This month marks the 50th Anniversary of what has come to be known as the Beatnik Riot, or Washington Square Folk Riot (see the flashback in the Villager). Since the 1940’s Washington Square Park had been an epicenter for folk music – a public gathering spot where the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and David Bennett Cohen could feel at home and play their music freely (see GVSHP’s Village History). In 1961 the Washington Square Association, along with then Parks Commissioner Newbold Morris, acted on their belief that the park should be tranquil and quiet. Police were ordered to remove “the roving troubadours and their followers” from the park.
On Sunday, April 9th, close to 3,000 “Beatniks,” including a 19-year-old Bob Dylan, came to the park to play their music in opposition of this ban. The protest was arranged by Izzy Young, head of the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street. A group of protestors who sat in the fountain singing “We Shall Not be Moved” was attacked by police with billy clubs. Another group sang the Star Spangled Banner, thinking police would not attack such a display of patriotism- they were wrong. Even the mounted police unit was present. All in all, many were arrested and many more were pushed, shoved, and ordered out. Eventually the ban was lifted after more protests ensued and a 1,500 person petition was signed.
Very little documentation remains from that significant day, other than a 17-minute film taken of the riot by Dan Drasin titled “Sunday” (which can be viewed online) and photos taken by Izzy Young. The legacy of free-spirit and artistic creation in Washington Square Park, however, remains ever-present.