Looking Back on the LES Hippie Explosion of 1967
A Long Way from May to December
by Don McNeill
The hippies are dead and the Diggers may be dying. A year ago, neither word had yet appeared in the pages of the New York Times. In 12 months the Lower East Side went through changes unprecedented in its constantly changing history. Many will be hard to forget: the Be-Ins, the Sweep-In, the Smoke-Ins, the free music, the free dope, the Free Store; the Diggers, the dealers, the deaths. Others were already forgotten. Chief among the forgotten changes are the valiant attempts at community organization, some of which lasted a week, none of which survive today. In the first fresh days of a new year, it seems somehow appropriate to recall some of these attempts. Some may be meat for resolutions:
The Jade Companions of the Flower Dance, the first evidence of cohesion in the hippie community, was incorporated after a series of community meetings to administer a bail fund and maintain an emergency telephone. Several thousand membership cards with a Mayan Motif were printed to be sold at $5 apiece. Several were sold. The Jade Companions opened its headquarters at Ed Sanders' Peace Eye Bookstore in the spring and, Captain Fink being in the early stages of his enlightenment, closed several weeks later in a blitz of police harassment. The bail fund functioned only for a short time, but its legend lingered on, and flower children collected small change in the streets throughout the summer, incanting its name. As the legend itself grew stale, they turned to panhandling.
The East Village Showcase was established in the spring with the aid of the Department of Parks to encourage the use of Tompkins Square Park by presenting entertainment in the bandshell. In the aftermath of the Memorial Day clash, where 70 riot-trained TPF cops broke up a hippie picnic with nightsticks, the Showcase continued its presentations undaunted, attracting great numbers to the tense area. In the middle of a set by a folk-rock group, a group of Puerto Ricans came to the bandshell and demanded Latin music. Rejected by the master of ceremonies, they started swinging. The music stopped. An iron curtain rattled down to close the stage. In minutes, an angry mob had formed and the helmeted TPF returned to the scene, clearing the park and sealing it off for the night. The next day, the Showcase got the shaft from the Parks Department, and the park listened to Latin music all day, thanks to a phonograph hooked up to the PA system.
The East Village Defense Committee was established in the middle of the Tompkins Square maelstrom. Its chairman, Jim Nash, earned credit for the great opening line of the year: "For some crazy reason," he explained to the first meeting, "I've been appointed chairman of all this." The Defense Committee was envisioned as an "umbrella" organization to oversee and coordinate the various projects in the hippie community which were then stumbling underway. Nash assumed a militant line. "The police have been entering the East Village illegally," he declared. He went on to demand a guarantee of proper police action. "What we mean by proper action," he explained sternly, "is what happened in the park was improper." During the committee's second meeting, while the defenders debated who would man an emergency temporary telephone, the TPF returned to Tompkins Square Park to squelch the mob of Puerto Ricans who had squelched the East Village Showcase. By the time the emergency telephone dilemma was resolved, it was all over. The defenders learned this the next morning, and the East Village Defense Committee faded away.
The East Village Ad Hoc Committee for Community Action was introduced by a press release a few weeks later. The paper explained that the committee "has been formed in order to serve as a functional apparatus for communication and responsible response to the community's needs during the summer. The need for such a committee has been obvious. There has been no cohesive program of action. Rather there has developed a myriad of splintered reactions by organizations and leaders with overlapping aims...Perhaps the Lower East Side is presently involved in the 'quiet riot' in history but we refuse to allow the first blood to be innocent blood due to a 'power vacuum' with the blind leading the blind." The press release was the last I heard from them.
The True Light Beavers, a small band of intergalactic nomads who built shrines of garbage and wore True Light Beaver tee-shirts, issued one hand-bill declaring "There are no problems, there are only things to be done," and immediately disbanded.
Love to the True Light Beavers.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]