On Saturday January 14, it will be exactly a half-century since the Human Be-In at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1967. Even at the time there were radicals who thought that hippie energy was a distraction from “serious” political work. It is weird and striking that the Trump inauguration occurs six days after the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous public manifestations of hippie culture. Some of the same questions that were debated then seem oddly relevant today.
One need not disregard the uniquely disturbing elements overshadowing America in 2017 to also acknowledge the darkness we faced in other eras. Mystics who felt that love was indispensable to a better world in 1967 faced a violent, reactionary establishment. Ronald Reagan, outspokenly hostile to both hippies and protesters, had been elected Governor of California eight weeks earlier. Millions of young men were subject to the military draft. There was no such thing as legal pot. (Timothy Leary had a 30-year jail sentence hanging over him). Two Be-In speakers, playwright Michael McClure and poet Lenore Kandel, had been recently busted for obscenity.
In 1965–66 the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco had been a magnet for artists, psychedelic explorers, and other cultural rebels who rejected various aspects of the Western world. The big deal about the Be-In was the sheer quantity of people who suddenly identified with hippies. More than 30,000 gathered in Golden Gate Park, five times more than had shown up for the biggest counterculture celebrations up until that point. A few months later, on Easter Sunday, be-ins in both New York and Los Angeles would draw crowds of a similar size. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, something was happening and a lot of the straight world didn’t know what it was.
Much of what is called “the sixties” was the result of the unique intersection of esoteric ideas that were previously the province of small, avant-garde subcultures with mass media catering to the baby-boom generation. For a moment, bohemia was pop. The Be-In set the stage for the “Summer of Love,” which in turn attracted so much sensationalist and exploitative coverage that by the end of 1967 most hip symbols were fodder for sitcoms. By June, “Hippies” would be the subject of a cover story in Time magazine. In October, a “Death of Hippie” ceremony in Haight-Ashbury was organized by counterculture elders.
In October of 1966, LSD became illegal in the state of California. In response, the editors of the psychedelic newspaper The Oracle created the Be-In with Richard Alpert, who had been fired from Harvard, along with Leary, for unauthorized psychedelic research. The name was a pun based on the words “human being” and a goof on the political “sit-ins” and “teach-ins.” (By the end of the year Hollywood coopted the gimmick with TV comedy show called Laugh-In).