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Vacationing in Palm Springs: A Real Lark

Inside the Easter week riots that saw two students shot and numerous arrested

Palm Springs

Modernist house in Palm Springs.

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Palm Springs—Thousands of vacationing students battled with police here Easter week, leaving two students hospitalized with gunshot wounds and dozens of others injured, some seriously. Focal point of the violence was this resort town’s first (and probably last) pop festival.

Police said the two who were shot—a 16-year-old boy from Venice, Calif., and a 20-year-old girl from Bermuda Dunes, Calif.—were fired upon by a service station owner after hundreds of youngsters roamed through his station, spraying the streets with gasoline and breaking windows with rocks and bottles.

A few hundred yards away, inside Angels Stadium, an estimated 12,000 were watching the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, one of eight acts performing in the second day of the two-day schedule of musical events. Only a few were aware of what was happening outside.

The shooting incident was the worst of several that plagued this small (population: 21,000) desert town, as between 20,000 and 30,000 students made their annual pilgrimmage to Palm Springs to lie in the sun, drink beer, smoke dope and grab chicks. The unusually large influx was blamed on oil pollution on beaches where California students normally vacation. As a result, arrests, mostly for alcohol and drug violations—one rape was reported—were up 105% over 1968. Palm Springs was described by one official as “one huge sleeping bag,” and by the local newspaper editor as a “hobo jungle.”

Long before the students arrived in this monied, conservative community (Sinatra’s home now, remember), the Palm Springs Pop Festival and San Andreas Boogie seemed a swell idea. Townspeople have traditionally welcomed the vacationing students, but have also worried about how they’d behave. So the festival seemed a good way to keep them off the street for two nights.

This hypothesis proved only half-correct. Thousands were kept away from from six until after midnight both days. But other thousands either declined to pay the $4.50 admission or didn’t have money enough to do so, and found other playgrounds.

The first night—when the concert was held in a drive-in theater and John Mayall was appearing, with the Paul Butterfield Band and Procol Harum among others — uncounted hundreds crashed the gate, either climbing the drive-in walls or breaking through them. (One even drove his car through the board fence.) This resulted in the first clashes with police, who until then had generally limited their activities to traffic flow and only the most outrageous law violators.

Early the next day town officials went into emergency session to decide what to do. Rigid parking and camping regulations were passed. to make it difficult for students to remain in the area. Hundreds of citations were issued, mean-while, and quickly the Palm Springs jail and those in several outlying communities filled up, as nearly 200 police were brought from surrounding areas to join this resort’s 55-man force.

Even so, harassment was really minimal and it wasn’t until the crowds outside the stadium became violent Wednesday night that police themselves got tough. Even reporters from several “underground” newspapers present generally agreed that the youthful vacationers asked for much of the trouble they got.

Many also agreed with B. Mitchell Reed, a Los Angeles disc jockey who announced from the stage: “The producers made a lot of money here and if they throw any concerts in the future, they ought to make provisions for people who don’t have enough bread to get in. Maybe they should have done this today.”

Shortly before Reed said this, hundreds outside the stadium walls had been driven away from the area by officers, while a police helicopter circled overhead, its rotors audible above the sound of drums and electric guitars.

The chopper had been used earlier in the day to fly over the scenic mountain regions outside Palm Springs, to warn campers to get out or get arrested.

Perhaps 2,000 drank beer and Ripple, smoked dope, fucked and basked on boulders in the hot sunshine, unconcerned at the hovering presence of the airborne police over Tahquitz Canyon. “Disperse immediately,” demanded the helicopter loudspeaker, “you are taking part in an unlawful assembly.” That’s ridiculous, man,” said a College of Marin student, 21-year-old Ray Gilberti. “I think it’s a shame the way they are reacting. We’re not harming anyone.”

There was a lot of brave new world talk. “We’re the new breed,” proclaimed Mike Henderson, 22, of Long Beach. “Sooner or later we’re going to take over the country. Then we’ll be able to do what we want to do, and we’ll have a peaceful planet.”

The concert itself also was well-policed. Officers ringed the stadium walls and the park lights (normally used for night games and not planned for the concert) were turned on by police orders. Dozens—if not hundreds—in the crowd continued to smoke grass openly, just as they had in the darkened drive-in the night before.

The first night, someone had changed the letters around on the marquee in front of the drive-in so “Palm Springs Pop Festival” read “Palm Springs Pot Festival.”

It must be noted that police inside the ball park exercised amazing restraint, igoring the blatant sexual activities, drinking and doping. In the main, they directed their attention toward gate-crashers and halting occasional fist-fights.

Outside the stadium it was a different story. When the scene blew up, there were about 5,000 kids outside the ball park, swarming over nearby parking lots and into the streets and a nearby shopping center. They ran and danced, grumbled about the festival ticket cost and looked for something to do. They also rushed the stadium, looking for a way to get in.

Police turned on a lawn sprinkler system where part of the crowd was gathered, turning a 60-inch searchlight into the youthful eyes. There was some pushing and tugging and soon there were mobs running through the shopping center.

It was particularly hectic at an adjacent Shell gas station, where stones and sand-filled cans and bottles were dense in the air. In short order, all but the station’s back windows were broken, and in desperation, the owner reached for his 22 caliber rifle. His two shots hit a 16-year-old boy (who later was reported in serious condition) and a 20-year-old girl (who was struck in one breast).

No charges were lodged against Harlan Moore, the station owner.

There were isolated incidents of indiscriminate (and terrifying) police brutality—as when one ticket-bearing youth tried to get through the police lines and got slammed in the mouth—but for the most part the cops reacted rather than acted.

Predictably, the same thing happened at Palm Springs as has happened at past music festival (notably the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival) where cops vs. kids encounters have developed: the violence is linked to the music, when in fact those who listen to the music and those who raise hell are two different sets of people.

Anyway… tear gas cleared the streets of Palm Springs following the shooting, and statisticians began revising their injured-and-arrested totals. In a 48-hour period, the local hospital reported, 146 students had been treated for injuries (ranging from the gunshot wounds to sun poisoning), while police said nearly 250 students had been arrested. Most received 10-day sentences and $75 fines, with the jail term suspended and the fine reduced to $35. It was also reported that most of the arrests and injuries took place near the two festival locations.

The first of the concerts, at the Palm Springs Drive-in a few miles north of town, began nearly an hour late (at 7 p.m.) as the sun and a gritty desert wind were replaced by a full moon and a rapidly chilling still air.

Before Procol Harum came on, Timothy Leary was introduced. “Keep it going, smoke it, get it on,” he said, giving the peace sign, smiling, splitting. Procol Harum’s sustained organ chords occasionally caused one’s teeth to ache, but when the pianist-vocalist, Gary Brooker, pointed at the Navy-blue sky and the quartet slipped into “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (popularized in 2001: A Space Odyssey), the audience had been won.

Mayall came on nearly an hour after the concert was to have ended, played one tune, and then two cops appeared on stage. Suddenly, in the middle of the song, the switch was thrown. Thousands of young people rushed forward, shouting disapproval. The electricity was turned on again and the concert resumed. (Blues Power.) Mayall ended happily and peacefully.

Damage to the theater was extensive, but injuries were minor and incidents few and less malicious than what would come the following night. The stage had been set up at home base; the audience was sprawled over the infield, with scattered picnic – like parties dotting left, right and center fields.

Ike and Tina Turner made their well-rehearsed entrance (with one of the Kings of Rhythm, all of whom were dressed in matching chartreuse outfits, providing the Vegas-lounge-like patter and introductions), and the concert’s musical pace doubled, then tripled. The Ikettes pranced into view in mini-skirts and shook their bottoms and sang. Tina, the sexiest woman in rock and roll, next boogalooed into sight and sang “Son of a Preacher Man,” “I’ve Been Loving You” and talked-and-sang “Respect,” telling a long, funny story about how guys and chicks cheat on each other. Then everybody came in on “River Deep, Mountain High.”

Overhead the police helicopter was circling and the other side of the ball park walls the cops and kids were busy hating each other. Most of those present didn’t even react when it was announced there had been incidents nearby. It was two different worlds. Savoy Brown, by its last number had everyone present standing, shaking.

But another of the long breaks between acts which had marred the festival intruded and it was nearly half an hour before the Buddy Miles Express got set up. (In this case, poor organization on the part of the concert promoters was worsened by violence on the outside and Miles’ drums hadn’t arrived.)

At the end of the Miles set, hundreds were flaked out in sleeping bags, having lazy pillow fights, casually toking down in the infield, as someone wandered through the crowd distributing leaflets advertising an upcoming concert in Orange County. When the MC introduced Canned Heat, everyone ran for the stage.

Following the band’s first number, 15 minutes before the scheduled midnight shut-off time (which had been extended the night before), Bob “The Bear” Hite, Canned Heat’s vocalist, made a brief announcement: “We’re gonna do something now that we’d planned to do later. Y’see, I understand we might have a power failure soon, so we’re gonna boogie now.”

Which is what the thousands remaining in the stadium did. They boogied. Outside, 200 cops in riot helmets stood sipping soft drinks, gossiping quietly, waiting for something else to happen. Not far away, other cops stood guard near the partially destroyed service station. In Desert Hospital, doctors were refusing to identify their new patients or say how serious the injuries were.

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