“We weren’t really hippies or politicos,” said Ben Morea in a 2012 interview. “We were separate from other groups even though we were part of the wider counterculture. Some people would have placed us as hippies. Those that knew something about the counterculture could sense that we were a much more guttural breed. But outwardly we did have the trappings of the hippies in terms of long hair and ethnic clothing. We also took a lot of LSD. Even though we were also radicals no one would have mixed us up with the Young Communist League.”
As it had started up in the Haight, in San Francisco, the original hippie movement in New York City took shape around Tompkins Square Park, in the East Village. On May 30, Memorial Day 1967, the local police precinct received a local resident’s complaint about loud congas in the park. Wishing to demonstrate to the community that the NYPD would be taking what they perceived to be nonsense, and sent in the Tactical Police Squad (the photo in the poster, above, gives an indication of how the NYPD chose to present itself to neighborhood residents), a predecessor to today’s black-armored NYPD Hercules Unit, to confront the small group of people in the park responsible for the drumming. Met by defiant chants and the linked arms of hundreds, the infuriated police swept through the park, clubbing the protestors and arresting 38 of them, charging them with disorderly conduct.
Morea and Black Mask decided that the East Village would need to build stronger defenses against police harassment and assaults in the neighborhood; and that a key way to begin doing that was to bring together the three largest groups in the immediate area: the Latin community, African-American residents, and the hippies. And, that the way to do that was to both try and bring about a deeper sense of common interests among the neighborhood residents, using whatever approaches worked best, be they storefronts offering free food, clothing, and advice, or active confrontation.
“Our response would include everything from peaceful protests to not peaceful battling depending on the situation,” said Morea. “We were extremely volatile and it often depended on how hard we were pushed.”
As it turned out, one month later on June 30, 1967, the judge dismissed all charges against those arrested, saying: “This court will not deny equal protection to the unwashed, unshod, unkempt, and uninhibited.” By then, however, the line between neighborhood residents and police had been burned into place.