These “Freedom of Speech” Protests Remind me a lot of Woodstock ’99

These “Freedom of Speech” Protests Remind me a lot of Woodstock ’99

It was 1999: the leather was low-cut, the tensions were high, and the dreadlocks were very, very white. The original Woodstock co-founder decided to throw another event to promote “peace and love”, which ended in a fiery riot. The first red flag was that he decided to host the hippie fest on an US Air Force base (yikes), and the second red flag was that it was clearly for-profit, with $4 bottled water and the likes. There’s a great three-part Netflix doco on this, check it out.

Anyway, the event organisers hired the biggest names of the day without really researching what those bands actually stood for. The ‘69 Woodstock saw indie greats play their hearts out, and Woodstock ‘99 saw Korn, Kid Rock, Insane Clown Posse, and of course, Limp Bizkit. It was riotous from the start, with an overtly fratboy energy, and it ended in a mass riot, dozens of injuries, assaults and fires. 

The event organisers repeatedly ignored the fact that they’d created a sort of breeding ground for unruly behaviour, consistently blaming the violence on a handful of bad apples who were there to cause chaos. They shifted all the blame away from their managerial failures and lack of foresight and onto an anonymous, faceless scapegoat in the crowd. They simultaneously destroyed both the stage and scenery, as well as the credibility of Woodstock’s legacy.

If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. When I went to the Free Speech Union event a few weeks back on campus, it was a tense affair. The event started with a joke about how some leftist heckles were expected, and attracted a packed room of (mostly) older folks with conservative views. When jeers came, they didn’t come from some communist, ultra-feminist students as apparently expected; they were coming from far-right audience members so conservative that they heckled politicians for not being right-wing ENOUGH. The organisers explicitly said that having more of a leftist representation on the panel would’ve made the event stronger, but one student in attendance pointed to the jeers from the crowd as a possible reason that leftists might not have wanted to come. 

Over and over, I’ve heard this excuse given by protest organisers (on both sides, but far more often the right): “it wasn’t our group that got violent, it was a handful of extremists who snuck in to cause trouble.” And that’s exactly what the Woodstock guys said. Problem is, if you don’t have the foresight to think that Kid Rock, Korn, and Limp Bizkit (who literally have a song called Break Stuff) are going to attract a rowdy crowd, when that crowd materialises and does exactly what they said they were gonna do, you’re partially responsible. If your concert, or your protest, is suddenly attracting a disproportionate amount of “bad apples”, maybe you need to take a look at why that is, and whether or not your “peace and love” crusade has been hijacked by something more destructive. 

It doesn’t matter what your kaupapa is – what matters is who you’re attracting. Is it still Woodstock if it’s headlined by nu metal? Is it still a rally for free speech if it’s attended by fascists? 

This article first appeared in Issue 21, 2022.
Posted 6:26pm Friday 2nd September 2022 by Fox Meyer.