Documentaries

How the Summer of Love Gave Way to the Long, Cruel Winter of America's Discontent

A PBS documentary explores the moment the dream of the '60s was deferred indefinitely.

Photo Credit: Don Cochrane / Flickr

In 1967, San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district was teeming with thousands of young people all collectively searching for spiritual enlightenment. But within a matter of months, the hope and promise of that moment would disintegrate, and the flower children's dream of a more just society became little more than a distant promise, a dream deferred.

The 2007 documentary Summer of Love, which is being rebroadcast to commemorate the era's 50th anniversary, explores the moment the "wave rolled back," although it could more accurately be said to be the moment the wave peaked. After that, the documentary claims, the countercultural movement devolved into a "maelstrom of drug abuse, broken dreams and occasional violence."

That made-for-TV sound bite was more sensational and judgemental than accurate, though--at least if you actually watch the film and listen to the wide range of interviews with people who actually lived through it. 

Mary Ellen Kasper grew up in San Francisco. In 1964, after leaving college, she moved to the Haight.

"We really thought that drugs were going to change the world," Kasper says in the film. "We thought if you turned on, if you took acid, you would really change, because we had changed from those experiences." 

Around the same time, Charles Perry discovered LSD through his roommate at the University of California.

"One of the peculiar things about LSD was that for a very long time, it was legal," Perry says in the film. 

The drug was finally outlawed in October 1966, prompting thousands to flock to Golden Gate Park in protest. Some of the participants in the "Love Pageant Rally" included the Diggers, an anarchist group distributing free food. 

"The street theater that we had been doing was now going to be acted out as an alternative society where food, shelter, entertainment was going to be free, without ideology," explains one Digger member, Peter Berg. 

The Diggers began holding feed-ins at the park, offering free meals prepared from discarded restaurant and supermarket foods.

"We thought culture is much more important than politics," admits another member, Peter Coyote. "Let's just start getting people living the way they want to live. You want to live in a world where you don't have to work?Let's make it. You want to live in a world where you can get food for free? Let's make it. You want to live in a house with, you know, lots of women and men and live the way you want? Let's do it

"We were not living without money because we had lots of it and [that] made it easy. We were living without money because we wanted our time and we wanted to be authentic and we didn't want to get jobs."

William Hedgepeth was a Look magazine writer who had been sent to cover the Haight in late May. Shortly after arriving, he was offered free food, clothing, shelter and LSD. 

"It would have been completely phony to go out there and then be a total spy [as suggested] and just report on these people," he concluded. "So, I figured that I was taking these drugs on behalf of the American people, in order to tell them the truth." 

Hedgepeth's article for Look was published in August 1967.

"Hippies are working toward an open, loving, tension-free, nature-oriented world," he wrote. At the same time, he observed "half-a-dozen hippies lying in various stages of drug stupor." For the movement, it was "just past the major blossoming."

Meanwhile, the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic was flooded with a steady stream of patients experiencing bad trips. 

"There were runaways taking drugs who really didn't have the ego structure to deal with it," Mary Ellen Kasper recalls. "When you deconstruct your world, as many of us did with the stronger psychedelics, you have to build it back up again. And for some people they simply couldn't build it back up again and got stuck in a very painful place and couldn't see their way out of it." 

"Summer of Love" airs Tuesday, July 25 on PBS.

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Alexandra Rosenmann is an AlterNet associate editor. Follow her @alexpreditor.