Hippies, Cops, and Puerto Ricans Battle for Tompkins Square Park


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June 8, 1967, Vol. XII, No. 34

The Youthquake and The Shook-Up Park
By Don McNeill

The Ukrainians had had enough.

Hare Krishna may be a song of love for the Lord Krishna, but it’s a little esoteric for a Ukrainian grandmother who wants to sit in peace and talk about the old country. A daffodil is an empty gesture to an old man who can get no sleep at night. In the late afternoon on Memorial Day, the Flower People were out in force, complete with kirtan and bongoes, and some of the Ukrainians bitched to the park foreman.

The park foreman had had enough.

It had been a peaceful, if boring, park before the hippies came, and he had heard enough gripes from the Ukrainians to write a book.

Moreover, the hippies were playing musical instruments, and sitting on the grass at that, both in violation of park regulations. He walked over to the Ninth Precinct station to make a noise complaint.

You can’t ignore a formal complaint, so a couple of cops went over to the park and told the hippies to shut up and get off the grass. The kids laughed, and kept singing. The cops ordered them to leave. “They laughed at us,” patrolman John Rodd explained. “That’s when the trouble started.”

The cops had had enough.

A call went out for reinforcements, and three sergeants and 15 patrolmen were sent to the park. By this time, the hippies had also been reinforced, and where there were once 20 hippies singing, there were now 200. The Tactical Police Force was summoned, and 35 radio cars and 70 riot-trained cops rushed to the scene. Again, they ordered the crowd to disperse.

The hippies had had enough.

They had been having a nice time, and Frank Wise had brought some groceries to pass around, and if they can’t smoke grass in the park they can damn well sit on the grass and praise the Lord. They locked their arms and kept singing. And the cops started to pry them apart and carry them off to paddy wagons.

And Frank Wise had had enough.

Frank Wise is no kid. He is 37, working on a doctoral thesis, and his wife and infant child sat nearby as he rose to protest. “My God,” he said, his arms outstretched as police dragged his friends away. “Where is this happening? This is America.” A nightstick flew, and Frank Wise was covered with blood. More cops waded in, more nightsticks flew, and Wise became a martyr.

Bystanders wept, and everyone human should have gasped, my God, what has impatience wrought.

Wise was handcuffed and, bleeding form the ears, was taken away to a paddy wagon. Forty of his friends were jammed into three trucks. Hundreds followed the vans to the Ninth Precinct station on East 54th Street, and rallied outside to shout “fascists” and “murderers” at the gray stone walls. A half-hour later, an ambulance arrived to take Wise and Tony di Stasi, who was also hit by nightsticks, to Bellevue Hospital. Wise refused treatment, and joined his friends for arraignment at the courthouse at 100 Centre Street.

…The defendants were brought in clusters before the judge over a period of four hours. They were still dressed for a picnic. Many wore beads and diffraction disks, some were barefoot, others had day-glo pain on their hands and faces. [Attorney Ernst] Rosenberger introduced them as welfare workers, computer programmers, college students and graduates, and fathers and mothers. Many of those charged with disorderly conduct were released on their own recognizance. Eight others were held on a total of $5,500 bail. By the next morning, after an all-night appeal on WBAI, the bail was raised and only Frank Wise remained in jail.

…As city departments competed with self-absolutions and veiled accusations, the hippies emerged from the crisis as a community. They had won the park. The next day, the grassy battleground was designated a “troubador area” by the Parks Commissioner August Heckscher, the gates were opened, and the “keep off the grass” signs removed. The Communications Company, in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, appealed for peace.”Let us make the result of the conflict be that the park has been opened to us. Let us accept the police as people in a gentle manner. They are civil servants and in that capacity let us love them.”

The Group Image played to a packed park Wednesday night, but there were no cops around to love. Their absence was regretted later in the evening when a group of Puerto Rican youths, upset by the hippies’ newly-won dominance of the park, rained rocks and beer cans on the musicians. The Group Image made a hasty exit.

…June began on Thursday, and the Grateful Dead were in town and, despite some rumble rumors from the Puerto Ricans, the prospects for peace looked promising. A happy, scruffy parade of 80 marched down St. Mark’s Place, complete with police escort, to present the Dead with a white carnation key to the East Village, graciously accepted by Pigpen. And the Tompkins Square bandshell rocked with San Francisco glory until a noise complaint was lodged in the late afternoon. Rather than tune down, the Dead turned off.

…By Tuesday, Tompkins Square Park was calm, and half of the Lower East Side was involved in meetings, well-laced with power politics. Many of the hippies in the other half wished that Emmett Grogan, the Jesus of the Diggers, was back in town. Because he understood these things. He had landed in New York in March and rocked the East Side with a lot of lessons hehad learned in San Francisco. He had said to turn on to the Puerto Ricans and fuck leaders. But a lot of people forgot what he said.

The kids may be coming en masse in a few weeks and, by their numbers and because of the media’s fascination, they will become politically significant. The pure ones, by definition, will have no spokesman. So many people will presume to speak for them. The straights will be desperate for a spokesman, so these people will be listened to, but they will represent only themselves.

San Francisco’s Communications Company warned about this back in April. It wasn’t Emmett Grogan talking, but it might have been. “Beware of structure-freaks. They do not understand.”

“We know The System doesn’t work because we’re living in its ruins. We know that good leaders don’t work out because they have all led us to the present, the good leaders equally with the bad.

“Any man who WANTS to lead you is The Man. Think: why should anyone WANT to lead me? Think: why should I pay for his trip. Think.

“Do your thing. Be what you are. If you don’t know who you are, find out.”

And when the media come to tell you, tell them what you think, because they might as somebody else.

[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.]