“Out Demons, Out!”: The October 1967 March on the Pentagon

By on October 21, 2015

Our new contributor Pat Thomas — author of Listen, Whitey! the Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 and the forthcoming Did It! From Yippie To Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary, both published by Fantagraphics Books — takes a look back at the events of Oct. 21-22nd, 1967, the so-called March on the Pentagon, when leading counterculture figures attempted to exorcise the evil spirits from the Pentagon by levitating it off its foundation.

Meanwhile, enjoy this snippet from the great BBC/Granada documentary It Was 20 Years Ago Today, which focused on the release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as well as the culture surrounding it.  This segment features Abbie Hoffman, Alan Ginsberg and others discussing the exorcism of the Pentagon, Oct 21, 1967.

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“We announced that were going to close down the Pentagon, and Lyndon Johnson said ‘I will not allow a small group of disrupters to close down the Pentagon.’ “Thank you, LBJ. You just told three million people that we are protesting on October 21st.” - Jerry Rubin circa September 1967

Pat Thomas:

In October 1967, before they had the name Yippies, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and a cast of thousands (including Norman Mailer) marched on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. Originally known as the “March on the Pentagon” – it has entered into counterculture folklore as the “Levitation of the Pentagon.”

In a 1980s interview with Joan and Robert Morrison, Rubin explained, that he’d invited Abbie to join the discussions and at the first meeting that Hoffman attended, he put forth the concept of exorcizing the Pentagon. By surrounding the five-sided building with a circle of hippies, “they would make the Pentagon rise from the ground a few inches. And all the evil was going to leave.”

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In conversations with the media (at the time of the event), Rubin stressed that “we were going to close down the Pentagon” – which got taken more seriously than the levitation. LBJ retorted with, “I will not allow the peace movement to close down the Pentagon.” As Rubin pointed out later, “By saying that he wasn’t going to allow us to close it down, he gave us the power to have that possibility. So in a way, just by announcing it, we created a victory.”

In a, “it could only have happened in the 60s” moment – the General Services Administration (which oversees the Pentagon) began negotiations with Rubin and his crew. The government set limits on how close they could get to the building, how they would enter the grounds, and so on.

Decades later, Jerry felt it was “probably the best demonstration in the sixties” – noting Benjamin Spock and Norman Mailer leading the march, the festive environment, and taunting the National Guardsmen with “we have music, we have drugs, we have women” (Rubin was quick to add, “we were sexists then”) – and suggesting that the young soldiers put down their guns and come join the other side’s “wonderful” lifestyle.

He summarized it perfectly, “We hadn’t physically levitated the Pentagon, but we had spiritually levitated it.”

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Flower Power, 1967: Photographed by Bernie Boston on October 21, 1967, while he was sitting on the wall of The Mall entrance by the Pentagon.

In the book Acid Dreams, authors Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain suggest Michael Bowen (the organizer of the San Francisco Be-In and the first to give Rubin LSD) as the source of the levitation idea. During one of their hangs, Bowen shared “a bit of occult folklore” with Rubin – noting that a five-sided figure is “a symbol of power, and when that figure is pointed north like the Pentagon…it represents the forces of evil.”

Bowen didn’t propose trying to shut the building down, but to encircle it, which would “wound it symbolically.” The concept of a “mass antiwar ritual” enthralled Jerry and Abbie.

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“La Jeune Fille a la Fleur,” a photograph by Marc Riboud, shows a young pacifist Jane Rose Kasmir planting a flower on the bayonets of guards at the Pentagon during a protest against the Vietnam War on October 21, 1967. The picture eventually became the symbol of the Flower Power movement, a slogan used during the 1960s and also early 1970s as a symbol of passive resistance and non-violence.

In November 2004, Arthur magazine ran an extensive oral history of “Storming the Pentagon” culled from various sources – in which Paul Krassner states, “The idea for the exorcism originated with Allen Cohen, editor of the Oracle, and painter Michael Bowen, after they read in The City in History by Lewis Mumford, about the Pentagon being a baroque symbol of evil and oppression.”

Cohen adds, “Jerry Rubin had taken the magical idea to exorcise the Pentagon that Michael Bowen and I had suggested during our meeting before the Human Be-In and incorporated it into the official program for the March on the Pentagon.”

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And lastly, in Ratso Sloman’s oral history of the entire arc of Abbie Hoffman’s life, Steal This Dream – he quotes Allen Ginsberg as commenting, “It was Gary Snyder who had conceived the notion of the levitation of the Pentagon.” [Gary Snyder’s controversial poem “A Curse on the Men in Washington, Pentagon” was published in 1967] with Jerry Rubin adding in, “It could very well have been Gary Snyder’s idea. I don’t know. All I know is Abbie was the PR man for it. As far as I’m concerned, who created McDonald’s? A guy named McDonald? Roy Kroc created McDonald’s. So Abbie’s the one who made the exorcism real. I directed Abbie. Abbie was just doing these wild things in the streets of New York, which was a lot of fun, but I took the Abbie windup doll, I wound him up and pointed him toward the Pentagon.”

Members of The Fugs, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, and thousands of other freaks chanted “Out, demons, out.” Che Guevara had been murdered a few weeks prior and his recognizable image was flying in the breeze along with flags of the Viet Cong.

The cool October air carried the patchouli scent of the Summer of Love (which had peaked just months earlier in Haight-Ashbury), when combined with symbolic images of global revolution – resulted in “ritual theater” – whose participants were described in Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night as “Revolutionary Alchemists.”

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Norman Mailer had attended the mass protest – and penned the Pulitzer Prize winning The Armies of the Night about it. Soon after the Pentagon March, Norman Mailer sent his assistant to Jerry’s apartment to record an hour’s worth of Rubin talking about the events. After Norman listened, he decided to work with Jerry directly. Rubin went to Mailer’s Brooklyn home for a period of several weeks, where he interviewed Jerry, taking notes in longhand.

“If there was one lesson learned at the Pentagon is that young people didn’t give a hang about political theories, ideologies, plans, organizations, meetings, or negotiations with the cops. The only vanguard is the vanguard in action. All those hundreds of hours of bullshit [planning] meetings were just that – bullshit. I support everything that puts people into action, which creates disruption and controversy, which creates chaos and rebirth. Adlai Stevenson made me a radical in 1952 by picking up my hopes for change. The system crushed those hopes. What’s needed is a new generation of nuisances, who are freaky, crazy, irrational, sexy, angry, irreligious, childish and mad: people who burn draft cards, people who burn dollar bills, people who redefine reality, who redefine the norm, people who wear funny costumes, people who see property as that, people who say ‘fuck’ on television” – Jerry Rubin “I AM the Walrus” essay in Win circa 1968

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A female demonstrator offers a flower to military police on guard at the Pentagon during an anti-Vietnam demonstration. Arlington, Virginia, October 21, 1967.

The event was a resounding success, the not yet named as such ‘Yippies’ had done their job of media attention, but more importantly, they’d slapped the status quo around a bit. Years later, Rubin reflected “probably because of that event, [President] Johnson saw his power slipping and decided not to run again.”

About Pat Thomas

Esteemed author and reissue producer Pat Thomas spent five years in Oakland, CA, researching Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 (Fantagraphics, 2012), and his new book, Did It! From Yippie To Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary will be published by Fantagraphics in March 2016. As a producer, Pat Thomas has reissued recordings by Allen Ginsberg, Eugene McDaniels, Watts Prophets, and Black Panther Elaine Brown. His music writing has appeared in MOJO, Crawdaddy, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He has lectured at San Francisco State University and Evergreen State College. He lives in Los Angeles.