Herbier // Flower Power – 1960s idealism or a movement that changed the world?

ARLINGTON, VA - OCTOBER 26 1967: Antiwar demonstrators tried flower power on MPs blocking the Pentagon Building in Arlington, VA on October 26, 1967. (Photo by Bernie Boston/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Inspired by the V&A’s exhibition You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966–1970, The Herbarium Project goes behind the scenes of Bernie Boston’s Flower Power, an era-defining shot that helped create the politics and cultural practices of a flower power generation

On 19 November 1965, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg published a manifesto in the Berkeley Barb – a weekly counterculture newspaper championing anti-war and civil rights movements published in Berkeley, California. His essay was titled Demonstration Or Spectacle As Example, As Communication Or How to Make a March/Spectacle and advocated the use of ‘Masses of flowers – a visual spectacle – especially concentrated in the front lines’ to be used to set up barricades or present to pro-war Hell’s Angels, police, politicians, press and spectators. The concept of ‘flower power’ was born.

The publication of Ginsberg’s essay followed a peace rally he attended on 15 and 16 October 1965 that marched from the University of California, Berkley to the Oakland Army Induction Center – which saw 15,000 fellow protestors come face to face with riot police, right wing counter-demonstrators and violent Hells Angels. The essay also directly preceded a subsequent march scheduled for 20 November 1965.

Amazingly Ginsberg managed to persuade the Hells Angels not to stir up trouble at the 20 November march following an LSD-laced visit to head Angel Sonny Barger with mutual friend and writer Ken Kesey. According to Kesey, Ginsberg simply walked ‘right into the lion’s den 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 protestors.”’

Indeed the Angels did not attend the march stating that, ‘Although we have stated our intention to counter-demonstrate at this despicable un-American activity, we believe that in the interest of public safety and the protection of the good name of Oakland, we would not justify the VDC (Vietnam Day Committee) by our presence… because our patriotic concern for what these people are doing to a great nation may provoke us into violent acts.’ Ginsberg and some 6,000–10,000 peace protestors were thus free to march from Berkley to DeFremery Park in Oakland, ‘flower power’ protected and intact.

Although Ginsberg does not use the exact phrase ‘flower power’ within his essay for the Berkley Barb, he was the first person to actively and vocally expound on the potency of flowers as a form of guerrilla theatre to simultaneously disarm opponents and influence thought. The idea quickly spread from California to other parts of the United States and indeed the world.

Notable ‘flower power’ protest performances were staged by set ups such as the Bread and Puppet Theater in New York who handed out balloons and flowers with their anti-war literature. Publications such as Workshop in Nonviolence (WIN) produced by New York activists also promoted the use of flower power.

In May 1967, Abbie Hoffman – who would later found the highly theatrical Youth International Movement (also known as Yippies) in December of the same year – organised the Flower Brigade as an official contingent of a New York city parade honouring the soldiers in Vietnam. Flower Brigade participants who carried flowers, flags and pink posters imprinted with ‘LOVE’ were attacked and beaten by bystanders. In a response published in WIN magazine, Hoffman wrote, ‘The Flower Brigade lost its first battle, but watch out America… We were poorly equipped with flowers from uptown florists. Already there is talk of growing our own. Plans are being made to mine the East River with daffodils. Dandelion chains are being wrapped around induction centers. Holes are being dug in street pavements and seeds dropped and covered. The cry of “Flower Power” echoes through the land. We shall not wilt. Let a thousand flowers bloom.’

On the following Sunday in May, WIN activists declared the Armed Forces Day as Flower Power Day. A rally was held in Central Park to counter the traditional parade. Turnout was low and Hoffman attributed the rally ineffective due to a lack of confrontation. What they needed was also a more theatrical approach.

That came during what is now known as the 1967 Pentagon March, when tens of thousands of demonstrators from some 150 different factions came together to ‘Confront the War Makers’. Initiated and organised by ‘the Mobe’ – the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam – the initial aim was for anti-war protestors to join a massive march on Washington on 21 October 1967, to coincide with Stop the Draft Week.

When Abbie Hoffman came on board to help organise the march, along with co-Yippie and Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) founder Jerry Rubin, they decided to up the ante by throwing some ‘flower power’-style theatrics into the mix. Together they hatched a plan to exorcise and levitate the Pentagon and thus have the secondary effect of ending the war. Evil war-mongering spirits be gone.

The protest began at the Lincoln Memorial where an estimated 100,000 people had gathered for what seemed like a typical DC rally. Although a sizeable march that included people from all walks of life – civil rights leaders, middle class liberals, power militants, hippies, student activists, pacifists and Viet Cong sympathisers – the real action began when a 35,000-strong contingent began to march the 2 miles over the Memorial Bridge to the Pentagon to participate in a second rally. When the march reached the Pentagon Parking Lot, protestors came face to face with a human barricade of some 2,500 military policemen – fully armed Army National Guard troops who had been drafted in to encircle and protect the Pentagon. The march had a permit to protest until 7pm but any breach of the line in an effort to get into the Pentagon would be deemed as civil disobedience.

Despite the risk of arrest or worse brutal retaliation, Hoffman and Rubin commandeered hundreds of hippies and musicians to initiate their levitation ritual, spurred on by head levitator Ed Sanders of underground rock band the Fugs and fellow pranksters such as Ginsberg. Hilariously, Hoffman had also secured a permit for the levitation with an agreed levitation height of 3 feet. Pentagon officials were obviously unaware of the very real and soon to be proven potency of Hoffman’s ‘flower power’ antics – using deliberately theatrical and absurdist humour to manipulate the media, change the political tide and draw more people to join the movement.

The initial idea for the levitation, initially conceived during the Human Be-In on 14 January 1967 in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, was to chant and sing until the Pentagon rose off the ground and turned orange, driving out the evil spirits and ending the war in Vietnam. The exorcism would also ‘profane’ a building that many Americans considered as sacred. Ideally participants would also encircle the Pentagon by holding hands (steps were even taken to measure how many people it would take to do so) but this was not permitted and would be impossible on the day anyway given the military presence. The exorcism and levitation would be initiated by a reading by Fugs frontman Ed Sanders of his specially written incantation, a ‘magic rite to exorcize the Spirits of murder, violence & creephood from the Pentagon.’

Despite accounts of a commendable amount of chanting (‘Out Demons Out’); some instructed free love on the lawn; performers wearing green paint to offset red, the colour of Mars the God of War; a Native American shaman consecrating the ceremony by throwing down cornmeal; a table-sized plywood model of the Pentagon being encircled and raised aloft by piano wires; and Ed Sanders and the San Francisco Diggers leading the ensemble through the prepared 10-step rite from a flower-adorned truck, the Pentagon didn’t budge – although some attendees do report feeling like it had, given the dizzy heights of feeling on the day and the presence of mind-altering drugs. The main aim of the spectacle was ultimately achieved however – to infiltrate the media and the mainstream. As Hoffman later reflected ‘Media is free. Use it. Don’t pay for it. Don’t buy ads. Make news.’

One key element that did make the news was an unplanned happening that would ultimately lead to two of the most iconic images of the anti-war protests and indeed the era – Marc Riboud’s shot of seventeen-year-old student Jan Rose Kasmir clasping a daisy and gazing at bayonet-wielding soldiers and Bernie Boston’s portrayal of a young, long-haired man in a turtleneck sweater placing carnations into the riffle barrels of military policemen.

The flower that appeared centre-stage in Marc Riboud’s seminal image was one of several bunches brought to the march by Abbie Hoffman who intended to drop dozens of these innocent flowers on the Pentagon from a plane. However, Hoffman’s plan was foiled at the airport by the F.B.I., so instead he brought the flowers along on foot. They were handed out to any protestors who wanted to employ such ‘flower power’ tactics as those advocated by Ginsberg two years earlier.

Along with fellow activists, Kasmir rose to the challenge and set about moving back and forth along the line of armed forces, flower in hand, beckoning the soldiers to join in. Although stonewalled by the equally youthful faces of the soldiers – possibly afraid that they were going to be told to fire on the protestors – Kasmir did achieve her aims through the power of the image that was to follow, a ‘gauzy juxtaposition of armed force and flower child innocence’ as described by Smithsonian Magazine some years later. Kasmir still campaigns for peace today.

Boston’s photograph – which took ‘flower power’ one step further and placed it right in the barrel of a gun – was dismissed by the editor of the Washington Star (his employer of the time) who couldn’t see its potency or significance. Convinced of its symbolic importance, Boston entered it into photographic competitions under the moniker Flower Power. His image went on to receive a nomination for the 1967 Pultizer Prize. Flower Power had reached its zenith.

Although the Vietnam War raged on until 1975 and the US continued to exercise their power of military conscription until 1973 for men of draft age (18-25 years old) – including through a draft lottery based on birth dates in 1969 – ‘flower power’ had definitely played its part in turning the tide of public opinion against the war and the legitimacy of America’s role in it.

Many of the exponents of ‘flower power’ in a political sense were also part of, or in many cases catalysts for, the burgeoning hippie movement. Riding on the back of earlier counterculture movements such as the Beat Generation – and previous to that, the ‘Nature Boys’ of Southern California who were already experimenting in ways of alternative living – the hippies set up shop as champions of all things nature and natural, communal living, artistic and musical experimentation, free speech, the questioning of authority and the widespread, eye-opening, mind-altering use of recreational drugs. The flower was an obvious choice when it came to a symbolic gesture of peace and love.

Haight-Ashbury in California’s San Francisco was the unofficial epicentre of the hippie movement, growing out of avant garde activity during the San Francisco Renaissance era, the creative output of subsequent Beat Generation residents such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, disaffected student communities around San Francisco State University, City College and Berkley, increasing numbers of experimental and psychedelic artists and musicians and local community anarchists The Diggers who believed in a free society and the good in human nature. The term hippie came from hipster, which was initially used to describe beatniks in New York City’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury.

Although hippie culture emerged in the mid 1960s, the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park on 14 January 1967 would popularise the movement. The event was announced on the cover of the fifth issue of the San Francisco Oracle as ‘A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In’; the occasion was a new California law banning the use of the psychedelic drug LSD that had come into effect on 6 October 1966. Organized by artist Michael Bowen (co-founder of the San Francisco Oracle and founder of a studio/ashram in the middle of the newly Burgeoning Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood in 1966) the Be-In featured appearances by Beat poets Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, psychologist and psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary who set the tone for the afternoon with his famous phrase ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’ and social activist Jerry Rubin. Haight-Ashbury-based bands Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring lead singer Janis Joplin provided the music. ‘Underground chemist’ Owsley Stanley brought massive amounts of ‘White Lightning’ LSD for anyone up for a communal high and the free love that many hoped would imminently follow.

Part rock concert, part literary event, part protest and part mass consciousness-raising the gathering was meant to unite and incite the different wings of the counterculture movement. It did that and more. Subsequent events and media attention, much of which was agog at the spectacle of 20,000 to 30,000 longhaired, authority-defying youths gathered together in one place, also helped to popularise hippie culture across the United States.

On 26 March the same year, 10,000 hippies plus the likes of Edie Sedgwick and Lou Reed came together in Manhattan for the Central Park Be-In; on 13 May 1967, Scott McKenzie released his generational anthem ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)’ – penned by John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas – to worldwide acclaim (Number 4 in the US, Number 2 in Canada and Number 1 in the UK); between 16–18 June 1967, the sounds of the 60s found its way to a wider audience via the Monterey Pop Festival featuring appearances by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who, Ravi Shankar, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Mamas and the Papas and Scott McKenzie; on 7 July 1967, Time magazine ran a cover story on ‘The Hippies: Philosophy of a Subculture’; and in August CBS News ran a national television report on ‘The Hippie Temptation’. ‘Flower power’ was well and truly embedded in popular culture as well as the guerilla theater of political protest

With the words ‘If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair’ and the romantic, bohemian lifestyle it portrayed – also depicted in the bright, psychedelic poster and record cover art of the time – Phillips and McKenzie helped to inspire tens of thousands of young people from all over the world to travel to the ‘painted lady’ Victorian houses of Haight-Ashbury (named for the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets); to wear long-flowing dresses, Eastern kaftans and flowers in their unbridled hair. This phenomenon, known as the ‘Summer of Love’ would ironically spark the demise of the ‘flower child’ movement in San Francisco. Some reports say that the local council or residents came up with the title ‘Summer of Love’ to put a positive spin on the hairy, drug-fuelled happenings that were picking up negative press from the media. However, nearly 100,000 additional dwellers were just too much for the area to cope with.

By the autumn of 1967, the realities of ‘dropping out’ began to hit home and the scene deteriorated due to overcrowding, homelessness and crime. Haight-Ashbury’s Utopian vision had come to an end and on 6 October 1967 any long haired ‘freaks’ remaining in Haight-Ashbury held an official ceremony to declare ‘The Death of the Hippie’. The most authentic proponents of all that ‘hippie’ allegedly or originally stood for moved out into the country to set up working farms and communes.

‘Flower power’, however, would live on in its music, its art, its fashions and its truly game-changing revolutionary spirit. Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman and cohorts may not have managed to levitate the Pentagon but they sure did subvert the social and political zeitgeist, ‘flower power’ and all.

Main image: Flower Power (October 1967) taken by photojournalist Bernie Boston at the 1967 Pentagon March – as exhibited at the V&A’s new show You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966–1970 (10 September 2016 to 26 February 2017) – has become an iconic image of the ‘flower power’ era © Bernie Boston / The Washington Post via Getty images and V&A, London


You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966–1970 is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London from 10 September 2016 to 27 February 2017 // www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/you-say-you-want-a-revolution-records-and-rebels-1966-70

For more information about Herbier * magazine’s foray into the macrocosm and microcosms of ‘flower power’ click here #flowerpower >