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Friday, July 19, 2002


Building a Movement

By Jim Dorenkott



I moved into an apartment near Rhode Island School of Design. One of my more interesting housemates was an architecture student who turned me onto Cocteau movies and introduced me to some of the RISD crowd. It was artsy and fun, but I decided to use my GI Bill to enroll at a small downtown junior college, Roger Williams. The students were a mix of mostly right-out-of-high-school teenagers and older veterans. My costume in those days was cowboy boots, beard, long hair, and a motorcycle. That tended to freak out most of the younger students and so I ended up hanging out with the older ones, but most of us were under the magic age of 30. Back then, you didn't trust people over 30.

Most of the Roger William students were "pretty lame" they hadn't started questioning anything, and were just planning lives of security and predictability. Some of us, though, steeped in existentialists like Sartre and Camus, were picking up on the tempo of the free speech movement which had burst out in Berkeley, and we were joining in the cry for "relevant education." We spent a lot of time hanging out in the coffee shop between classes, searching for the meaning of life and imagining making a better world. Trying to get the nineteen year olds to begin thinking beyond their programming, I started a film society which on Friday nights showed mostly foreign films, De Sica, Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman etc. It was well attended and we had great discussions, but unfortunately, 90 percent of the attendees were Brown and RISD students. Once that was known, I couldn't convince the student council to continue funding the series.

As co-editor of our school newspaper, "The Quill," I was always looking for news stories, and I heard that Timothy Leary was going to be speaking at Brown University. I knew this was a historic one-chance event the cops were after him, and who knew what might happen to him. Not many Roger Williams students were going so I walked there with my RISD friends. Beforehand, they smoked some pot in an ornate water bowl, and some even dropped acid, but I decided to stay straight so I could write the story. When I first got out of the Navy, I had experimented with LSD, mescaline, and pysilocybin a few times, mostly to see what everyone was talking about. I hadn't had all the good trips that the others seemed to be having, and some of them were downright scary. A couple of bad trips had made me "cautious," although now I realize what a relative term that is. Still I wasn't ready to just dismiss it. I trusted that LSD was an important component of the movement we were building, even though I really didn't know how.

Tonight, I am hoping to find out.

It is a packed house, full of Brown, Pembroke, and RISD students as well as the many nonstudents who are part of the scene in these days. Some have even come down from Boston. At the talk, Leary, on bail from being busted in Texas for the possession of a roach, discreetly extols the virtues of LSD exploration. He speaks in the context of Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out. "Turn On" (activate your neural and genetic equipment), "Tune In" (interact harmoniously with the world around you), and "Drop Out" (suggesting an active, selective, and graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments). The establishment media has unfortunately cartoonized this to mean get stoned and drop any productive activity.

Leary's main point stays with me even now: more important than the act of taking LSD is the how the set and setting. The set and setting refers to the mental attitude of the tripper and the environment where the trip takes place. Early on there were places one could go to for a safe and beneficial trip where the experienced would lovingly guide the trippers through the various stages of ego dissolution. Later, they became safehouses where people on bad trips could go, and then under the growing prohibition they disappeared altogether because of frequent raids by "red squads." Initially, when people took LSD it was in a very supportive environment: flowers, music, food, friends. Under the pressure of the repression, we all watched the initial supportive and caring attitude destroyed by the increasing criminalization of this drug-induced consciousness expansion. Our careful attention to set and setting became lost as the police crackdown led to more and more indiscriminate usage.

That night at Brown, Leary gets me thinking about the confluence of drug-stimulated consciousness and politics. He recounts the history of LSD's development, how the CIA were the first to experiment with it and how they secretly gave it to people who didn't know they were taking it. He reasons that, given their track record, they will use it to disrupt our anti-war movement and cultural revolution. Our only defense is to know the effects, he warns, so they can't use it against us. I can't help but think what it would be like if someone was surreptitiously given LSD and started tripping, all his senses distorted, and all of this with no frame of reference to understand the mind-reeling tumble-twister he is riding. He might think he has gone insane and stayed there. Some did.

However, if there is a context of people tripping, and you have tripped at least once, and somebody slips a hallucinogen in your water, you will realize what is happening. It might be scary, inconvenient, even dangerous at that moment, but you will recognize what is happening. You can get help and understand that in a certain amount of time it will wear off. For us then tripping was not thrill seeking but an important method of defense, a way of preventing the authorities from using mind-altering drugs to disrupt our activities. There is plenty of evidence that this was one of their plans and that they had worked on developing this tactic by experimenting on people who didn't know they were the guinea pigs.

Back at Roger Williams, I wrote up Leary's talk for the Quill. Interspersed with the story were photos of various campus locations where I had laid bright yellow bananas end to end. It was a spoof of the urban myth that the narcs had interrupted our supply of marijuana so much that we were reduced to smoking banana skins to get high. My favorite picture was the trail of bananas leading through the door of the college president into his office. Not to worry. He was a very bright, self-assured believer in experimental education and, even after I explained to him what the parody meant, he took it all in stride. Though he must have thought I was high at the time.