a gun into a position of danger, and he does that when he says he's afraid."

Perhaps they went along with Walker's argument that someone else stabbed Hunter. But it seems more likely that they concluded that Passaro stabbed the victim but in doing so was committing justifiable homicide. Walker told the jury: "Under the theory of self-defense, he [Passaro] could have struck all five of those blows if that was necessary to subdue that man."

After 5 1/2 hours of deliberation, nine of the jurors wanted acquittal and three held out for some kind of guilty verdict – it could have been first-degree murder, second-degree, or manslaughter. The next day, for six hours, all but one woman wanted acquittal. She gave in during the last hour of deliberation.

(Alan Passaro described the jurors as "the people, the citizens, the straights, the squares." He said: "They didn't try me as a Hell's Angel. They tried me as a person. It shot my whole theory of 'don't trust anyone over 30.' I mean I don't know none of them. I ride motorcycles, you know...")

A murder trial is, at best, a grossly imprecise way of arriving at justice. The problem in the Altamont case is that the state of California had accused only one of many who should be defendants. How could one Hell's Angel be held more accountable than Mick Jagger, for his incitement to Satanism: than Sam Cutler, for his nativete in assigning police powers to the Angels; to Sheriff Madigan for letting these bike-fetishists take over his duties? The sheriff said it was not his responsibility because the festival was held on private property. But some mighty big sporting events are held in his country, and there is no lack of law enforcement officers surrounding the sacrosanct private property, to assure the public safety.

At Altamont, Sheriff Madigan explained, "Mel Belli and the promoter said they were hiring 300 private patrol." Translation: Let them take care of their own.

Officials of the California Highway Patrol said they weren't required to make a big effort in the Altamont area because the whole affair was set up at the last minute. It's hard to adjust to quick changes in plans. But the patrol has no hesitation about moving in on last-minute situations caused by anti-war demonstrators.

And where was the Alameda country health department? Hunter might not have died, according to medical testimony at the trial, if there had been an emergency hospital on the premises.

The established authorities consider an affair like Altamont to be different from an affair like the one in 1961, when Father Patrick Peyton, on behalf of a private organization, commanded lovely cooperation for his Family Rosary Crusade rally in Golden Gate Park.

The psychologists and sociologists of America are very good at night writing Ph.D. theses about "the alienation of the young." The authorities in public power are very good at boycotting the people-hood of the young.

The young people heading for Altamont on December 5th and 6th, 1969, did not exist.

This story is from the April 1st, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone.


To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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