Why? Why so much nostalgia for a concert I never attended (I was born 1970, nine months later... and no, my parents were in Spain at the moment...)?
Because, as a student of history, the moment appeals to me.
Coming at the end of a turbulent decade - the 60s - the concert was a royal f-ck-up, a disorganized mess, the promoters just a bit overwhelmed by the scale of their initial attempt and ill-prepared for the turnout that showed up (eventually 400,000 to 500,000 people, practically a major city). They didn't have enough food or water, not enough security, poorly planned parking and traffic (it is not exaggeration to say that the concert shut down the southern half of New York state traffic).
It didn't help the surrounding communities either to have 500,000 show up unexpected on their doorsteps. Bethel NY in particular bore a huge brunt of the problems, primarily helping out with keeping hundreds of thousands of concert-goers fed. God bless 'em though, the people who lived there helped:
And that's kinda why I think fondly of Woodstock: people were for the most part good. Good to each other. Sure, there may have been a handful of people overpricing stuff or ripping others off, but those seem so few and far between and I can't find a lot of evidence about that.
There were only two deaths out of 500,000 people: one a heroin overdose and the other an accident involving a runaway tractor. Almost no major fights, at least nothing reported to the local hospitals. And most of what the hospitals handled were broken bones and medical emergencies.
And the key thing, about it being the Sixties: the concert-goers and the local police got along. We're talking about the turbulent protest era, over civil rights and against the Vietnam War, where nearly every major march ended up with cops in riot gear launching tear gas and swinging batons at the dirty hippies. The majority of the concert-goers were young and anti-war protesters. There was a lot of drug use: a good amount of pot, and remember watch out for that "brown acid". Any one of these things could have set the cops into Riot Control mode on top of the fact they had 500,000 people stumbling about Max Yasgur's farm.
The local police, however, tried something I'm surprised most police forces don't even apply 40 years later: a Soft Power approach of keeping the peace, where they didn't line up to intimidate the crowds with snipers and guys in body armor, but allowed the hired security people - most of them off-duty or ex-cops already - to patrol and handle the crowds. The decision came down to avoid going after the drug users: the reality that a lot of attendees were gonna get high made detaining any of them a logistical nightmare.
Somewhere and somewhen, the local police tried treating the concert-goers not as rioters but as people. And the results worked:
"...Not withstanding their personality, their dress and their ideas, they were and they are the most courteous, considerate and well-behaved group of kids I have ever been in contact with in my 24 years of police work," Lou Yank, the chief of police in nearby Monticello, told The New York Times...
Treating each other with respect tends to be a two-way deal. And it made the Woodstock Festival work well enough that 45 years later everyone involved in it can look back with some small pride of being part of one of the biggest non-violent events in world history.
Sad to say, compared to the problems we've got whenever a protest or gathering forms anymore:
first few days of protests in Ferguson Missouri after an incident where a cop shot an unarmed black teen in the back under questionable circumstances. The local city and county police decided to bring in riot gear, body armor, snipers, and more personal firepower than most of our armed forces didn't deploy with during their tours of Iraq and Afghanistan (the quote sticking with me from an article from Business Insider: "We rolled lighter than this in an actual war zone"). And the county and city cops used rules of engagement that pretty much ensured rubber bullets and tear gas went flying everywhere, especially by Wednesday night.
It got bad enough that the state Governor forced the Ferguson PD and county law enforcement to stand down, sending in the state highway troopers to keep the peace. And they went in like this:
The state troopers went in talking, not shooting. Walking with the protesters. Mingling. Hugging.
Wednesday night had violence. Thursday night had hugs. Notice a difference...
This is why we gotta remember Woodstock. Everybody - the police, the civilians, the neighborhoods, everybody - went in on their best behavior, and everything worked out for the best. Lessons that need to be learned.