The Youthquake and the Shook-up Park
June 8, 1967
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 from 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 5th 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.
At 9 p.m. Tuesday night, when the prisoners were en route to night court, the Communications Company issued a mimeographed bulletin. The Communications Company, patterned after a successful Digger operation in San Francisco, was only a week old. Working out of the basement at Pablo on Bleecker Street (it has since been moved), it had been set up precisely to deal with an emergency such as this: to get the word out in a crisis. The handbill told what happened in the park, announced a be-in at Night Court, and gave subway instructions. Volunteers rushed to key location in the Village to distribute it. The community responded. By 10 the hall outside of Part 1A was teeming with hippies.
The entrance to the courtroom was blocked by a chain of TPFs and the kids paraded before them, in provocative splendor, complete with bells and bare feet. They sat underfoot to sing Hare Krishna. They burned incense, and they carved what was perhaps the first watermelon to enter the hall of justice. Defiant, they slid down the bannisters. Determined, they posed in lotus position on the floor of telephone booths.
Behind a closed door, in the hallway that served as the cloakroom of the court, volunteer lawyers, reporters, cops, and city officials conferred on the crisis. Peter Aschkenasy and Courtney Callender trembled on behalf of the Parks Department, whose diligent Tompkins Square foreman, Emmanuel Kirschner, would soon repeat his complaint as plaintiff in the adjoining court. The East Side’s own Bill Tatum, formerly with the Bolivar-Douglass Reform Club, now with the Department of Buildings, and immediately Night Mayor of the City of New York, strove to ease the situation. Attorney Ernst Rosenberger, noted recently for his defense of poet Ed Sanders and topless cellist Charlotte Moorman, prepared to represent the 41 kids. When he had heard of the arrests, he had rushed to the courthouse in a borrowed tie and jacket to volunteer his services. In the hallway, he conferred with four other lawyers who had offered their help.
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 paint on their hands and faces. 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.
The courtroom hushed when Wise was brought before Judge Vincent Rao shortly before midnight. It was incredible that he was conscious. He seemed dazed, his face gashed and beaten, his hair caked with blood. He braced himself against Rosenberger.
“I’d like the record to reflect the condition of the defendant,” Rosenberger began, his voice choked with emotion. “There is a tear on his chin that is two inches long, a tear under his right eye that is three inches long.”
The District Attorney, a lady named Landau, asked that “The record reflect that the tear is a scratch.” Wise glared at her. Their eyes met, and she turned away.
“The scratch is a quarter of an inch wide,” Rosenberger said. “The defendant is married,” he continued, “lives with his family, and has one child that is less than a year old.”
Judge Rao looked up. “If he’s got a wife and child at home,” he asked, “then why is he out in the park, taking nightsticks away from police officers and striking them?”
Wise stiffened. “I have 100 people who know what happened,” he shouted. “I did none of these things. I have 100 witnesses.” Rosenberger tried to calm him as the judge rapped for order. Wise became docile. He had said what he had to.
Wise was charged with felonious assault on a police officer. Despite Rosenberger’s efforts to have him released, Wise was remanded without bail because he had refused to be fingerprinted. On Thursday morning, he was released on $50 bond.
The following Tuesday, the kids returned to court. Only Wise remained charged with felonious assault. Four others were charged with simple assault. All 41 were charged with disorderly conduct and interfering with an officer. The trial was postponed until June 27.
“If one more person comes up to me and says ‘I’ve just talked with Captain Fink,’ ” a weary attorney said last week, “I’m going to slug him in the mouth.”
Joseph Fink is commander of the Ninth Precinct. It is widely believed that if he were on duty on Memorial Day, the melee would not have occurred. He was not, and he spent the rest of the week in an endless series of meetings and conferences in an attempt to repair the delicate goodwill, the prize of a year’s tough work as chief on the Ninth, that had been shattered on Memorial Day. He met with clergymen, city officials, community leaders, and representatives of many hippie factions. Often there was a line in front of his small office on the ground floor of the station. In the course of the political aftermath of the Memorial Day mess, an audience with Fink came to be of some status. Hence the attorney’s remark.
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.
Meanwhile, at the Forum restaurant on Avenue A, a meeting was held to announce the formation of an East Village Defense Committee. Jim Nash, a former reporter for the East Village Other, attempted to describe the envisioned bureaucracy. It wasn’t easy. The factions present at the Forum ranged from Black Mask militants to speed freaks, and their attention was clearly directed at Captain Fink who, invited to come as an observer, sat in the front row.
Nash stumbled through a list of the committee’s ambitions. He sought a guarantee of proper police action. “What we mean by proper action,” he explained sternly, “is what happened in the park was improper.” He proposed a legal fund to aid “anyone in the East Village who has been harassed improperly.” He proposed a 24-hour communications system which, he suggested, “would also work with the mass media.” Nash said that the committee would defend the residents of the East Village against improper entry. “The police have been entering the East Village illegally,” he declared. Nash finally proposed a Maccabee-type patrol of the side streets on the East Side, and demanded the removal of the Tactical Police Force from the area.
The audience clamored for a chance at Fink. The Captain rose to confront a barrage of angry questions and accusations.
“I couldn’t possibly answer your questions,” he began, “not because of how many but because of the type of questions they are. I came down to learn from you.” He dodged a rain of loaded questions with blasé answers, and the anger of the audience quickly evolved into hysteria. The furious and the militant crushed forward with a chorus of accusations, and the meeting nearly became a riot. Fink was forced to leave. The militants were just getting warmed up, and the few Flower People in attendance emerged wilted.
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.
Thursday evening, ten people quietly gathered together around a low candlelit table in the back room of the Family Store on East 6th Street. They represented many of the new tribes and communities of the East Side and the meeting, held at the request of the Communications Company was New York’s first tribal council. They had come together not to decide or lead or elect or demand, but simply to council: to explore a very old model of government that seemed to fit very new times. And they explored carefully and cautiously and candidly. They elected no leaders, nor did they plan to. They discussed the Communications Company, and agreed to support it. And they decided to meet again.
Later that night, the East Village Defense Committee met again, this time in a high-rise apartment on Charles Street, where the doorman could keep out the speed freaks. Nash stood in the corner, introduced the committee’s press secretary, and began modestly: “For some crazy reason,” he said, “I’ve been appointed chairman of all this.” One of the kids who was arrested recounted the Memorial Day incident. Then the committee got down to business. They were anxious to help. They would set up a bail fund, a legal fund, and could handle the press. Some visitors from the East Side explained the the Jade Companions had a bail fund in operation, that the Communications Company had a phone functioning, and that several lawyers had been working for months without a sponsoring organization. Perhaps the East Village Defense Committee could join these groups.
Several lawyers present adjourned to the kitchen.
Abbie Hoffman was sitting on the floor. “We had a good thing going on the East Side,” he said. “The groups were stumbling along. I think that this committee could do a real service to the community by disbanding.”
He grinned. “Think of it,” he exclaimed. “A committee disbanding after two days. It’d be a whole turn in American political life.”
Nash smiled. “Abbie,” he said. “No.”
Then the meeting became a little confused. The storefront was available, it seems, but had not yet been rented. But the Communications Company would use it, and Jim Fouratt agreed that they could certainly use a storefront. So the hat was passed to pay for the committee’s headquarters. And when they moved into the store they could get a phone or perhaps an answering service, but Olivia had a phone in her store, and why have an answering service when her phone could be used.
The lawyers returned from the kitchen. They announced that they had decided to join together for the legal defense of the hippies. They would seek other lawyers, and set up a rotating system where each lawyer would be available for a week at a time. But they felt that the lawyers’ group should remain independent of any other organization. It was a breakthrough.
But the emergency telephone plagued the meeting. There was a dispute over whether it should start that night, with a temporary number at Olivia’s, or whether they should hold off until a permanent number could be found. Should the temporary number be publicized, or would it then be confused when a permanent number was set up? It was tossed back and forth for half hour. Olivia offered to man the phone until eight in the morning, and everyone wrote down the number.
Meanwhile, the Tactical Police Force was back in Tompkins Square Park.
All day there were rumors that the Puerto Ricans were uptight. The rumors were true. They knew about Memorial Day, and they had heard the “LSD music” and they thought that the hippies were taking over the park. The park was tense Thursday night as the Pageant Players performed three anti-war plays. “There was some hostile response,” Michael Brown of the Pageant Players recalled, “but there always is when we perform in the street. The last thing we tried was an improvisation about the events in park Tuesday. At the end of it, there was a small fight in the audience.”
The Pageant Players were followed by a folk-rock group, and a group of Puerto Ricans came to the bandshell and demanded Latin music. Some words were exchanged, and a scuffle started, and the iron curtain was pulled down to close the stage.
The kids then moved to Hoving’s Hill, knocked over a couple of sanitation barrels, and began to work on a Latin beat. A tall blond, Wendy Allen, went up to protest. The kids attacked her and tore her clothes. A mob formed around her and hurtled towards the park entrance at East 7th Street and Avenue B. There, a police sergeant rescued her and summoned reinforcements.
The mob, rapidly growing, milled in the intersection. Some jumped atop cars, crushing the hoods. A motorcyclist came toward the intersection. He was pulled off his bike, and the cycle was disintegrated. At 10:15, reinforcements from the Ninth Precinct arrived. They took positions and waited, taunted by the kids.
By 11, Chief Inspector Garelick and Police Commissioner Leary were on the scene, and shortly thereafter a force of TPF and motorcycle cops began to disperse the crowd. The mob disappeared into the side streets. Police then sealed off Tompkins Square Park for the night.
The Puerto Ricans had had enough.
Late that night, around three in the morning, a small group of Puerto Ricans and a small group of hippies met together in the basement of Pablo to try to prevent another Watts. They had planned to put out a bilingual handbill to calm the neighborhood. At first they were going to say, “Mother, keep your children at home.”
But they talked some more and decided there was a better way.
Instead of having no music that night, they would have music all day. They would pass out armbands, and tell the people they were “Serenos” or peace-keepers. They would pass out armbands to everyone who would take one, and tell them to link arms and surround any trouble. And what Sereno would ever start a fight? At four in the morning, they telephoned Captain Fink and Department of Parks and the night mayor, Holt Meyer.
They talked with the Mayor for almost an hour, and pleaded for an appointment with Lindsay. Meyer was skeptical, but he told them to come down and wait in the lobby of City Hall.
They arrived at City Hall at nine. A half-hour later, they met with James L. Marcus, Commissioner of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity, who represented the Mayor. Meyer, the previous night’s mayor, and Director of Land Development of Staten Island; Peter Aschkenasy, deputy police commissioner for community relations; and Captain Fink, whom they had invited. They talked until noon, and the City agreed with their plans.
As they left the meeting on the second floor of City Hall, they met a wall of newsmen, The kids refused to comment or identify themselves. “We’re not leaders,” one said. “We’re just some people who got together.”
As they left City Hall, a mob of landlords strained at the police barricades. They were shouting something about hippies. Vito Battista, chairman of the United Taxpayers Party, screamed into the microphone, “Lindsay sees the hippies, but he won’t see the taxpayers.” As the kids disappeared around the corner, the landlords stormed City Hall. Rocks crashed through the windows. Lindsay later disclaimed any knowledge of the meeting.
That afternoon, the Communications Company went bi-lingual. “Tonight,” the mimeographed sheet read, “we will have music in Tompkins Square Park. Also if you have any problems please speak with the Serenos, who will be wearing white armbands on their right arms. We don’t need a lot of police here tonight.”
The park was jammed Friday night. Mongo Santamaria played, and Len Chandler sang, and Chino Garcia from the Real Great Society MC’d in Spanish. The Serenos were everywhere, even though some wore the armbands on their heads as dewbands, the uniform of a rumble. Even the police were there, but you wouldn’t recognize them unless you saw the paper clips on their lapels. Hippies and Puerto Ricans together grooved on the Latin music. And when the music stopped shortly before midnight, everyone held his breath. But there was no riot.
Captain Fink later praised the Serenos. “I’m very happy we had the cooperation of the Serenos,” he said. “If more community people would show an interest in the situation, I’m sure that this wouldn’t prevent further incidents from happening in this area.”
Saturday afternoon the Fugs played in the bandshell, and tourists swarmed into the park. That evening, Ronald Komer, a Daily News employee, was walking across the grass. He tripped over some Puerto Ricans, and some words were exchanged, and Komer was slashed across the stomach with a knife. Komer was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where he was in satisfactory condition, and Gilberto Conception, 17, was taken to jail.
“Gilberto Conception is in trouble,” read the Communications Company bulletin later that night. “Help raise bail for 17-year-old Gilberto being held in stabbing of Daily News reporter Ronald Komer in Tompkins Square last night. Gilberto needs needs the help of the community. He needs our help now, not the Tombs.”
By Tuesday they had raised $500.
Komer could have been stabbed on Christmas morning on Avenue C, because he didn’t know the mores of the Lower East Side, the first one being that you never insult a Puerto Rican. The tourists were coming en masse to watch the action, but they were more liable to start it.
The community rallied to discourage the tourists, and Sunday the bandshell was closed. Monday, Parks Commissioner August Heckscher called a meeting of representatives of the various neighborhood groups and, backed by a consensus at the meeting, he revoked a permit issued to the New East Village Association for a four-month series of concerts in the bandshell. It was felt that the concerts attracted tourists, but were not representative enough to satisfy the community.
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 he had 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 ask somebody else.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 2, 2019