GEORGE - For just one night, the rock group Rage Against the Machine should have been called Rage Against the Grant County Sheriff.
Flanked on stage by an upside-down American flag and a poster of Che Guevara, the Los Angeles-based band opened its concert at the Gorge Friday with a blistering version of a virulently anti-police song by the rap group NWA.
It was a choice that left no doubt how the overtly political group felt about Grant County Sheriff William Wiester's attempt to have its performance canceled, due in part to what he termed their "violent and anti-law-enforcement philosophies."
Hours before the concert began, Wiester set up a command post just down the narrow rural road from the venue. Fifteen police vehicles were parked haphazardly in the unpaved lot. Radios crackled as the sheriff and his deputies kept track of problems and arrests. By 5:30 p.m., there were already seven people in custody.
Grant County normally deploys 12 officers to handle events at the Gorge. For the Rage concert, 50 law-enforcement personnel from Grant County and several municipalities were on hand. The private security provided by the Gorge was nearly doubled, according to Grant County Undersheriff Mike Shay.
When his request to halt the concert was denied by Grant County Judge Ken Jorgensen on Thursday, Wiester made it clear that his deputies would crack down on any illegal activity at the venue. The sheriff kept his word. By early yesterday morning, his deputies had arrested more than 80 people. Most of those were minors arrested for underage drinking or possession of narcotics. There were no arrests for disorderly conduct.
The showdown between Wiester and "alternative" concert-goers was only the latest incident in a season that has been marked by attempts by Grant County officials and residents to assert control over the concert facility. At the heart of the controversy is an increasingly contentious relationship between Grant County and Universal Concerts, the Gorge's owners. County officials want to have more of a say in which performers come to the venue.
"We begged them not to have Lollapalooza and they went ahead with it," said Grant County Commissioner Helen Fancher. "It just doesn't feel that they're trying to cooperate too much. The high-maintenance shows they put on there strain everybody and there's no amount of tax revenue that makes up for it." According to Fancher, events at the Gorge last year provided more than $400,000 in tax revenue.
"We have worked in joint cooperation with Grant County in the past to provide a safe environment for our patrons," Jeff Trisler, vice president for Universal Concerts told The Seattle Times last week. "We will do our very level best to make sure that the concerns of the county and the sheriff are taken care of."
Wiester said on Friday that the county was cooperating with Universal, but that the nature of shows at the Gorge for next season would have to be negotiated. "We've had dozens of shows here - the Beach Boys, Clint Black, Bonnie Raitt - and no problems," said Weister. "But at these alternative shows, the young people are disrespectful or just disobedient of everything, including the police."
The 49-year-old sheriff, who listens to country-and-western music but says he has never attended a concert, said several deaths and numerous drug overdoses at the Gorge in the past year have necessitated his get-tough stance.
"If I could be assured that the concerts would be orderly, I would have no problem," he said. "Our job is to keep the peace and make sure that no one gets hurt. That's the bottom line."
While the number of arrests Friday night would indicate a rowdy crowd, violence seemed to be the last thing on the minds of the 10,000 fans who showed up for the concert. Waiting in line to be searched for weapons and alcohol before entering the Gorge, the cheerful teenage and twentysomething crowd looked more like it was headed to see a tennis match than a big, bad rock 'n' roll band. Reached at home yesterday, even Wiester said he was surprised by the calmness of the crowd, a fact he attributed partly to the cool weather and the large police and security presence.
Despite the crowd's generally upbeat mood, many fans expressed annoyance, and even anger, with Wiester's actions. "If they're going to shut one concert down, they need to shut them all down," said Dave Hoover, 35, of Spokane. "They can't decide for us."
Azure Spitser, 20, of Mt. Vernon, agreed. "I don't know why they picked on this band," she said. "They had no problem with (heavy metal bands) White Zombie or Pantera."
Rage Against the Machine was not buying the sheriff's explanation either. It wasn't until the band came on for their encore that singer Zack de la Rocha addressed the sheriff directly. Part speech, part performance, de la Rocha's incendiary voice echoed through the grassy amphitheater while the band played behind him.
"So, Sheriff," intoned de la Rocha, "you think you can intimidate us? There are so few of you and there are so many of us. There ain't nothing more frightening than a pig with political aspirations. We take it as an insult that he calls us violent because everybody knows the police are out of control."
Before launching into the band's hit, "Killing in the Name," de la Rocha left the crowd with a final word. "We'll keep our cool," he told them, "if they keep their cool."