STOCKTON, CALIF. — Two topics dominate conversations these days in this warm and sweaty, central California city of 86,000. One, of course, is Watergate; lotsa laughs at the taverns. The other is rock & roll, and no one is laughing.
On Sunday, April 29th, more than 15,000 persons at a concert featuring Elvin Bishop, Canned Heat, Buddy Miles and Fleetwood Mac were routed from a baseball park by police firing tear gas cannisters, spraying “pepper fog” and shooting putty from shotguns. More than 80 persons, including 28 police, were injured, and more than 50 arrested.
The crowd included high-school and college students, young parents and preschool-aged children. Fleeing in panic from clouds of tear gas and stinging putty, they flattened a chain link fence along the rightfield line. Some hurled rocks and bottles back at the police, and battles between police and bottle heavers continued for several hours into the evening, first in the city park that surrounds the ball field and later on the streets of nearby neighborhoods.
It was one year to the week of the last outdoor rock & roll show here. During that one, at University of Pacific Stadium, a young man was shot and killed. After that, the university banned rock & roll from the football arena. Twenty-five miles down the highway, they’ve also banned rock & roll: It is strictly fast cars now at Altamont Raceway.
The night after the show, concertgoers packed a city council meeting and accused the police of brutality; they said they had heard no police order to clear the field; others gave accounts of their terror. Caroline Bumpus, a nurse who accompanied her teenagers to the show: “I saw an officer with a tear gas gun chase a mother with a baby over her shoulder. I saw a boy trying to help a man in a wheelchair have to abandon him because he couldn’t stand the gas – and I saw an officer gas that man in the wheelchair.” The city manager and the police department announced investigations.
Stockton, 80 miles east of San Francisco, is situated on the asphalt backbone of the state – Highway 99, which shoots up the San Joaquin Valley from Southern California to the state capital, Sacramento. Stockton is a port city and a canning center for some of the Valley’s huge crop of fruits and vegetables. Stockton was the setting for Leonard Garner’s Fat City, a hard-edged novel – and later movie – of small-time boxing, stoop labor, cheap wine and skid row.
It is a town of quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods. At dusk, teenagers with cars cruise the parking lots along a lone neon strip; the older crowd visits one of the three or four strobe-lit bars to dance.
When a big name rock & roll band plays here, which is seldom, it is an Event for miles around. And an outdoor show is especially attractive. After all, in Stockton this year one cannot even attend a minor league baseball game at little Billy Hebert Field. After 25 years, the Stockton Ports of the Class A California League are up and gone, the franchise in disintegration.
A former Ports fan said: “You want to see a baseball game now, you got to drive to Lodi.”
Robert Strand, a young promoter who runs Gold Rush Productions, had presented rock & roll previously – and successfully – at Stockton Civic Auditorium. He says he was approached last February by a city official who asked if Strand was interested in doing an outdoor show. Billy Hebert Field was available. The city wanted $1000 rent and the revenue from concession stands. After several meetings, says Strand, he set up the April 29th show. Five more were to be staged later this year.
During the week preceding the concert, Strand met police at the field to discuss security. He was told who would be in charge inside the ballpark and outside, in the parking lots and surrounding picnic grounds. Strand obtained the usual couple million dollars’ worth of insurance and arranged to hire 66 guards and provide monitors. 10,000 people were expected.
On concert day Billy Hebert Field opened at 8:45 AM. At ten the box office went into operation, and shortly after 11 the music started, on a stage in centerfield. The crowd grew larger. The temperature climbed to 74 degrees, and a steady but pleasant breeze blew in from leftfield. At its peak, the crowd was estimated to be more than 20,000.
In the press box above the last row of seats, two policemen operated a video tape camera. They used it all day to scan the crowd and, later, to record a series of fistfights and bottle-throwing incidents outside and behind the ballpark, where all day several hundred persons milled about or sat in the shade, where the music still could be heard.
(A police spokesman said the camera is used usually to photograph crime scenes, after the fact. This was the first time, he said, the unit had been used at a live event. “It was a trial thing,” he said, “just to see what was going on.”)
It was during the set change between Buddy Miles and Fleetwood Mac that Strand says he realized a “serious situation” was developing. It was close to 6 PM, the scheduled shutdown time, but Strand already had received permission from the police for an extension. Fleetwood Mac tuned up. Outside, incidents of fighting and bottle throwing were escalating, and police were chasing people through the grounds. Then, at one point, several bottles were hurled down at the police outside from the top row of the ballpark grandstand.
Later, said Strand, he saw tear gas being used out in the picnic grounds. At the same time, he said, police finally entered the grandstand – 40 minutes after the bottles came down – and secured the top row of the grandstand.
Another 20 minutes passed; Fleetwood Mac were still playing. At about 6:45 PM, said Strand, a policeman appeared suddenly onstage and told him to end the concert. “Fleetwood’s drummer said they’d play one more song. The cop told him, ‘Make it a short one’ and took off,” said Strand. Then, suddenly, there was no power. The plug had been pulled.
Within seconds, the air was filled with tear gas, blowing in with the wind, and the crowd stampeded for the exits, any exit. Strand said he fled to the dressing rooms, taking cover in a shower stall only to be driven out moments later by two police who came inside and sprayed the area with “pepper fog” from a machine that looked like a vacuum cleaner.
Police cleared the field after a wild three minutes, and the several hours of chases and arrests began outside in the parking lot. Up in the press box, however, two lone figures fiddled with their video tape camera. Curiously, they had not filmed the gassing and rush for the exit. Deputy Chief Julio Ceccehetti explained later that the cameraman “was changing his film” at the time.
At a news conference the following Tuesday, promoter Strand gave his account of the day and berated police for the way they ended the show. “I had been in control of the crowd all day,” he said. “I was going to tell them to go out the rightfield gate, away from the crowd outside. I never had an opportunity to warn anybody. It was just a total, absolute shock to me.” Strand said the gassing was “a planned assault on the crowd.”
City Manager Elder Gunter had denied the accusation. “The police action was totally unplanned no matter what anyone says,” he stated. He also has issued an order to city departments banning further permits for rock & roll at Billy Hebert Field.
In the same year, Stockton has been deprived of fresh air rock & roll and baseball. For baseball, they can always drive to Lodi.
This story is from the June 7th, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone.