An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

Where Did Everybody Go?

Summer, 1967, in the City of Love. A Sunday afternoon in the Haight: the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Alice B. Toklas (hashish) Fudge.

We didn't live in the Haight - Ashbury neighborhood, although many of our friends did. Like hundreds of others, we were "weekenders": job-holding, bill-paying, responsible citizens from somewhere else, come together to share in the "counter-culture" of music, nudity, painted faces, free love and drugs.

On this particular Sunday, a large group of neighborhood residents, mostly anarchists and anti-corporate organizers, were staging a demonstration-cum-celebration on Haight. The street had been closed off at Ashbury on the east, and at Clayton on the west. Sound stages had been set up. A couple of thousand people were crowded into the "liberated" street. They were there to celebrate the "Death of the Haight".

The noble experiment was over, the organizers said. It had perished under the weight of the thousands of runaways with no survival skills; the introduction of speed and heroin -- higher-profit and nastier drugs than marijuana and l.s.d; commercial exploitation by the Haight Street merchants; the Gray Line buses full of gawking tourists come to see the animals in their natural habitat; and increasing harassment at the hands of the precinct's police, headquartered at Park Police Station.

About an hour after the barricades went up, there was a parade through the crowd. Six hooded, robed pallbearers, carrying a coffin marked "Haight". There were a few speeches. The music started. And then the police came. It seemed that the organizers had not applied for a permit to close the street, which, said the cops, must be open in the next ten minutes. At either end, we could see the forces of order dismantling the barricades, and a line of cars and buses waiting to enter.

The organizers argued with the officers for a few minutes, and then grudgingly agreed to clear the street of obstacles. This meant telling the groups performing on the sound stages to pack it up while the stage hands carted away the sound equipment. There was a good deal of grumbling from the crowd, but folks did comply and there were no bashed heads, no tear gas attacks, etc.

At this point, a young man with a bullhorn stood up on a box and began harranguing the crowd. "Are you going to let them get away with this? There are a lot more of us than of them. Put the pigs back in their pen." Etc., etc., etc.

Carried away with his own rhetoric, and perceiving that the crowd shared his frustration, he grabbed his walking staff (he had pins in his leg from a motorcycle accident) and began to lead the crowd toward the hated Park Precinct Police Station.

Park Station is situated in Golden Gate Park, just across Stanyan Street, which divides the Haight from the park. As the crowd drew close to Stanyan, a group of riot-equipped police became visible, organized in a skirmish line across the front of the WPA-style building.

In what I will always think of as a supremely ironic act, he stopped for the red semaphore on the corner before crossing Stanyan. The crowd pushed right up to him, jeering and laughing and in great high spirits. When the "walk" signal came on, he limped across Stanyan Street, and up the lawn, toward the waiting "blue meanies". About halfway up the lawn, he glanced back, and to his chagrin and amazement, no-one else had crossed the street.

He looked ahead at the police line. Dozens of jackbooted, flack-jacketed, helmeted weight-lifters, their faces concealed by plastic face shields, stood elbow to elbow, their riot sticks rising and falling as they tapped them against their palms.

He turned back to the crowd, and motioned them forward. Nobody moved. What to do?

He continued his march toward the police line. When he got about six feet away, he stopped. They waited. After about a minute -- hours to him -- he pulled out a cigarette and said "Anybody got a light?"

Nobody answered. "Oh", he said, "I guess you guys don't smoke. Well, never mind, I'll ask one of those folks back there", gesturing to the crowd behind him, which had gone dead silent. Whereupon he turned around and marched back, to a great collective sigh of released breath from the crowd.

I saw him not too long after that, and asked him about the experience. "It taught me that leadership is best exercised from the back of the crowd", he told me. "Especially if you can't run fast".

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All materials copyrighted, 1994-2004 by Stan Gotlieb and Realoaxaca.com