November 19: Allen Ginsberg invents “flower power”

On October 16, 2,000–5,000 marched from Berkeley  to Oakland to demonstrate against the war at an army induction center. The crowd sang “Help!” and County Joe and the Fish jug band played their “I’m Fixin’ To Die” rag on a flatbed truck while the Merry Pranksters’ Day-Glo school bus Further followed — until the parade was stopped by four hundred cops at the county line, with the Hell’s Angels biker gang looming behind them. Allen Ginsberg tried to cool the rising tension by chanting “Hare Krishna,” but suddenly an Angel snatched a sign roaring, “Cowards! Go back to Russia you fucking communists!” The Angels lunged at the protestors and the cops in turn began fighting with the angels; one officer received a broken arm, some Angels got their heads split by police clubs.

The pro-war Angels vowed to disrupt the protest scheduled for November 20 as well, and to beat up the “filthy Commies.” Upon hearing this, Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg went to head Angel Sonny Barger’s house to talk them out of it. The Angels and Kesey’s Pranksters had been partying together since August. Everyone took LSD, played Dylan and Joan Baez records, and Ginsberg got the Angels to chant the Buddhist Prajnaparamita Sutra. According to Kesey, Ginsberg went “right into the lion’s mouth with his little cymbals. Ching, ching, ching. And he just kept talking and being his usual absorbing self. Finally they said, ‘OK, OK. We’re not going to beat up the protesters.’ When he left, one of the Angels, Terry the Tramp, says, ‘That [Ginsberg] ought to ride a bike.’ From then on, he had a pass around the Angels. They had let all the other Angels know, ‘He’s a dude worth helping out.’ They were absolutely impressed by him and his courage.”[i]

Still, the Free Speech Movement asked Ginsberg for suggestions on what do if the Hell’s Angels should change their mind and maraud again. On November 19, the Berkeley Barb published his essay, Demonstration Or Spectacle As Example, As Communication Or How To Make a March/Spectacle. “Masses of flowers — a visual spectacle — especially concentrated in the front lines. Can be used to set up barricades, to present to Hell’s Angels, police, politicians, and press and spectators whenever needed or at parade’s end … Marchers should bring crosses, to be held up in front in case of violence; like in the movies dealing with Dracula …”

He also recommended bringing flags, musical instruments, children’s toys, and candy bars for the Angels and police, as well as the Constitution, little paper halos, white flags, and movie cameras. If the scene grew tense, marchers could sit or do mass calisthenics and chant The Lord’s Prayer, Om, or “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And if violence threatened to erupt, he advised that sound system blast the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and the marchers burst into dance. He proposed floats of Christ with scared heart and cross, Buddha in meditation, and Thoreau behind bars. Also, he said that in advance of the march the rumor should be spread that women would pull down the pants of anyone who opposed them.

The same day, the Angels called a press conference and said that although they considered the demonstration a “despicable un-American activity,” they would not attend in the interest of public safety, as their patriotism could inspire them to violence. They also sent a telegram to LBJ offering to go to Nam as “a crack group of trained gorillas [sic].” The next day, between 6,000 and 10,000 people marched unharmed.

Ginsberg’s Demonstration Or Spectacle As Example manifesto may have been partially inspired by Dylan. When Jerry Rubin asked the singer to participate in the VDC march, Ginsberg recalled that Dylan agreed but added, in typically enigmatic fashion, “Except we ought to have it in San Francisco right on Nob Hill where I have my concert, and I’ll get a whole bunch of trucks and picket signs — some of the signs will be bland, and some of them have lemons painted on them, and some of them are watermelon pictures, bananas, others will have the word “Orange” or “Automobile” or the words “Venetian Blind.” I’ll pay for the trucks, and I’ll get it all together and I’ll be there, and we’ll have a little march for the peace demonstration.”

Ginsberg said, “I think Dylan offered it somewhat ironically, but I think he would have gone through with it … I think that was the beginning of our realization that national politics was theatre on a vast scale, with scripts, timing, sound systems. Whose theatre would attract the most customers, whose was a theatre of ideas that could be gotten across?”

Ginsberg’s vision of using masses of flowers in antiwar protest was perhaps his most influential meme, though the phrase “flower power” itself does not appear in his essay. One of the earliest known appearances of the actual term is the Flower Power Day rally organized in May 1967 by Abbie Hoffman, the activist who co-founded the radical street theatre group the the Yippies with Jerry Rubin. Hoffman may have been combining Ginsberg’s flower concept with the phrase Black Power, which Stokely Carmichael popularized in 1966. (Hoffman had worked in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which Carmichael chaired.) Rubin never hesitated to give props to Ginsberg: “If you want to see the birth of Yippie, [Ginsberg] came out and he gave a speech about how to march again with the Hell’s Angels attacking.” Whoever came up with the term, by the time of Hoffman’s rally flowers and hippies were inextricably linked. That same month, the Mamas and the Papas’ leader John Philips wrote and produced Scott McKenzie’s hippie anthem, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” Flower power’s most iconic moment came the following October when an 18-year-old actor named George Harris surprised National Guardsmen at the Pentagon by sticking carnations in the barrels of their rifles.

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3 replies »

  1. Hi Laura, they are:
    Charters, Ann. The Portable Sixties Reader. London: Penguin, 2003.
    Doggett, Peter. There’s a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of the ’60s. New York: Grove, 2009.
    Stevens, Jay. Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream. New York: Grove Press, 1987. \
    They’re listed in the bibliography in the book.
    Thanks for taking a look!


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