Some days New York really does feel like a small town. The annual pot parade—or J-Day—is one of them. It’s kind of like the Halloween parade, only a lot less crowded and held in the warmth of the first week in May.
Each year, aging hippies recycle themselves with colorful banners and attire. This year’s “Worldwide Marijuana March,” on Saturday, was no exception. At Broadway and Houston Street, the marijuana faithful mustered: old Yippies alongside young, yearning-to-be-free stoners from area high schools and colleges, Ricans and Rastafari from Spanish Harlem and Brooklyn, Drop the Rock mamas, weed-fiending homies from the Bronx, drug policy nerds, Phish-heads from Jersey, and people with M.S., shaking in their wheelchairs for the right to toke up and so ease their pain and spastic muscles.
Still, you have to wonder about the organizers. “Do you ever think pot has an image problem?” a young intern working for ABC’s John Stossel asked, taking in the scene. Who, for instance, decided to place Aron Kay, the infamous Yippie pie man, right smack at the head of the march in his wheelchair with his gut spilling out? Stossel’s camera crew were eating that up. They came out to film a segment on whether pot really does give you the munchies, and there sprawled Kay, proof positive that it does.
But it’s such a good-natured high; even the cops didn’t seem to mind another trek down Broadway. “Easy on the horns,” a white shirt told passing motorists who were enthusiastically honking at all the “Honk for Hemp!” signs.
“Boys in blue, they smoke too!” the stoners chanted back, and the traffic cops couldn’t help but snicker.
“You guys have to be the most polite crowd I’ve ever worked with,” a captain quipped when the potheads crowded onto the sidewalk on Broadway instead of taking the traffic lane allotted to them. “Why aren’t they in the street?” shrieked Yippie organizer Dana Beal, the grand marshal of the parade. “I don’t know, it’s your protest,” the captain said with a shrug.
Turnout was small, only about 300 or so people this year. Nothing like the many thousands who filled Queens Park in Toronto, where the new conservative government has backtracked on plans for decriminalization.
But the chants were fun:
“We’re here, we’re high, get used to it!” the stoners shouted at baffled shoppers. “What do we want? Pot! When do we want it? Now!”
“Pot is an herb! Bush is a dope!” they bellowed with glee. “Free the weed! Jail the Bush!”
Into City Hall Park they traipsed for the permitted rally and concert. But the cops quickly steered the marchers out of the park and onto a barricaded stretch of sidewalk along the Broadway perimeter. Bummer. Meanwhile, some stoners were lost in Battery Park because all the flyers went out advertising it as the traditional rally spot. Big bummer. It didn’t dawn on any of the organizers to find out when the city might begin dynamiting for that new subway tunnel.
No matter, the ceremonies began with a blessing from a Zoroastrian dastur (or fire priest), who looked like the old wizard from Harry Potter. “Get each other high. Don’t smoke in a corner,” he preached, then downed a jar full of sacred Soma—the equivalent of five joint’s worth of THC extracted in purified water.
His sermon dragged on, but when he spoke you wanted to breathe in his words, that Soma reeked!
Also on hand was self-proclaimed “NJ Weedman” Ed Forchion, a “super-hero” rasta who is running for Senate in Jersey; and Libertarian Party candidate Jeff Russell, who said he got busted with seven pounds in his basement back in 1984 and is now looking to unseat Hillary Clinton. Remember his name.
Their speechifying taxed the crowd’s patience. “Where da weed at?” a young woman demanded, an unwrapped cigar clamped between her teeth. These people were ready to get blunted. But as Beal told his followers, this is not a smoke-in; it’s a protest. “It’s part of our deal that we agree to disagree with the police about the law—not to break the law, but to change the law,” Beal urged.
Certainly there are those in law enforcement who favor some kind of liberalization. Among Saturday’s speakers was ex-NYPD officer Jeff Kaufman of Law Enforcement Against Prohibion (LEAP), which favors the legalization of all drugs.
But this was still City Hall Park, and the laws haven’t changed yet.
The ranks were thinning when Beal introduced his old comrade A.J. Weberman, gadfly writer and “garbologist” extraordinaire, a man Beal said all stoners should respect. “A.J. ran the biggest delivery service in New York,” Beal boasted. “They got him on money laundering; he did nine months in federal prison for it.”
Weberman did his best to invoke the day’s Dionysian spirit. “It’s about euphoria,” he shouted, speaking out for all the poor people he met in jail who got locked up for getting high (while their richer brethren were shipped to rehab). “People have a right to take a shortcut to happiness!”
By that time, many of Saturday’s marchers were already taking that shortcut. They were packing bowls and rolling up blunts in a grassy nook of City Hall Park, shaded by what, in the hazy afternoon sunlight, looked like prehistoric trees. (Okay, they’re spruces.)
No matter that they happened to be in a section normally off-limits to public lounging; you have to climb over benches and a low chain fence to enter this delicate, grassy bower. Here the pot paraders were, lighting up on what is essentially City Hall’s front lawn. The hippies and homies carried on for about 20 minutes in what felt like a curiously urban Rainbow Gathering, until the boys in blue swarmed in and flushed everybody out.
A few tokers were pulled aside (there were three arrests Saturday and one summons issued for possession). Everyone else pretty much scattered. “You must respect my au-thor-i-tay!” a young punk taunted, in perfect imitation of Cartman on South Park.
But the deed had been done. They’d freed the grass. However briefly.