According to some social pundits, the Rolling Stones' 1969 Altamont concert drove a stake into the celebratory optimism of the hippie era. Regardless of its place in pop culture though, Altamont was an unmitigated security nightmare. Before the echoes faded or the roadies unplugged the amps, one reveler had been knifed to death, three died accidentally and several others were wounded.
The Stones 1969 American Tour culminated with a free concert in California. Along with the Stones, the show headlined The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Grateful Dead. (Sensing the rising tide of violence, the Dead would ultimately refuse to take the stage.)
Although originally slated for Golden Gate Park, the venue had to be changed due to a conflict with a San Franciso 49ers football game. Organizers first moved the event to Sears Point Raceway, but a dispute over the filming rights for the concert ensued. Organizers made their final selection, the Altamont Speedway in Northern California, only two days before the scheduled December 6 date. The new location, and the resultant ad hoc security plan, virtually guaranteed disaster.
Let's take a look at some of Altamont's enduring security lessons.
Lesson One: Rely on Natural Access Control
Stage placement proved to be the Altamont location's tragic flaw. The Sears Point venue would have placed the stage at the top of a rise and above the crowd. Instead of being elevated, however, the Altamont stage was at the bottom of an incline and less than four feet above the audience. This arrangement directed all of the crowd pressure towards the performers. As Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully would later say, "that whole crowd could have easily passed out, and rolled down onto the stage. There was no barrier."
In security terms, the situation suffered from a lack of natural access control. Natural access control is one of the four principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), and uses natural and construction features to control access to restricted areas. Had the concert taken place at Sears Point, the natural elevation would have provided a barrier to protect the performers. With the absence of natural access control at Altamont, another solution was needed to protect the stage.
Enter the Hells Angels.
Lesson Two: Choose Your Armed Guards Wisely
On the night of the concert, the Oakland Chapter of the Hells Angels lined the stage, wielding weighted pool cues. To this day, conflicting stories circulate about the Angels' intended role. Some say they were there as a security detail, others that they were simply asked to keep an eye on the equipment and provide a little crowd control.
The day after the concert, Angels member Sonny Barger called KSAN-FM radio and said:
I ain't no cop, I ain't never going to ever pretend to be no cop. I didn't go there to police nothing, man. They told me if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody could climb over me, I could drink beer until the show was over. And that's what I went there to do.
Whatever the case, the Hell's Angels received $500 in beer for their services and, on the day of the concert, formed the only wall that could keep the crowd from rushing the stage.
As the concert thumped on, and intoxication set in, skirmishes involving the crowd, the Angels, and the performers began to escalate. Fights erupted, bottles were thrown, and one of the Hell's Angels took the stage to punch Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin unconscious. Mick Jagger was attacked immediately after exiting the helicopter that flew him in.
The concert's defining moment occured as the Rolling Stones began to play Under my Thumb. High on methamphetamines, 18 year-old Meredith Hunter approached the stage, pistol in hand. Hells Angel Allen Passaro disarmed him and stabbed him dead.
Choosing armed guards, whether those guards are carrying pistols, knives or pool-cues, is certainly one of the more consequential decisions a company can make.
Lesson Three: Choose Your Camera Locations Carefully
The Altamont concert was filmed, and later formed the basis of the documentary Gimme Shelter. Although the cameras weren't operated for security purposes, they did provide the visual evidence that pieced together Altamont's tragic story. In 1971, after viewing footage clearly showing Meredith Hunter with a drawn pistol, a jury acquitted Allen Passaro of murder, deciding he had acted in self defense.
For most businesses, careful security camera placement can not only deter crime, but provide valuable evidence if an incident occurs.