Photos from the Vault

When the Dead Kennedys came to SLO, and a punk rock riot ensued

San Luis Obispo Police Sgt. Jerry Lenthall is face-to-face with concert goer Thursday night, Oct. 10, 1985 in the Veterans Memorial Building parking lot.
San Luis Obispo Police Sgt. Jerry Lenthall is face-to-face with concert goer Thursday night, Oct. 10, 1985 in the Veterans Memorial Building parking lot. Telegram-Tribune

When police and fans of the punk rock band Dead Kennedys met, results were shattering.

Lead singer and songwriter Jello Biafra (born Eric Boucher) took his stage name from the ironic juxtaposition of a processed dessert that requires clean water, and the short-lived African nation undergoing famine and a shortage of clean water.

Shock value, dark irony, freedom of expression and social justice were recurring themes with the band.

The Dead Kennedys gained notoriety with the single “Kalifornia Über Alles.” Mocking Zen and mellow complacency, the song was a churning wave of ironic anger. The lyrics compared California governor and 1976 presidential candidate Jerry Brown to Nazi Germany.

For example:

Die on organic poison gas

Serpent’s egg’s already hatched

You will croak, you little clown

When you mess with President Brown

You can hear the song on YouTube — after sitting through a 15-second commercial. Doubtful Jello is pleased about that.

The “suede-denim secret police” of Jerry Brown are among the song’s villains, so when real San Luis Obispo police and sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene of a Dead Kennedy’s concert in 1985, they were not met with a mellow, laid-back welcome.

The San Luis Obispo Veterans Memorial Building suffered an estimated $6,800 damage to floors and $1,000 to windows in the Oct. 10, 1985, punk rock riot. Other damage — including repainting a blood-stained restroom — brought the total to $10,000. Several public safety responders were hit, as bottles and rocks were thrown. Fortunately, no one was hospitalized.

For length, most of the following is a composite from four Telegram-Tribune stories by Mark Brown and Mark Buchman from Oct. 11, 1985, to Oct. 11, 1986.

Minimal transitional paraphrasing is included.

Mark Brown went on to be a rock ’n’ roll writer for several publications including Time and the Rocky Mountain News. This week, at news of Prince’s death, he wrote about Prince’s 2004 attempt to convert Brown to be a Jehovah’s Witness. Buchman is now a member of the San Luis Coastal Unified School Board.

Concert-goers battle police, 21 arrested

A San Luis Obispo punk rock concert turned into a battle between concert-goers and police Thursday night, ending with 21 arrests and thousands of dollars of worth of damage to the Veterans Memorial Building.

A show featuring the San Francisco hardcore punk group the Dead Kennedys and several local bands attracted between 400 and 500 people, according to police estimates.

“You know the bar scene in ‘Star Wars’?” said custodian Tony Lewelling. “That’s what it looked like in here last night.”

Police and firefighters were pelted with rocks and bottles after officers tried to break up the concert. Several received minor injuries.

Dance-goers and other witnesses offered contradictory assessments of what happened before and after police arrived.

Police received calls at 9:45 and later at 10:16 reporting fights at the concert. The first call was controlled, according to private security at the hall, but the second call brought a larger response. About 50 officers from the Sheriff’s Department, Highway Patrol, Morro Bay police and Cal Poly responded.

“The crowd became increasingly violent,” a police release said.

Patrons were angry because they’d paid for tickets for a show they wouldn’t get to see, police and witnesses said. When police, brandishing billy clubs, tried to force the crowd out of the building, a melee ensued. The crowd went outside and began hurling bottles and rocks at police.

“Everything was fine,” said Matt Skogsbert, 16, of San Luis Obispo. “All of a sudden a cop came up and said they were shutting it down. I paid $7 to see the Dead Kennedys. I paid, so I stood there to see the Dead Kennedys.”

“The cops overreacted a bit,” said Steve Hannah of the Sound Company. “They overreacted with the mace and high-pressure hoses.”

“I’ve been in this situation before and seen other police departments handle it in a mature and organized fashion,” said Jello Biafra, leader of the Dead Kennedys. “The audience unfortunately helped make a bad situation worse by throwing bottles. But I still don’t think that excuses the police for going crazy.”

“It was a classic case of a police riot.”

Police Chief Don Englert said, “I’m not even going to respond to that kind of statement. That’s their opinion and they’re entitled to that. We have to judge what to do in these kinds of situations, not them.”

“The problem we had was the total disregard for personal safety, the violence of the mob,” said Sgt. Jerry Lenthall, who coordinated police at the show.

“People paid good money to dance and have a good time, and the vast majority of the people weren’t the reason (for the trouble),” Lenthall said. “I don’t want to give the impression that everyone there was violent or hostile.”

“When we were up onstage, the officers became more of a target,” Lenthall said. “We saw rocks, pieces of hardware, I don’t know what else. It hurt quite a bit. It was my decision that we weren’t going to stand on the stage and be targets of this.”

Batons drawn, the officers jumped off the stage and pushed the crowd back to the rear doors of the hall.

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In an Oct. 30, 1985, article, the District Attorney’s Office said misdemeanor charges would be filed against 18 of the 21 arrested.

A year later, Mark Brown wrote: The cause of the problem was never really settled. The fans said the police caused the melee by overreacting to slam-dancers and minor fights. Police said they had no choice in breaking up a dangerous situation where people were being injured and property damaged.

Regardless of who caused it, the outcome was $10,000 in damage to the building, 18 arrests (other stories say 21 arrests), a lawsuit against the promoter and a terrible local image for punk rock.

Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra has been charged in Los Angeles with distributing pornography by including a sexually explicit poster with the group’s latest release. He is fighting those charges on First Amendment grounds. (Charges were dropped after a jury hung 7-5 for acquittal in August 1987.)

Morris Samuel, a convicted heroin dealer who promoted the concert, was sued by the county for the damage to the hall.

Under a new set of guidelines approved by the county, any punk rock show in the vets hall would fall into a new high-risk category, with accompanying high deposits, high insurance and high security costs.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp. Visit www.sanluisobispo.com/photos-from-the-vault to see old photos and read selected archives.

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