Backwoods Pondfest is billed as a laid-back weekend of music, dancing, partying and camping in New York's North Country woods. This year's ninth annual festival was held from August 7 to 9 in Peru and featured 22 bands from around the country. But festival organizers are complaining that the overzealous police enforcement seen at the past two fests will scare patrons and musicians away from future ones.
According to a press release, New York state police issued 167 traffic tickets during the three-day festival, which draws nearly 1,000 people. Police also arrested 11 people for driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs; four of them are facing felony charges. About a dozen others got popped for possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia, mostly marijuana.
Lowell Wurster, co-organizer of the Backwoods Pondfest and a musician with the Plattsburgh, N.Y.-based band Lucid, accuses the state police of harassment and social profiling. He says this was the first time in nine years that the festival drew smaller crowds than previously, and he attributes that lower turnout to a "heavy-handed" police presence last year.
"I had so many people saying how beautiful it was," Wurster says. "Then I have people straight-up saying they're not going to be able to come next year because they're afraid of being harassed [by police]."
According to Wurster, many festivalgoers, musicians and crew members reported being stopped and searched by troopers on the road leading to the private campground where the festival is held. Wurster notes that alcohol is not sold at the event (though guests are allowed to carry it in), and that camping facilities are provided to reduce the likelihood of intoxicated drivers.
"Everybody I know got pulled over — my stage crew, my production people. Some of my security guys got pulled over twice in one day," adds Wurster, who moonlights with a concert security firm in Vermont. "It's blatant harassment."
Vermont's Lynguistic Civilians arrived at Pondfest 20 minutes after they were scheduled to take the stage because police had stopped and searched their vehicle. No arrests were made or citations issued as a result. Members of the Burlington-based funk/hip-hop group declined to comment publicly on the incident.
But Deven Massarone, drummer for Burlington's Gang of Thieves, says that he and fellow band member Michael Reit were stunned by the intense police presence at such a small, remote event. He describes it as "almost comical" and "the talk of the festival."
"Some members of our band have friends and family in law enforcement and we have much respect for those officers that uphold their duties and oaths in the correct manner," Massarone writes in an email. "It made no sense to us why local law enforcement would choose [to go] the route they did."
Mark Schneider, a civil rights attorney with the firm Schneider & Palcsik in Plattsburgh, agrees. "It does seem unfair to target this one group of people," he says, "when [at] any event — whether it's sports, political or social — where people drink, if the police followed people and pulled them over, they could probably make [just as many] arrests."
But Trooper Lyle Otis, a public information officer with the New York State Police barracks in Ray Brook, says that the vigorous law-enforcement presence on the highways that weekend was typical for an event of Pondfest's size.
Otis insists there was "no direct targeting" or profiling of festivalgoers or musicians, nor were there roadblocks, sobriety checkpoints or speed traps specifically meant to nab drivers going to or from the festival. Otis does note, however, that many of the drug arrests resulted from traffic stops that were made because of speeding or seatbelt violations.
"It's like Labor Day weekend — you know people are going to be out partying," he says. "It causes a hazard on the roadway to [the point] where you want to increase your patrols and protect the rest of the motoring public."
Otis emphasizes that he's sensitive to public concerns about profiling, but says that strict enforcement is necessary at events where people are known to consume alcohol or drugs. As a point of comparison, the trooper notes that he often patrols a stretch of highway near Malone, where there's just one bar, and makes DWI arrests nearby.
"The [owners of the bar] always alleged that we were sitting by the bar waiting for them," he says. "It just happens to be, that's where they're all coming from."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Backwoods Pondfest Organizers Allege Police Profiling"
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.