On January 14th, 1967, a group of 20,000 people converged in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for a simple purpose: just “to be”. It was indicative of the new lifestyle being embraced by an ever-increasing number of young people in the city. Combining the mind-expanding influences of LSD and Eastern philosophy with the unfettered possibilities of rock and roll music being made by local bands, the Human Be-In introduced a new concept to the world: hippies.
San Francisco was the epicentre of the emerging hippie movement, with a cavalcade of bands, artists, thinkers, and characters spreading free-love and free-thinking philosophies outside of the traditional mainstream. The counterculture had shifted from the beatnik movement of the early ’60s to something more politically proactive. Left-wing ideals and internal discovery were now the most essential qualities to embrace, and various figures around the Bay Area believed that the movement could be solidified by an event that represented the sheer scale of what was percolating.
One of those figures was Allen Ginsberg, the middle-aged beatnik hero who was eager to represent the transition between the Beat generation and the new wave of hippies. Ginsberg brought his iconoclastic attitude to the fore, encouraging young people to stand up against repression, war, and close-mindedness. Embracing the Hare Krishna movement and advocating open drug use, Ginsberg was the responsible adult who could legitimise new ideas that most figures of the older generations couldn’t quite understand.
Another important leader was Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor who was fired for the lines that were blurred when he began using human test subjects to gauge the effects of psychedelic drugs. Now an in-demand lecturer, Leary’s advocacy of LSD and psychedelics made him an influential figure within the hippie movement, but his insistence on working outside the conventional barriers of science and academia gave him a reputation as a dangerous quack. More than anyone else, Leary represented the strong divide between those in favour of psychedelics and those opposed to them.
Most important, however, was Michael Bowen, who had organised the similar Love Pageant Rally in the year prior. Bowen provided the basic concept and location for the Human Be-In, at the Golden Gate Park that spilt directly onto the burgeoning Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood. The Love Pageant Rally was explicitly a protest, but Bowen envisioned something more nebulous and less combative — a celebration rather than a confrontation.
Sit-ins and protests, particularly ones involving civil rights, were early inspirations for the Human Be-In. But what the older figures observed was that these kinds of occurrences were happening naturally at rock concerts put on by new bands like the Grateful Dead, Love, and Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Fillmore in downtown San Francisco. It only seemed logical to bring some of those figures into the fold as well, seeing as how the band members themselves were card-carrying followers of the hippie movement. the Be-In started to take form: a rock concert, intersected with speeches, mantras, and other psychedelic happenings.
By late 1966, San Francisco had banned the production of LSD. That didn’t stop Owsley Stanley, a genius engineer who helped provide sound for the Dead, from producing enough “White Lightning” acid for all 20,000 participants. Owsley’s reputation as a psychedelic chemist was pristine, and his LSD was renowned for its potency and purity.
Various performances and speeches were given that day, but one famous phrase became emblematic of the hippie movement as a whole. When Leary took the stage, he advised the participants to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” a phrase originally conceived by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. The three-pronged catchphrase quickly took hold in the cultural imagination and was used both within the community to bolster their ideas and by their opposition to chastise their radical philosophy.
By the end of the day, the Be-In officially announced the hippie to the rest of the world. Those who connected with the movement began descending on San Francisco in massive numbers, eventually setting the stage for the Summer of Love. But the curiosity also caused a backlash: crackdowns on psychedelic drugs, and rubbernecking from scandalized ordinary folks who went on “hippie tours” of Haight-Ashbury to gawk at the long-haired freaks. The Human Be-In was the flashpoint for the hippie movement to explode, and its repercussions are still being felt today.