Ray Smith's Story
Let me begin by offering appropriate qualifiers to the experience that I had at Woodstock West. This all took place 40 years ago and my memory of last week is not as strong as many. I will provide you with as much as I can, as honestly as I can, the events and the feelings of the time but sequence and timing is likely to be altered by time.
I am Canadian, and the evolution of the Vietnam war and the protests that were taking place across the US were but evening news broadcasts to me as a non-worldly 19 year old male. I found myself in the US searching for adventure in May of 1970. I had finished a year of college and joined a couple of my friends who planned to travel to California. We climbed in my 1962 Acadian (Canadian name for a Chevy II) and headed out. The car, which I had purchased for $100 ran into all forms of problems and by the time we reached Denver it had drained all resources and we were completely broke.
The date was Friday May 8, 1970 and we found ourselves amidst a developing march against the war, the bombing of Cambodia and the lives lost at Kent State. The march was scheduled for the following day, Saturday May 9. This was obviously an intriguing situation and we became part of the events surrounding us.
About the time of the Denver demonstration, the Beatles released the movie "Let it Be" and it was showing in downtown Denverthat Friday night. The screening was very high profile and was attended by many of the demonstrators. The message of the song and the movie was highly appropriate for the group occupying downtown Denver that night.
The crowds in downtown Denver were charged with the electricity that the following day's March evoked. The streets of Denver were alive that night and crowds were everywhere. After wandering downtown Denver that evening, talking in the atmosphere with my friends, we headed back to a loft apartment in downtown Denver. Frankly I'm not sure how we came upon this lodging but the owner was absent and we were welcomed. The following morning we headed back into downtown Denver again to witness the march that was planned.
It was a fascinating experience. The numbers of people who marched in demonstration against the war, the Cambodian bombing and to express their feelings about what had happened at Kent State was staggering. The crowd was mixed and although dominated by youth was a full cross section of society. There was clearly an element within the group whose intent was to act in a violent manner, fighting back against the system they blamed for the state of affairs. There was as well a much larger contingent of demonstrators whose intent was to promote peace in a peaceful manner. At one point the two groups separated and the more aggressive marched to the Denver Jail chanting for the release of (I'm not certain but I think Bobby Seale). The second group stayed on the preplanned route and the two crowds merged later at a park in downtown Denver. Honestly, we followed the more aggressive group expecting it would be more exciting.
Once back at the park, speeches began. We heard from pacifists as well as the more violent element. The pacifists contended that there was no sense in fighting violence with violence and if we chose the wrong path, we were simply reinforcing the establishment which we were attempting to challenge. The violent group proposed that aggression was the only format that the establishment would recognize and respect. I remember that the Black Panthers had their opportunity to speak as well as a group dressed in full military garb that wore Che Guevara shirts along with the military attire. Towards the end of the speeches, someone got onto the stage and announced that Woodstock West was an ongoing demonstration against the war and against the events at Kent State. The speaker went on to say there would be free food, free music, free accommodation and free drugs. As this pretty much encompassed all our needs at the time, we decided to head for the Denver University Campus.
Upon arrival we found a tent city that turned out to be a continuous work in progress. There was a communal kitchen tent set up. There were portable toilets. There was a stage accommodating the need for leaders to speak to the group as a whole. There were young people everywhere discussing the events of the last few weeks. In addition, there were older people who seemed out of place but were on site to provide support. There were people contesting the existence of Woodstock West. Everywhere there was active and passionate discussion. There were trucks arriving with building supplies provided by contractors that were in support of the demonstration. There were trucks arriving with loads of food for the demonstrators. There was grass being smoked everywhere and totally in the open. It should be noted that during that period in Denver, the police and fundamentally given up on trying to control the smoking of marijuana. People were smoking all over the downtown core without fear of recrimination.
I met a lady that afternoon and she chose to come back to the loft we had located with me that evening. Fact is I never spent the night at Woodstock West as I had an alternative floor to sleep on within walking distance. My friends decided that evening to continue their travel on to Mexico and I decided I was not going to join them. I headed back to the DU campus the next day and they headed for Mexico.
Things were even more organized than the day before and our numbers had increased significantly. There had been a community built and it was lacking nothing. I remember that across the street, a first aid station was located in an old house. Someone in that house had a copy of the Cosby, Stills, Nash and Young recording, "Woodstock" and it blasted from an upstairs window all day long. There were people everywhere and the conversation was all about the war and the situation that America found herself in at the time. I spoke with Vietnam vets on site who were there to support the students. Word had spread to the Denver locals and a steady stream of cars loaded with curious onlookers and families passed by the site. Because the traffic was so heavy, the cars hardly moved and protesters used the opportunity to share their philosophy with the people in the cars. The response was of course mixed with some people there to support and others to contest. Those who contested the demonstration were the focus of the people along the side of the road and great effort was put into conversion.
That night, a Boulder based band by the name of Zephyr performed at Woodstock West. The band was outstanding and is still respected today as a great band of its era. The lead guitarist for the band, Tommy Bolin, went on to become a lead guitarist with Deep Purple. The vocalist, Candy Givens, while not enjoying the extended success of Bolin was well respected for her Janis Joplin type vocals. Unfortunately both Candy and Tommy are today dead due to drug related events. For me, if any music represents the events of Woodstock West, it is the music of Zephyr.
The next day, the Denver police showed up. They marched across the lawn that was Woodstock West, bulldozed all that was standing and carted it away. We watched from the outskirts of our community but I think everyone there knew without needing to be told that this was only temporary. I know now from watching your Facebook page that the police then retreated because of the numbers of people and were concerned about their security. I assure you, there was easily as much fear of the police from the protestors but they stood firm. The fact is, and I apologize if I'm being rude, but the Denver Police Department was out of control in the early 70s. I clearly remember seeing a motorcycle cop drive by when I was in downtown Denver wearing cowboy boots and a six-gun. It was understood that as a long haired youth (hippie) I was as likely to be driven out of town and beaten up as I was likely to be taken to the station if I attempted to go somewhere I was not welcome.
Immediately upon the retreat of the police, the construction began again. The second time through, the community was even better built as we learned from the earlier experience. By this time, I had become not just an interested observer but a dedicated participant. Although I would have always considered myself a pacifist, I had now recognized the importance of the cause and what these people were now up against. They were taking on society and the establishment as we knew it and looking for alternative ways to move forward as a human race. We were not going to be overwhelmed by a government that was lying to us and potentially now opening fire on their own children. I was proud to be part of this.
The support from the outside community was even greater than before. More materials then we could use were arriving at the site, news reporters and politicians were showing up and for a very brief time we felt we had won. Then word came that the National Guard had been called. This changed everything. This was no longer a celebratory environment but had become one of fear. The events at Kent State had taken place only a week earlier and this was the first time the National Guard had been called into action since. The Kent State shootings led us to believe that the government had changed policies and the future direction was to gain control, whatever the cost and this same group was about to confront us.......we could die this day. I know this is dramatic but it was truly the sentiment of the moment.
It's hard to describe the conflict that takes place in ones mind when your beliefs are held up to the ultimate test. The mix of fear, comradely and commitment, I remember thinking at the time, had to be similar to that of a soldier going into battle.
As the Guard approached, the decision as to what should be our next move was hotly contested at the main stage of our community. There were those who advocated a sit-in forcing the guard to take us away physically and there were those who wanted to back off in the same manner we did with the police and the arguments were strong from both sides. Over all both sides agreed that our entire effort was in vain if things escalated to violence and it was agreed that this could not happen. As the debate continued, we received updates on the current position of the guard. Obviously when you move a large number of troops through a city it's hard to keep their exact whereabouts a secret. The guard were within blocks of our location when the decision was ultimately made to move off the grounds and give up our community. The logic primarily revolved around, they are shooting now and they can't stay long. We will rebuild again.
So we moved off the grounds and waited for the guard to arrive. A few minutes later they marched on to the site, surrounded the grounds and began the process of dismantling WoodStock West. As I remember it, there was no sadness as we had made a strong point, won over a large number of citizens and fully expected to rebuild within a day or two. We stayed out of harms way for most of the morning waiting for things to settle then gradually and carefully began returning to the site to view the guard members.
The experience of seeing the guard was fascinating for me. I grew up with a GI Joe picture of the American military and these were kids like us, big, small, fat, skinny, with freckles, pimples and crooked teeth. They didn't want to be there and that was clear. I don't know if this is true but I was told that by joining the guard these kids could avoid Vietnam. They encircled the plot of campus that was WoodStock West and stood at ease with their guns ever present. They were embarrassed to face us as we walked up to them and shared our political beliefs and asked them to put down their guns and join us. It was in their eyes that they would have been much happier to be a part of our community then to participate in its destruction. I can honestly say that I felt very badly for the guard members.
As history shows, the guard stayed long enough to close us down permanently and people like myself went on with the rest of their lives. I left Denver and traveled throughout the Colorado/New Mexico area for the balance of the summer spending a few weeks on a commune in the Rocky Mountains and eventually making my way back to my home in Canada.
I walked into Woodstock West as a 19 year old youth looking for a good time and I left a lifetime pacifist with a revised belief in what truly mattered and the knowledge that I could make a difference. I'm proud to say that my generation changed the world we live in forcing governments, corporations and individuals to be more accountable, be prepared to change the status quo and simply do what is right. The recent events in the Middle East and the George W Bush regime once again has challenged society to stand up for what is right. As a society, we slipped backward again but were able to recognize that our leaders made mistakes and misled us reinforcing the need to keep the accountability factor high. The difference this time is we questioned the decision making and were not persecuted for it. Programming like the John Stewart show would not have been allowed in 1970 but was a major force in the questioning of US leadership in this era. The situation in America in the early 70's resulted from a leadership and its power base becoming an establishment which by its very name implies no accountability or flexibility.
I am, as I said, a Canadian and am so with great pride. We, Canadians, walk a tight rope with our powerful neighbor to the south but we are still free to take our own directions when we feel we must. The decision to step back from the Iraq conflict while our most influential friends that we have traditionally supported, Great Britain and America, jumped in was a turning point in Canadian history and I firmly believe that the option existed because of events like Woodstock West and their groundbreaking questioning of the way things are. I believe our Prime Minister at the time of the Iraq decision, Jean Chretien, was heavily influenced, like the rest of us, by the events in America revolving around the Vietnam war. Jean Chretian was from the generation that changed our world and conducted himself with independence and attitude which that generation unearthed. BTW this is the same Prime Minister who announced upon retirement that he as going to find a quiet dock somewhere and smoke a joint.
As I said in the beginning, my exact sequence of the events may not be correct and my memory may have altered things a little but as honestly as I can remember these are the events I experienced in Denver on the second weekend of May, 1970. I hope my experience is helpful in documenting this important piece of American, social and my history. I will be following the evolution of your documentary closely hoping to rekindle a variety of positive memories.