It was June, 1967 and word had gone out that LBJ was coming to LA, only the counterculture movement in LA had no political credentials. There had been protests in Berkeley, New York, Washington, all over the country, but nothing to speak of in LA. We had the rock music scene on Sunset Strip. The movies. Good dope.
Otherwise, the area was known for mowing down orange groves and turning them into tract houses. A liberal enclave it was not, but well before the Prez had settled into a fundraiser at his ritzy, Century City hotel, a sizable antiwar protest had been organized out in front. As a young man who had turned on six months earlier and liked to think of himself as a young revolutionary, I decided it was time to do my part against the war.
Two of my friends, Tim and Larry agreed to drive up with me. I was wearing my moccasins and an army jacket with peace symbols ironed on as chevrons. Larry had on a headband and beads. Tim was wearing a Mad Hatter hat. We were ready for a street fight, or whatever kind of circus came along.
Driving up to LA involved smoking several joints and getting lost several times. We had been listening to an underground radio station and knew the President was refusing to come down from his hoity-toity hotel and address the protest. He had plenty of time to schmooze with fat cat donors, though, and had called in the pigs. The streets were lined with them, looking to knock some heads and just dying for someone to get out of line.
Coming up Santa Monica Blvd., I started to get butterflies. Century City was on the horizon. Gleaming skyscrapers, etched against the LA skyline. Utopia on a hill. It was clean and antiseptic and utterly incongruous with the idea of a protest march. Downtown LA you could see, Venice or even Sunset Strip, but Century City? You went there for two hundred dollar haircuts, or to do a quick merger/acquisition deal, not to riot. Having your wingtips bloodied was not on the agenda.
“Do you know where you’re going,” Tim asked me for the fortieth time.
“No,” I said.
He got a big laugh out of that and adjusted his Mat Hatter hat.
“Wow,” he said. “Avenue of the Stars. Oh shit, there’s some people protesting. Okay, everybody. Get ready to have your head bashed in.”
“We’ll need to find a parking space first,” I said.
Tim acted all flustered, in his comical sort of way.
Like, of course. How stupid of me.
He was willing to adopt the role of class clown, anytime, anywhere. Nothing seemed to bruise his ego.
“Why don’t we turn here?” Larry said.
I did, but everywhere we looked, there were guards and gates and signs that said you had to pay. Nothing was free in Century City.
We came to Olympic Blvd. and saw more people gathering along an avenue.
“Go that way,” Tim said.
I turned again and somehow ended up on to Calvin Ave. By the time we had parked, we were about a half a mile from the main protest.
“Should I take the dope?” Tim wanted to know as we got out of the car.
“No,” I told him. “You never break two laws at the same time.”
He acted all flustered again.
Walking along the street, we were increasingly swept up in a throng of people. There were freaks, like us, black folks, squares in horn rim glasses, women pushing kids in strollers, but no violence of any kind. People were moving along towards the protest with buoyant determination.
Two blocks up, we turned a corner came up upon the main demonstration. Some guy was shouting through a bullhorn but we were too far away to make out his words. We just heard the voice, then people cheering. Somewhere amidst all that, there were people singing folk songs.
I had been staring off at the horizon for a spell, lost in daydreams when all of a sudden we heard popping noises, followed by screams. A shock wave rippled through the crowd. We sensed the tsunami coming but were still caught off guard as the mass of people turned and ran as if to escape a flood. We joined this rush with cops in riot gear on our tails, knocking heads as they ran along. It was a rout.
Back at Tim’s car, the three of us stopped to catch our breath. Tim stood up finally and started to mock what we had done.
“Oh yeah, we fixed those guys all right.”
He held up his right hand in a peace sign, the grinning court jester in a Mad Hatter hat. When Tim saw I was amused, he pretended to be Muhammad Ali, doing the Ali shuffle, his fists at the ready. I doubled over.
“So, what comes after getting clubbed?” he wanted to know.
“I heard there was a happening over at MacArthur Park today,” Larry said.
“Yeah, let’s go smoke some dope and get high,” Tim said. “We’re pretty good at that.”
“What a bummer, those cops,” I said. “Why do they always have to get out of control?”
“Because they’re cops,” Tim said.
“We should have taken the dope and offered them a joint,” Larry said.
“Oh yeah,” Tim said. “Peace fuckers.”
“All right,” I said. “Let’s go to MacArthur Park. I guess we’ve done everything we can to save the world today.”
We climbed back into the car and headed across town. I kept seeing Tim’s funny faces in the rearview mirror.
“We’ll give them hell next week,” I said.
“Hey, that’s it,” Tim said, real proud like. “We’re weekend revolutionaries. Then it’s Monday and back to home economics class.”
At the park, we found a huge gathering of folks playing music and being in love. The three of us found a secluded place by the lake and smoked a joint. Tim threw the roach to the ducks.
While we were lying there, joking about our adventure, a man came along, passing out flyers and preaching to the world.
“We can no longer live half free, half slave! Unite the human race! All in one God! All in one Faith! Principles can penetrate where armies can’t!”
He handed us a flyer and went off around the lake.
“He sounds like a walking bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap,” Tim said.
I laughed good.
Larry had gone off a few minutes earlier and reappeared with a box of popcorn. The three of us took turns tossing it to the ducks. Every once in a while you’d see a fish snap up and grab one from below.
I kept thinking about the protest, or riot. Whatever you wanted to call it. In the morning, I had felt invincible. Now I felt less significant than one of these ducks. The fish in the lake had more power than me.
I looked over to find Tim smiling at me.
“You think it’s pretty funny, don’t you?”
“Yeah. We were like knights, off on this crusade. Then, pow, one lance to the armor and we hightailed it back to the castle.”
“Yeah. A regular Monty Python routine.”
Tim pretended to be a debonair knight on horseback.
“Oh well. I guess I don’t have much stomach for being a warrior.”
“It’s the marijuana,” Tim said.
“Yeah, it kind of makes everything seem absurd.”
“That was the point, wasn’t it?” he said.
I looked at him. Larry had wandered off again.
“Where’d he go?” I asked.
“He’s talking with some girl over there by those musicians.”
I thought of all the young women I had loved. That was all I really wanted to do. Make love. Live in peace. I guess somebody else would have to do the fighting.
“Want to drive back to town?” I asked.
“Sure,” Tim said. “This chick Cathy is having a party. Her parents are out of town. There’s a pool over there and everything.”
“I know,” I said, remembering when I had gone there to swim on a Saturday afternoon, a few years earlier. We had danced to the Dave Clark Five, when the world was a far, far simpler place.