Memorial Day is about remembrance, but 30 May 1967 is one Memorial Day the Ruling Class would have us forget.
A group of young men and women – some of them professional musicians with a performance permit issued by the City of New York – were first illegally rousted, then attacked by NYPD riot cops for the “crime” of making music in Tompkins Square Park, on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
The episode was so outrageous I convinced Walter Bowart – founding editor of The East Village Other, (the newspaper of the neighborhood's then-burgeoning community of artists and bohemians), to put out an extra, which is where – along with a half-dozen images by other photographers – the above photos first appeared.
Walter then acted as an ad hoc agent for all of us who had contributed pictures; the topmost was published in Newsweek and, according to him (he paid me but never managed to get me the tearsheet), in Paris-Match as well.
I was in the park that day by accident – filmmaker Ron Schade had asked me to photograph his wife Joanie at play with their son Jason – and I had only one camera with me, probably my IIIg Leica and it most likely loaded with Panatomic X. My wife-to-be Adrienne, an art student who always enjoyed watching me work and often made useful suggestions, was with us.
But when I saw the confrontation developing, I sent Adrienne running back to our East 5th Street apartment with instructions to “bring me every 35mm camera body, every lens and every roll of Tri-X you can find.” (I normally kept as many as 20 36-exposure rolls of film in the refrigerator.)
Adrienne did as requested. I thanked her, hugged and kissed her, tried to reassure her I'd be ok, hugged and kissed her again, then said “now get the hell out of here while you still can” and sent her home.
I watched to make sure she got safely out of the park. Forty-four years later I still remember her reluctance to leave and how she repeatedly glanced back over her shoulder as she walked away, her green eyes huge with concern – Adrienne a slender blonde who like a smaller Veruschka moved with the leggy grace of a danseuse – her long hair bright as pale fire in the surprise gloom of an afternoon suddenly beclouded, as if Nature were hiding her face from the atrocity that was about to obtain.
Then I clipped my Working Press badge to my jacket lapel and – now thanks to Adrienne properly equipped for the job at hand (two VT Canons with lenses of 35mm and 85mm plus a Pentax H1A mounting a Spiratone f/2.8 135mm; probably a dozen rolls of Tri-X in my pockets) – I loaded the cameras and began making pictures.
At least 40 people were arrested that day. A pregnant woman and three men were hospitalized as a result of beatings inflicted by the NYPD's Tactical Police Force (the acronym for which, TPF, was ever after said to mean “Tasmanian Pig Fuckers”). Many of those arrested remained in jail for several days – the infamous Tombs for men, the even more infamous House of Detention aka “House of D” for women – while the Jade Companions of the Flower Dance, the neighborhood association for Lower East Side hippies and other bohemians, worked to raise bail money.
Then as now, poverty was itself a crime – in the eyes of the Ruling Class an offense perhaps even more heinous than chanting the Hare Krishna and making other sorts of peaceful music on a day of war memorials.
Alas the incident has been disappeared down the Orwell hole: as I discovered when I returned to the City during the '80s, the EVO extra has been carefully snipped from the New York City Public Library's microfiche file – which means the censorship was official, imposed by a librarian acting on Ruling Class orders.
And of course in my case there was also the fire; this work survived only because I had the prints with me in my portfolio case.
But ah the Jade Companions of the Flower Dance: how could such an exquisite name be lost to time and oppression and puritanical malevolence?
Say it aloud: Jade Companions of the Flower Dance.
Even now the words resonate with forbidden sensuality and resurrected sensibility, the lost rhythms of which we are reminded by Minoan frescoes and echoes of forgotten music, harps and flutes and drums, the choreography of a woman free enough to arch her back and swirl her unbound hair, of a man bold enough to join her – the Counterculture's breathtaking ghost-image remembrance of what once was and its implicit glimpses of what might have been and yes its premonitions of what might yet be.
LB/29 May 2011