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Nick Chiarkas Worked Security at Woodstock

Nick Chiarkas is the author of Weepers and Nunzio’s Way. You can find out more about him on his website, www.nickchiarkas.com, or by clicking here, read his last post here, and buy his books here.

I was recently interviewed about my experience at Woodstock in 1969 as an NYPD cop providing security. Among other things, I was asked, what did I take away from that experience? What did I learn, if anything?

The brief history is that in 1969, Police Commissioner Howard Leary originally agreed to provide NYPD cops for security at Woodstock. However, he was embarrassed by a front-page story in the New York Post that inferred NYPD would be working with Wavey’s Hog Farm and withdrew consent. After Security Chief Wes Pomeroy made it clear that Wavy’s people would do odd jobs as the “Please Force” and NYPD would be known as the security “Peace Force,” the Commissioner unofficially agreed to not take action against any off-duty NYPD cop that worked for Wes Pomeroy as security.

Other local police departments would handle traffic in and out of the festival. The local police were in full uniform with weapons, but we, the Peace Force, were unarmed and wore red t-shirts and red jackets with “PEACE” on the front and the guitar and dove on the back. Yes, I still have my jacket.

At the time, I was a cop in the 10th Precinct, and our clerical officer, who knew Wes Pomeroy, asked my partner and me if we would be interested. As I recall, we had to complete a short application. My partner Tom Kenney (the best cop I ever knew) and I took a few days off and joined the Woodstock security team of about 275 off-duty NYPD cops. Everyone says it was 3-days of Peace, Love, and Music, but it started on Friday with Richie Havens at around 4:00 PM or 5:00 PM and ended on Monday with Jimi Hendrix.

We expected close to 100,000 people. Over 400,000 showed up. There were Hell’s Angels, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, street gangs, hippie communes, and the folks who live next door. Wes Pomeroy was incredibly wise. With Mike Lang, one of Woodstock’s organizers, Wes, the security chief decided there would be no gate to sell or collect tickets and there would be only three rules for the attendees: 1. Don’t hurt anyone, 2. Don’t steal from anyone, and 3. If someone needs help, help them or call us. Everyone cheered to hear it.

To us cops, he said, “You are here to help people, de-escalate issues, save lives, and do good. That’s it.” And that’s what we did. We broke up fights, negotiated disputes, patched up cuts and bruises…and we talked with everyone about anything – the Vietnam War, the draft, politics, religion, rich and poor, why the Beatles weren’t coming. We helped to keep the peace and serve the needs of the attendees.

There were no serious conflicts; at one point, a couple of local police officers wanted to arrest someone on the grounds, and Wes told them they could not enter with guns. They stayed on the highways; Wavy’s Hog Farm was beneficial and would pitch in wherever they were needed; we were happy to accept our role as peacekeepers.

At some point, after learning about the size of the festival, Governor Nelson Rockefeller was going to send in the State Guard (military) but was convinced by Wes that “My team (NYPD) got this,” and that was the end of it. We, NYPD, did not make any arrests that I am aware of, but the local police made some along the various roads, mainly for drugs.

So, what did I learn? I learned the power of talking with (not to or at) other people. Even when you disagree, even when they are breaking the law. If you are a police officer, there will be times when you will have to make an arrest or use force, even deadly force. But so much can be de-escalated if you calm down, breathe, and talk with people. Shortly after returning from Woodstock, Kenney and I were part of a line of cops at a student protest against the Vietnam War around NYU. Facing me in the crowd was a co-ed with a sign; she spit at me and called me a pig.

Things got quiet around us. Kenney looked at me, laughed, and said, “We’re home; what do you wanna do?” I looked at the young woman. I could have arrested her, but instead, I said, “That hurt my feelings. You don’t even know me or what I believe, and yet you spit on me; we’re all just people.”

She broke down and kept apologizing as she wiped her spit off of me with her scarf.

Tom Kenney and I were indeed home, and we policed like always. I was shot at, stabbed, beaten up, and, of course, we made arrests. But we also de-escalated situations where we might have made an arrest had we not policed at Woodstock. We talked more with residents and tourists in our sector (Sector A, 10th Pct.), and we prevented or solved problems. Our experience at Woodstock improved the way we policed, and our work became more fulfilling and more fun for us and for those with whom we made contact.

Side note: One of my most memorable moments was at some point early Monday morning, when Jimi Hendrix pointed at me and said, “Hop Town.”

I didn’t know what he wanted, so I said, “What?” and walked toward him. I was wearing my short-sleeved red Peace shirt, and the bottom of my 101st Paratrooper tattoo was showing.

He pointed at it and again said, “Hop Town.”

Now I knew. Just about everyone at Fort Campbell who wanted a tattoo got them in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, otherwise known as Hop Town. That’s when I learned that Jimi Hendrix served as a member of the 101st Airborne Division a few years before me. Small world.

Nick Chiarkas

Nick Chiarkas is the author of the (multi)award-winning novel WEEPERS. You can find out more about her on his website, nickchiarkas.com.

This Post Has 25 Comments

  1. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    I’m impressed that you learned the value of community policing. And that you were at Woodstock and remember it. 😉

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Thanks Anne, I am also surprised that I remember Woodstock- it was incredible.

    2. Sharon Lynn
      Sharon Lynn

      Everything you say is always more fascinating than the last thing you said. Enthralling story right down to the Side Note!

  2. Avatar
    Margaret Mizushima

    Thanks for such an interesting post, Nick! Those were interesting times. I was a teenager living in Saguache, Colorado, a small town of about 300 people. My experience was different than that of kids in urban areas but we weren’t immune to the unrest of the times. Your post was very interesting and evoked a lot of memories. Thanks again!

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Thank you, Margaret, they were indeed interesting times.

  3. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Wow, what a life you’ve led. You’re full of stories and you’re the protagonist of some great material. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Ah, thanks, Christine, I appreciate your kind words.

  4. Avatar
    Saralyn Richard

    What a great nostalgia piece. Thanks for sharing your experiences and lessons learned.

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Thank you Saralyn.

  5. Joy A Ribar Ann A Ribar
    Joy A Ribar Ann A Ribar

    Thanks for a great post, Nick. Not only interesting but a timely reminder of how we should all be treating one another.

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Thank you, Joy. I agree, kindness, love, and laughter are the answer.

  6. Avatar
    Laurie’s Story

    Thanks for such an informative post from an officer’s viewpoint during an historic event!

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Thank you, Laurie. Looking back it was an interesting viewpoint.

  7. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Nick, thanks for this timely post about how kindness and caring can de-escalate a situation. Your comment to the woman who spit on you was a perfect way to show your humanity and peaceful intentions. I think you’re needed to lead in-service trainings on this for a broad swath of our country. And I loved the nostalgia!

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Thank you, again, Sherrill. I, of course, agree, kindness and caring is needed.

  8. GP Gottlieb
    GP Gottlieb

    Wondering if you got to listen to any of the music – maybe Janis Joplin was looking at that dreamy cop, NIck Chiarkis while she sang Piece of my Heart!

  9. Nicholas Chiarkas
    Nicholas Chiarkas

    I adore Janis Joplin, and yes, I drank in almost all of the music. It was amazing.

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Ah, thank you John. The truth is you, my brother, made the interview easy and fun.

  10. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Nick — Holy cow, what a life you’ve lived. Thank you for sharing such an entertaining and informative post!

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Thank you so much, Laurie.

  11. Carl Vonderau
    Carl Vonderau

    Wow, you got to be part of the legend. What great memories. The closest I got to protesting Vietnam was when we demonstrated against sending the Coral Fleet out of San Francisco. I was a freshman in college and we all got up early to go to the meeting point. I thought there would be thousands. There were about 30 people.

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Thank you, Carl. Yes, a lot of protests ended with way fewer folks showing up. These were certainly energizing times.

  12. carleneoneilmysteries
    carleneoneilmysteries

    Such a great “inside” look, Nick! Thanks for sharing!

  13. Nicholas Chiarkas
    Nicholas Chiarkas

    Thank you for your kind words, my friend.

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