Despite fears that a proposed renovation will soon uproot its freewheeling legacy, Washington Square Park may not be all buttoned-down yet. After nine years of nyet, the NYPD and the Parks Department have decided to allow organizers of the annual pot parade back into Washington Square on Saturday to hold a pre-march memorial for Stew Albert, the infamous Yippie prankster and anti-war agitator. Albert died earlier this year of liver cancer.
Albert, who once nominated a pig for president, tossed money from the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange, and helped found People’s Park in Berkeley, would have undoubtedly favored rallying in Washington Square. The park had been home to the annual smoke-in since 1972. But in 1997, Mayor Giuliani banned marijuana organizers from staging any sort of gathering there, in part due to opposition from the community board and adjacent New York University. Neighborhood and NYU leaders complained that potheads trampled plants and encouraged dealers to frequent Washington Square. (It also could have been because of the clouds of smoke that organizers concede wafted over the park during the last big rally there, in 1996—clouds so thick that “they were rotating dozens of cops in because they were all too baked to do anything about it,” says Jessie Silverman.)
This year, however, it just so happens that Albert’s family and former pals from the Weather Underground (who once blew up a townhouse on nearby West 11th Street) are holding a memorial for Stew at the NYU law school (of all places), the same afternoon as the so-called Worldwide Marijuana March. So instead of banning the stoners (who in turn used to picket NYU), the police and Parks Department are letting them hold their own outdoor memorial for Albert at 11 a.m. Saturday, followed by the march, which steps off (officially at least) at 1 p.m. from Houston Street and Broadway.
The rally point is a little different this year, too. Because Battery Park is being excavated for a new subway tunnel, potheads will gather to “free the weed” in City Hall Park. (They have a permit from 2 to 6 p.m.)
Could that signal a spark of liberalization from the Bloomberg administration? “The change in location is purely logistical and signals no change in policy,” a spokesperson from City Hall responded via e-mail.
But according to Yippie organizer Dana Beal, arrests at the pot parade and rally have dropped from an all-time high of 312 in 2001 under Giuliani, who railed against pot-smoking “scumbags,” to just two last year (turnout was smaller too). Still, Beal advises pot fans to curb their enthusiasm in public.
“I tell people this is an advocacy day, not a smoke-in,” says Beal, who is quick to promote the 200 other pro-legalization marches taking place around the world on Saturday. “The purpose is to demand amnesty for pot prisoners and push harm reduction through clean needles and Ibogaine,” an African plant said to cure heroin addiction, along with the “replacement of alcohol and cigarettes with marijuana.”
Given Bloomberg’s aversion to cigarette smoking, he may find some unlikely allies on City Hall’s doorstep this Saturday—though knowing the stoner crowd, they’ll probably be lighting those up, too.