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Birth of Flower Power
by Rene Wadlow
2014-10-21 11:08:19
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On 21 October 1967, the Pentagon in Washington, DC found itself besieged by some fifty thousand people protesting the US military action in Vietnam. The Pentagon  is the office of the US Department of Defense and is in many ways symbolic of a closed in, largely windowless fortress closed to ideas and human sympathy.  The events of that day are worked into Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night.  His diary-essay-tract-sermon describes events on the steps of the Pentagon and won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction.

rose01_4001967 was the start of the broader popular opposition among Americans to the Vietnam War.  In the earlier 1960s, the war attracted little attention and was opposed largely by people who were opposed to all wars, not specifically the conflict in Vietnam.  By 1967, television news reporting had made the conflict a “living room war” and non-politicized Americans started wondering “What are we doing there?” Structured opposition started to grow.  In the Spring of 1967, 15 April, there was a well-organized demonstration in Washington called “The Spring Mobilization” organized by the traditional peace and disarmament organizations, including people who had participated in the nonviolent actions of the civil rights movement to end discrimination on racial grounds.

The Spring Mobilization had been successful in bringing together a coalition of anti-war groups, but it had no impact on creating an opposition to the war in the US Congress nor an impact on the President and his inner circle who continued as before.  To have an impact something new was needed and new anti-war constituencies had to be drawn in and made visible.

In the early 1960s, there came to visibility, especially in California, youth who became called “Hippies” from the slang term “hip” meaning being aware.  Hip was in contrast to “the Beat Generation” of the 1950s “beat” having too much of the coloring of being beaten down.  In fact, the two groups had much in common, and some people such as the poet Allen Ginsberg had an influence on both movements.  The Hippy music was that of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the authors read were Herman Hesse and Alan Watts on Taoism and Zen.  The Hippies were extreme “personalistic”, focused on face-to-face, direct and open relationships with other people, hostile to structured roles and bureaucratic patterns of power and authority.  The dislike of formal patterns of authority kept them away from most of the peace-disarmament groups.  However, by 1967, it had dawned on many that the Pentagon was a greater fortress of bureaucratic power and authority than the American Friends Service Committee − one of the leading groups of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

Thus it was the Pentagon whose negative energies had to be exorcised. A call was circulated by word-of-mouth and newsletters for those to gather to “cast mighty words of white light against the demon-controlled structure.”  There was among the Hippies a penchant for the occult, magic and ritual created from a mythic pagan past.  There is also an older American tradition that stresses the power of thought to influence events and to provide healing.  This tradition is often called New Thought of which Christian Science is probably the best known organization.  While many of the New Thought individuals were middle class, New Thought as an ideology created a sensitivity to visionary experience and the descent of divine fire.  New Thought emphasis is on the immanence of the Spirit rather than a transcendent divinity.  Theirs is a mysticism neither escapist nor ascetic.  Along with New Thought there was a growing number of people interested in meditation, sometimes drawn from Asian techniques, sometimes from Christianity.

On 21 October came to Washington, in addition to a core of people from peace groups which had been active in the Spring Mobilization, a collection of what a New York “underground press” the East Village Other  called “a contingent of witches, holymen, seers, prophets, mystics, saints, sorcerers, shamans, troubadours, minstrels and bards”. The aim was to create a circle around the Pentagon building and then to exorcise the negative, militaristic energies accumulated there.  However, the Pentagon is surrounded by car parking lots. It is outside the center of Washington, and most of those employed or assigned to the Pentagon must come by car.  To create an unbroken circle of people around the Pentagon is difficult.  Army troops and Pentagon marshals were able to stop the creation of a circle − though the Army could not prevent groups from casting white light of healing energies.  The Army was heavily armed with rifles.

Flowers were a widely-used symbol of the Hippy movement − worn in the hair or used as symbols.  The 1955 “Sunflower Suttra” was one of the best known of the Ginsberg poems, and flowers were ever present in psychedelic paintings and posters.  Flowers went with the “Make Love Not War” banner of the protesters − a way to undercut the crude and compulsive he-manliness of American political life in general and the war policy in particular. It was a natural gesture to place a flower at the end of the Army rifles − a gesture of the soft against the hard, of life over death.

Thus the term Flower Power was born.  The exorcism was not fully successful.  The war in Vietnam went on until 1975, and the Pentagon presides today over more than 40 per cent of the world's expenditure on arms.  Nevertheless, the symbolic gesture has inspired others since.  The flower given to the “forces of law and order” is a symbol that it is not the individual policeman or soldier which is being confronted but the “system” and its actions which are opposed.



René Wadlow, president and a U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives.


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