Hemp and Circumstance


Silly Billy took a purple balloon from little Madalyn and showed it to the crowd. Actually, there wasn’t much of a crowd, just a smattering of parents standing by a stage in Washington Square Park as a children’s party clown with giant yellow glasses and a tiny red hat stroked a long balloon and remarked to the audience that “this looks like something you’d get on 4th Street just west of Sixth Avenue, if you know what I mean.”

They knew what he meant. Or at least the ones over five did. But what did it matter? Those stores just west of Sixth Avenue where balloon-shaped “toys” for adults are sold—as “marital aids” no less—will soon have been knuckle-whacked out of existence by Rudy Giuliani. And Washington Square Park—once the refuge of beatniks, yippies, hippies, anarchists, Rastas, Radical Faeries, and various other unassimilable elements of the culture—will also have been vanquished by the mayor’s ad hoc Legion of Decency.

Saturday was the first annual city-sponsored Family Day in Washington Square Park. Not coincidentally, the first Saturday in May has been for 27 years the occasion of an annual rally for pot smokers and supporters of marijuana legalization inside the park. This year’s smoke-in, or J-Day, was supplanted by pony rides, puppet shows, and a stunt-bike demonstration whose corporate sponsor was Rolling Stone. Pacific Sunwear, Airwalk, and Nantucket Nectars all set up booths where stoners once lit up.

The pro-pot forces were relegated to the park’s perimeter, where approximately 2500 of them straggled into formation before beginning a trek to Battery Park at noon. “It’s a corporate effort to suppress the will of the people,” said William Coleman, a 40-year-old Vermonter who campaigned for lieutenant governor on his state’s Grassroots Party ticket in 1996, of Family Day.

“It’s 1984 in 1998,” added Dana Beal, the 51-year-old organizer of the optimistically named Million Marijuana March. “They even leaked false information to the media that the march had been canceled.”

In a letter urging the ouster of marijuana supporters from Washington Square, Bob O’Sullivan, cochair of Parents for Playgrounds, countered that “we view the annual smoke-in as rude and inappropriate behavior. These groups appear to be comprised of anarchists and leftover elements of the 1960s yippie culture. They do not want to work within the political system for change but rather have a confrontation with the police.”

Any potential police confrontation with “anarchists” (mostly high school students from the tristate area, actually) and “leftover yippies” (proof positive, if true, that marijuana has preservative powers) was stymied by a highly dramatic show of force by the NYPD that included officers on horseback, bicycle, scooter, and foot. Early protesters were hustled beyond the park’s borders or else herded inside barricades. People carrying placards had their signposts seized. Small clumps of demonstrators who gathered inside the park before noon found themselves being filmed by officers from the police department’s Tactical Affairs Reconnaisance Unit. Some pot advocates jeered. Others seemed unfazed by a procedure that has come to be almost routine since police installed more than a dozen video surveillance cameras in Washington Square.

“It’s like the culture is saying, ‘We had the 1960s and that was quite enough of that,’ ” said Howland Carpenter, a 53-year-old woodworker, as he pointed out park signage banning not only drugs but drinking, biking, skating, pets, and radios. “We’re in the anti-’60s now. We’ve got this maniac revanchist for a mayor making policy war on inoffensive public behavior. It’s like the revenge of Ozzie and Harriet.”

Not everyone finds public pot smoking inoffensive, however. “What you do in your house is one thing,” explained Jane

McGrath, as she wheeled her twin toddlers in a tricycle stroller. “I have a small problem with dealers swarming the walkways, going, ‘Weed, weed, weed. Sinse, sinse, sinse.’ ” While the mayor pointed out last Friday that “decent people” can now use the park without fear of being “assaulted,” the issue seems far from settled. “We will smoke pot, legalize it or not,” rapper Tinka Jones chanted from outside Washington Square Park on Saturday, as McGrath held her ground. “Well, thank God, it’s still illegal for now.” (Actually, as Jennifer Gonnerman points out in the Voice this week, New York legislators passed a bill in 1977 decriminalizing possession of marijuana in quantities of up to seven-eighths of an ounce.)

“If I get into the justice system, I want to change the laws,” claimed Jason Stock, a 22-year-old student at John Jay College, who attended the march with his friend, med student Kacey

Audlin, and their pet ferret, Isabel. “I smoke. It makes me feel good. I don’t see anything wrong with it. I used to be a bouncer and I’ve seen lots of people violent on alcohol. You never see that with marijuana. With pot, people just relax.”

Perhaps too much so to make for great political theater. Between chants of “Hidey, hidey, hidey, hey, marijuana is here to stay” and the occasional cheer of “Hemp, hemp, hooray,” the marchers trailed Beal south to Houston Street and then down Broadway in an amiable haze. At Battery Park, they dispersed on the lawn to hear speeches and reggae. A few brazenly lit up in front of the police, who later reported making 69 arrests. For many, though, the prospect of a desk appearance ticket wasn’t half as alarming as a world remade to Giuliani standards. “We’re a cannabis family on Family Day,” giggled an ecstatic Brett Levin, who also goes by the name of Bouncing Baby. “Look around you,” marcher James Aguirre went on, as he motioned to the ragtag pothead assembly peaceably marching past City Hall. “I don’t think we should say no to drugs. We should say no to Rudy Giuliani. Say no to puppets and mimes.”