On the first Saturday of each May, tens of thousands of people gather in over 300 cities to march and show their support for marijuana legalization. But what many may not know is that this global phenomenon had its origin right here in New York City.
Back in 1967, a small but vocal political party dedicated to activism, anarchy and countercultural ideals was formed—the Youth International Party (or “Yippies” for short). Adopting a red star with a green pot leaf as their official flag, these radical hippie tricksters staged smoke-ins, pied politicians and masterminded the launch of the Alternative Press Syndicate. Among those involved with the Yippies were activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, poet Allen Ginsberg, satirist (and fellow HT columnist) Paul Krassner, High Times founder Tom Forçade, and a guerrilla journalist/publisher named Dana Beal. It was Beal who, in the mid-1970s, began organizing an annual pot protest in New York—which, years later, after the advent of the Internet, evolved into the Million Marijuana March we know today.
Back in the ’80s, New York’s pro-pot rally was a very different animal. I fondly remember hopping the subway into the West Village with my high-school chums to gather in Washington Square Park with thousands of fellow burners, where we’d all lay out on the grass, playing our boom-boxes or acoustic guitars, and smoke joints all day. Sure, there were cops there, but they just hovered around the perimeter, only arresting dealers and jackasses. Of course, that was before Rudy Giuliani took over as mayor and instituted his zero-tolerance fatwa on pot smokers. Since then, I’d stopped going to the rally for fear of being busted. But this year, with some light finally visible at the end of the legalization tunnel, I felt compelled to go back and show my support.
It was a wet, dreary morning, and as I walked through Washington Square, I wondered whether the march might be called off due to rain. But as we gathered beside the park and things got underway, the sky cleared and the sun shone down its blessings upon our endeavors. With that, the crowd’s numbers and spirits increased—despite being surrounded by cops. And there were a lot of cops: somewhere between 60 and 100 by our count, with buses, scooters, vans and SUV’s (both marked and unmarked). With such overkill being devoted to watching over a small, peaceful gathering of a few hundred potheads, one had to question whether the NYPD’s true purpose here wasn’t merely crowd control, but outright intimidation. To put it in perspective: that same day, Toronto’s Freedom Festival (see page 18) reportedly had only 32 officers on hand to deal with crowd of nearly 30,000 attendees.
But it wasn’t even the uniformed officers we had to worry about—it was the dozen or so undercover cops mingling among us, poised to pounce. Each time some poor sap would discreetly try to fire up a jay, the narcs would swoop in, drag him off to the side and bust him. And each time, my compadre Danny Danko and I would make note of the narc and his cohorts and point them out to whoever was around us. Danny even went up to one who was holding a sign and asked to take his picture. When the guy pulled the sign up to cover his face, Danny said: “Thanks … I just wanted a picture of a cop holding a protest sign.”
Beal took the stage around noon, introducing fellow Yippies David Peel and “Pieman” Aron Kay, as well as several other lifelong activists, who all spoke (and sang) to the crowd. Then, led by their grandstand on wheels—and accompanied by a sizeable police escort—we made our way along St. Marks to First Avenue, then north toward the United Nations building. All the way uptown, our chants and cheers were answered by the honking of car horns and the smiles and stares of people on the street. Meanwhile, protestors trying to sneak a toke were still being pulled out of our ranks by the cops, then handcuffed and led off.
The caravan ended at a small square on East 47th Street called Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, across from the UN. There, the rally continued until almost 7 p.m. with bands and more speakers, including famed medical-marijuana patient Elvy Musika and NY Norml director Ruth Liebesman. Even here, the narcs continued to infiltrate and harass peaceful protestors, busting several more stoners. It was then that an incensed Danko had his moment at the mic.
“I have a message for all the police and prohibitionists,” he declared. “Give up now! We have won, so you might as well save the effort. We’ll accept your surrender, but not your apology.”
Yip, yip, yip … yippie! a
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