NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES

The Grand Central Riot: Yippies Meet the Man

“The cops dropped me in the street and disappeared. My face, and my press card, were covered with blood. I went to the hospital to get five stitches in my forehead. So I missed the climax of the Yip-In, but I can pass on various accounts of witnesses”

by

Inside A Yip-In

All the brass was watching. Chief Inspector Sanford Garelik, shielded by a cluster of Tactical Patrol Force heavies, leaned against the wall in the 42nd Street entrance to Grand Central Station, intently watching the churning sea of demonstrators. Sid Davidoff and Barry Gottehrer, Lindsay’s roving sensory apparatus, roamed around the terminal for hours. And a dozen privileged persons of some sort lined the balcony above the escalators leading to the Pan Am Building, observing the melee below like Romans digging the arena. 

All the brass were watching, and the cops were having a ball. “It was the most extraordinary display of unprovoked police brutality I’ve seen outside of Mississippi,” Alan Levine, staff counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said at a press conference on Saturday. “The police reacted enthusiastically to the prospect of being un­leashed.” Levine reported seeing several people forced to run a gauntlet of club-wielding cops while trying to flee from what has been characterized as a “police riot.” Spitting invective through clenched teeth, cops hit women and kicked demonstrators who had fallen while trying to escape the flailing nightsticks. It was like a fire in a theater. 

It was a Yip-In. “Its a spring mating service celebrating the equinox,” read a Yippie handbill, “a back-scratching party, a roller­-skating rink, a theater, with you, performer and audience.” The Yip-In was held for Yippies to get acquainted, and to promote the Yippies’ “Festival of Life,” which will coincide with the Democratic National Convention in Chicago this summer. 

The promotion was as heavy as the planning was weak. The Yip-In was announced at a press conference at the Americana Hotel, and several thousand handbills were distributed urging Yippies to come to Grand Central Station at midnight on Friday. Why Grand Central Station? “It’s central, man,” said one Yippie. How many Yippies would come? Well, it was a good way to test the pull of the media. 

The media pulls, and a lot of people came. Most came by subway, coming up out of the bowels of the 42nd Street station to fill the mammoth terminal like a diverted river might fill a dry lake. Soon it was a sea of heads, and it was hard to move. Balloons bounced above the crowd, as an estimated 6,000 people were jammed together under the vaulted ceiling.

The crowd stirred and the balloons bounced for almost an hour, while the terminal continued to fill. Occasionally clusters of people took up chants, ranging from “Yippie!” to “Long Hot Summer!” to “Burn, Baby, Burn!” Shortly before one, kids began to climb to the roof of the information booth in the center of the terminal, where they began to lead the chants, and one militant climbed to the pinnacle of the information booth, striking a “Workers, Arise!” pose, his fist raised in the air, and unfurled a banner which read, vertically, “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!” Two cherry bombs exploded, and the sound was greatly amplified in the huge room. Now the balconies were packed, and the cops were quivering in formation in the 42nd Street entrance. 

There are four clocks on top of the information booth, and as the roof became more crowded the temptation to rape time apparently became irresistible. First kids turned the hands around, and then the hands suddenly disappeared. 

I was standing close to the cops when they started to clear the entrance, shoving people into the terminal or out in the street, where more cops were waiting in formation. I ran around the corner to the Vanderbilt Avenue entrance, and came to the balcony that overlooked the terminal in time to see a wedge of blue slice into the crowd, nightsticks swinging, until they came to the information booth, where they paused. The kids slid off the roof and the crowd recoiled. The police surrounded the information booth and, in seconds, now rein­forced, charged the crowd again, forcing the demonstrators back into the huge corridor which led to the subway. The crowd simply made a U-turn in a connecting corridor and flowed back into the terminal, and the cops went wild. 

Now another formation of cops charged toward the stairs where I was standing, and I made for the street again, rounded the corner, and returned to the 42nd Street entrance, which was now entirely filled with police. I pinned on my press credentials and began to move through the police line. My credentials were checked twice, and I was allowed to pass. At that point, I was stopped a third time by two uniformed cops. They looked at my credentials, cursed the Voice, grabbed my arms behind my back, and, joined by two others, rushed me back toward the street, deliberately ramming my head into the closed glass doors, which cracked with the impact. They dropped me in the street and disappeared. My face, and my press card, were covered with blood. I went to the hospital to get five stitches in my forehead. 

So I missed the climax of the Yip-In, but I can pass on various accounts of witnesses. The police, it seems, continued to charge the crowd at random, first charging, always swinging the nightsticks, then pulling back, then charging again. Sometimes several formations of police charged simultaneously in different directions. The exits were jammed and the crowd was in a panic, desperately trying to avoid the nightsticks. The police kept charging.

During all this time, arrests were being made. Within two hours, 57 persons were arrested, on charges ranging from felonious assault and criminal mischief to resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. At least 20 persons were taken to hospitals for treatment. 

The arrest procedure followed a brutal pattern. Most of the people arrested were automatically beaten with nightsticks. (The cops didn’t seem to want anyone to walk out after having been arrested.) “If you protected yourself, you were resisting arrest,” a witness said. “If you didn’t, you were knocked out.” A youth was arrested near the escalator leading into the Pan Am Building, and was dragged across the terminal, screaming with pain, while police kicked him in the groin. He finally collapsed, and police grabbed him by the back of the belt, and carried him out to the waiting paddy wagons. 

At another point, Voice columnist Howard Smith relates, the police made a charge toward the west side of the terminal, and a soda bottle came flying out of the crowd, striking a cop. Five cops grabbed a kid — ­the wrong one, Smith said — and shoved him into the door of Track 32, where they began beating him with nightsticks. While the kid, later identified as Jon Moore, 17, screamed “I didn’t do it” and “It wasn’t me,” the crowd shouted “Sieg Heil!” Still the beating continued. Some other cops approached and tried to stop the beating, Smith said, and then a police captain approached and made the guise of breaking it up. Moore, who was now hunched over protecting his head and groin, looked up, and the captain grabbed his head and cracked it against the iron grating of the door, cursing “you son of a bitch.” The captain then turned away, brushing his hands, and Moore was taken out of the station. He was later charged with felonious assault. 

These incidents were not exceptional. Ronald Shea, 22, was shoved by police through a plate-glass door. He raised his hands to protect his face, and the broken glass severed every essential tendon and nerve in his left hand. In six months, doctors at Roosevelt Hospital say, he may regain partial use of his hand. Shea was not arrested. 

Witnesses charged that several plainclothesmen, who had infiltrated the crowd before the police charged, were even more brutal than the uniformed cops when the swinging started. They add that the plainclothesmen, who wore no badges, refused to identify themselves when questioned by accredited newsmen. Several instances were reported when cops struck or intimidated people seen writing down badge numbers. Witnesses emphasize that no warning or order to disperse was given at any time before or after the police charged the demonstrators, although a public address system was presumably available in the station. Ed Sanders of the Fugs contends that the people would have responded to a warning. “People who come to Yippie demonstrations are very reasonable,” he said. “There was no reason to rush in and crunch.” 

After the police first charged, Abbie Hoffman, YIP leader, report­edly approached Barry Gottehrer, assistant to the mayor, and asked to use the terminal’s public address system. Gottehrer replied that he thought Hoffman was “an hour and a half late,” and refused. Hoffman then asked that the police be pulled out, and Gottehrer presumably refused again. 

After an hour and a half, the cops calmed down, and the remaining demonstrators were allowed to remain in the terminal. Others went to the Sheep Meadow in Central Park, also staked out with police, where the organizers of the Yip-In had planned to meet to “yip up the sun.” By 4:15 A.M., Grand Central Station was empty. 

Saturday morning, the key leaders of the YIP, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner, and Bob Fass, left New York to fly to Chicago for a conference regarding the planning of activities during the Democratic National Convention. Later that morning, the 57 people arrested were arraigned in court. Most of the people were represented by Legal Aid. YIP had made no arrangements for lawyers or bail.

There was a lot of garbage and buck-passing flying around during the following days. Gottehrer, at a YIP press conference Sunday night, placed considerable emphasis on the crowd on top of the information booth, the cherry bombs, and the damage to the clocks. He refused to concede any misconduct on the part of the police. YIP spokesmen complained about a breakdown of communications, insisting that they had never considered the possibility or violence. On Monday, the scuttlebutt at City Hall included rumors that some of the demonstrators were carrying dynamite Friday night, and privately city officials alleged that the police received two bomb threats at Grand Central Station. Now the rumors have gone even further, with representatives of both sides darkly referring to “provocateurs” who incited the police to riot. 

As I see it, the central issue — besides the astonishing brutality of the police — was a failure in planning on the part of both YIP and the city that borders on gross incompetence and irresponsibility. Although YIP had been in contact with the mayor’s office before the demonstra­tion, the city gave no indication as to what their response would be. The city urged YIP to consult with the New York Central Railroad, which owns Grand Central Station, which YIP did not do. The demonstration was allowed to form without interference or objection and, an hour later, without warning, the police viciously attacked the crowd. There was little direction or coordination evident in the cops’ attack; they seemed to be improvising. YIP did not even bring a megaphone so that they could address their own people; in the situation that developed, the leaders found themselves impotent. The cardinal insanity was the selection of Grand Central Station for an enormously publici­zed demonstration of totally indeterminate size. The Yip-In was the fourth and by far the largest demonstration to be held at the terminal. The first three all ran into cops. It was a pointless con­frontation in a box canyon, and somehow it seemed to be a pro­phecy of Chicago. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 6, 2020

Archive Highlights