Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Human Be-In - History Written in San Francisco

Tomorrow, there will be a calendar date, which you may not celebrate, or even remember as being of some importance. Well, it is January 14, 1967, 48 years ago, when San Francisco hosted historical event - The Human Be-In, event, normally considered as Prelude to the Summer of Love.

Two decades after the end of World War II, the children of those Americans who fought courageously in Europe and the Pacific found themselves with fewer and fewer reasons to believe in the society they grew up in. In spite of the slight positive changes in the public consciousness, the discriminatory practices against African-Americans had not stopped. Combined with newspaper and television images of the relatively peaceful civil rights protesters being beaten by police across the South States, young Americans found the injustice intolerable.

At the same time, Cold War tensions shaped public perceptions of national government. The three-week Hungarian Revolution against communism and the subsequent Soviet military action to crush the rebellion in 1956 seemed to demonstrate how far those in power were willing to go to in order to maintain it.

When the government of California made the psychoactive drug LSD illegal in October 1966, disgruntled college students from around San Francisco Bay joined together in Golden Gate Park for the Love Pageant Rally in protest. Near the eclectic Haight-Ashbury district, an 18-block collection of dilapidated Victorian homes with low rent attractive to free-spirited youths, the Rally brought together a few thousand hippies.

Throughout “The Haight,” LSD was an accepted feature of the culture and attendants wanted to cry out against its prohibition without instigating a conflict with local police.

Inspired by the sit-ins performed by African-Americans to raise awareness of inequality throughout the southern US, the group peacefully sat in the park and took a single dose of LSD all at the same time. Following a couple of speeches, local musician Janis Joplin and rock group The Grateful Dead performed a free concert. The hippie counterculture, striking out against the values of the previous generation by encouraging communal living and drug use to attain “higher consciousness,” suddenly realized it could come together in large numbers.

“A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In,” organized by Haight-based artists Michael Bowen and Allen Cohen, would occur three months later on January 14, 1967. Driven by the common goals espoused in the burgeoning unrest at universities in nearby Berkeley and Stanford, the two decided to bring together a variety of performers and speakers for what was supposed to be a peaceful protest reflecting the two-word mantra of many in both throughout the hippie community and the anti-Vietnam War movement erupting on campuses: “Question authority.”

With somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people spread through Golden Gate Park, a host of luminaries in the blossoming counterculture movement took the stage. Poets Allen Ginsburg and Gary Snyder delivered addresses to the LSD-laced crowd, but former Harvard professor Timothy Leary gave the event -- and, by extension, the free love movement -- its slogan when he spoke about the importance of psychoactive drugs for attaining higher consciousness. Throughout the next several years, students would follow his advice to “turn on, tune in, drop out” across the US.

It was indeed an unforgettable afternoon. Thousand men, women, and children assembled around a makeshift stage at the edge of an open meadow. Gary Snyder opened the proceedings by blowing on a white-beaded conch shell. Beside him were other poets from the beatnik era -- Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lenore Kandel -- while a group of Hell's Angels guarded the PA system. Allen Ginsberg chanted OM and clinked his finger cymbals. Just two months earlier, in a "Public Solitude" address at a church in Boston, Ginsberg had proposed that every American in good health over the age of fourteen "try the chemical LSD at least once ... that, if necessary, we have a mass emotional nervous breakdown in these States once and for all." But there was no need to reiterate such remarks on this unseasonably warm winter day in San Francisco. The be-in was a healing affair, a feast for the senses, with music, poetry, sunshine, bells, robes, talismans, incense, feathers, and flags. The smell of marijuana lingered over the park slope, and acid flowed like lemonade.

"Welcome," said a calm, clear voice from the platform. "Welcome to the first manifestation of the Brave New World." It was a rather ironic way of introducing the hip superstars who were about to address the crowd. Clad like a holy man in white pajamas, Timothy Leary teased the audience with one-liners such as "The only way out is in." The High Priest of the psychedelic movement spoke of expanded consciousness as the "Fifth Freedom," urging everyone to start their own religion -- which was exactly what he and his Millbrook friends had done. Leary's be-in appearance was part of a barnstorming tour to promote his new group, the League for Spiritual Discovery. The League had only two commandments -- "Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow man" and "Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow man from altering his own consciousness." A tireless proselytizer, Leary had presided over a series of "psychedelic religious celebrations" featuring dramatic re-enactments of the lives of the Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, etc. The purpose of these well-advertised, well-financed productions (one promoter called them the "best thing since vaudeville") was to reproduce the effects of an acid trip without drugs.

The be-in was not organized to protest a specific government ordinance or policy. Thousands of people had come together to do nothing in particular, which in itself was quite something. They sat on the grass, shared food and wine, and marveled at how peaceful everyone was. There was not even a single uniformed police officer around to spoil the party. At one point, a man parachuted down from the sky within view of the gathering. A rumor spread that it was none other than Owsley, the premier acid chemist, descending upon the faithful in waves of billowing white silk. It was just another piece of instant myths, that characterized the day. As Michael McClure put it, "The be-in was a blossom. It was a flower. It was out in the weather. It did not have all its petals. There were worms in the rose. It was perfect in its imperfections. It was what it was -- and there had never been anything like it before."

It was this huge number of spontaneously gathered celebrants that attracted national media attention to the psychedelic Haight-Ashbury community, and made everyone involved realize that a profound new movement in American culture was being born.  The ethos of this new movement was a fundamental questioning of authority, a focus on individuality, decentralization, ecological awareness, and consciousness expansion through cultural openness and the use of psychedelic drugs.  These ideas transfixed mainstream culture, and the phenomenon of the “hippie” burst full force into the public consciousness, transforming a generation.

The song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” by Scott McKenzie, inspired by the events, rocketed to the top of the charts. Soon spreading like wildfire around the globe, it led to similar hippie-like expressions in New York, Los Angeles, Montreal and other major metropolitan areas throughout North America and Europe, even becoming the anthem for rebels during the 1968 uprising in Czechoslovakia.

Original Video Footage

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