On a cool, sunny afternoon and evening on Saturday 14th January 1967 the The Human Be-In took place on Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park. Billed as “the gathering of the tribes” it brought together all the elements of the burgeoning counterculture in the U.S. – radical Berkeley and Stanford students protesting increasingly vehemently against the war in Vietnam, individuals seeking spiritual enlightenment and the hippies that had become synonymous with the adjoining neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury.
It was here that Timothy Leary famously implored the throng to “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. The Beat Generation was represented by poets Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, who blew a conch shell to herald the beginning and end of the event, and Michael McClure. Other speakers included “yippie” Jerry Rubin and comedian Dick Gregory.
The Hell’s Angels cared for young children and acted as security, a “service” they were to provide regularly until the tragic events of the Altamont speedway track two years later, and the Diggers, an anarchic community group that combined street theatre with art happenings and direct action, distributed thousands of turkey sandwiches. A new dose of the recently banned LSD called White Lightning was passed around.
The scene was one of joy and freedom. Blair Jackson, in his biography of Jerry Garcia, wrote: “People threw Frisbees, watched their dogs run free, danced, sang, tripped in the surrounding pine and eucalyptus groves, pounded on drums, played flutes, strummed guitars, clinked cymbals and clonked cowbells. Incense and pot smoke rose into the air already colored by balloons, kites, flags and streamers. Acid was everywhere, but there were no bad trips”.
The air reverberated to the sounds of popular San Francisco Bands, including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. The former’s performance, which was accompanied by a parachutist descending into the crowd, provoked palpably different critical responses. The legendary rock impresario Bill Graham described it as “terrible”, claiming that the Steve Miller Band and Moby Grape were the best acts, whereas equally celebrated San Francisco Chronicle music journalist Ralph Gleason felt the Dead were “remarkably exciting, causing people to rise up wherever they were and begin dancing”.
Only two policemen on horseback were required for a historic occasion enjoyed by somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 young people. At sunset Ginsberg asked everyone to stand up and run towards the sun. and, at the close, to clear all the trash, which they dutifuly did. There was only one minor disturbance. In his book Summer of Love, Joel Selvin wrote “Later in the evening, a small group flowed over the sidewalks into Haight Street, obstructing traffic, and the cops moved in and arrested almost fifty people. It was the most trouble they could find”.
Nevertheless, the Human Be-In was arguably the zenith of the hippie era, a promise of a better future based on peace, love, and a higher, more liberal consciousness. But it did not last long. Garcia recalled later that there had been a sinister undercurrent to the event, epitomised by Rubin’s strident anti-war speech. Unremitting, largely negative media coverage, a massive influx of young people seduced by the appeal of the “make love, not war” philosophy, coachloads of bemused, gawping tourists and the alarming proliferation of hard drugs all made Haight-Ashbury an undesirable area in which to live, and the Diggers, by October of the same year, to declare the “death of the hippie”, orchestrating a procession through the area to the Panhandle where an effigy was burnt.