Celebrating Yosemite Part 8 – The Stoneman Meadow Riots and Problem of Law Enforcement
Few events in Yosemite’s history remain as divisive as the July 4, 1970 Stoneman Meadow Riot, which had become a well-established gathering place for youths in the late 1960s, underscored the fault lines within American society. During the summer of 1970, it seemed that such a gulf also included over the purpose and use of Yosemite.
Put into the context of events such as Kent State, which had occurred on May 4th, as well as riots in Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles, the Stoneman Meadow Riot was a part of a much larger cultural discord gripping the country throughout the height of the Vietnam War. The New York Times sagely noted the “angst of our age finally arrived in the national parks.”
To witnesses such as Dr. John Fisher (whose full letter to President Nixon concerning the riots is below) Yosemite ranger’s use of force was excessive and undemocratic. But others adamantly disagreed. “My reaction to Dr. Fisher’s account is complete disbelief,” wrote one park visitor after reading Fisher’s letter in Sacramento Bee, continuing, “that anyone could have been in Yosemite on the weekend of July 4th and attempt to condone or justify the behavior of a lawless, filthy mob.”
Problems between Yosemite rangers and the growing crowds in Stoneman Meadows began over Memorial Day weekend 1970 when rangers fielded numerous complaints regarding loud music, drug use, fights, profanity, nudity, and public sex in both Camp 14 and Stoneman Meadow.
In response, the park implemented increased fees for camping within the Valley, as well restrictions on the number of people per site, in the hopes of reducing the number of visitors descending on Stoneman Meadows. Rangers also began issuing citations to urge people out of Stoneman Meadow. The action succeeded in clearing out the meadow the first night. But the following day, when attempting to clear out the meadow once again, park rangers were chased out of the meadow and decided to call the situation off in the hopes that people would eventually leave.
The crowd never left, and Yosemite was faced the problem of a growing crowd illegally camping within the Valley with no real resources or ability to remove them.
Following the Memorial Day, Yosemite Superintendent James A. Olsen asked rangers to renew their personnel efforts and “tighten up enforcement.” Olsen did not wish to jeopardize Yosemite ranger’s highly valuable “law enforcement image,” but suggested that simply given “warnings” when breaking the Code of Federal Regulations represented as attitude of weakness to the young people that frequented the park at an “accelerated rate.” Olsen feared a repeat of Memorial Day weekend, particularly on hearing rumors of a “Rock Music Festival, Woodstock West” being held in the Valley on the Fourth.
Accounts on what happened that Fourth of July differ greatly. The Berkeley Tribe reported that thirty rangers on horseback ploughed into peaceful bystanders in the meadow swinging ropes and batons, and that “Yosemite had become a battlefield—visions of the Sierra Maestre” and that “[g]uerrilla wars in the mountains are now becoming a possibility—there is no peace in a police state.”
Yosemite Park and Curry Company employee Maxine Day was enraged with such accounts, writing in a letter to NPS Director George Hartzog that several other visitors and employees were hit by bottle, doused with fire hoses, and assaulted by the smell marijuana smoke coming from the meadow. Concluding, “These dear children are screaming ecology but apparently it does not pertain to them.”
David Vassar, a film student, captured footage of the scene in Stoneman Meadow before, during, and after the riot. The grainy film shows park rangers on horseback trying unsuccessfully using tear gas and batons in efforts to control a larger and unruly crowd. In the heat of the riot, many of the mounted park rangers seemingly lose their cool, and begin to bludgeon young men and women with little regard. The crowd swells in anger, hurtling rocks and glass bottle back at the rangers, eventually chasing them from the meadow.
The day ended in chaos with park officials calling in law enforcement from surrounding counties and even the state to finally quell the violence. Over the next several months, hundreds of visitors were turned away at the park’s entrances after “vehicle inspections” deemed their cars motorcycles unsafe. In truth, such inspections were Yosemite administration’s way of keeping counter culture youth from reentering the park, and led to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.
The events of the summer of 1970 in Yosemite demonstrated America’s growing cultural gulf, and its very real impact on differing expectations of how to experience Yosemite. Yet, it also marked a significant shift in how Yosemite, and the Park Service as a whole, approached law enforcement. Faced with increasing crime, traffic, and other issues stemming from growing numbers of visitor Yosemite rangers took on a more aggressive role in law enforcement.
The legacy of Stoneman Meadow lingers, and has lead to broad criticisms of parks rangers being overzealous in their enforcement over the past forty years, particularly following 9/11. Yet, in a Park that hosts over 4 million visitor every year, concerns over crime reflect more that of a major urban police force than a bucolic rural park. Leading many to wonder what is the proper response of law enforcement in not just Yosemite, but all National Parks.