Cops and Crime Have Always Been Essential to the Culture of Haight-Ashbury

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Haight-Ashbury, the hub of the Summer of Love in 1967, is actually a better setting for a police drama than you might imagine.

Yes, The Haight was a place full of flower children obsessed with music and art who were seeking a society that could thrive without capitalism. Its favorite motif was the peace sign, after all. Its vices were sex and LSD – according to the mythology of the neighborhood, the first was part of the ethos of free love and the second flourished as hippies sought higher levels of consciousness. Haight-Ashbury was a realm of benevolence, the thinking went, and the cops were the enemy.

But if you look deeper than songs about wearing flowers in your hair, evil lurked in Haight-Ashbury. Narcotics, including hard drugs, were woven into its fabric. Bikers mingled with flower children. Charles Manson was part of the scene before moving south and founding his “family”. When the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter wrote, “A friend of the devil is a friend of mine,” we get the sense that the people of Haight-Ashbury were never far removed from the darker side of human nature. Law enforcement was always part of the Haight-Ashbury story, especially after 1967 when the crime rate soared.

Things went downhill in 1968

In writing The Haight, I chose to set the crime novel in 1968 rather than 1967’s Summer of Love. The reason was simple: Haight-Ashbury and America were going to hell in 1968, and the atmosphere lent itself to a police novel. And, the more I researched the subject, the more I realized that police played a key role in the lore of Haight-Ashbury.

There were the cops who arrested Ken Kesey in 1966, and those in New Orleans who arrested The Grateful Dead and lived on in the lyrics of “Truckin’”. In the lore of the area, the officers from Park Station were the bad guys, slightly incompetent, always a menace. The most famous cop was probably Arthur Gerrans, a patrolman, who Joan Dideon labeled the neighborhood’s “Officer Krupke” in her essay, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.”

All police procedurals reflect the view point of the cops themselves, and the cops on Haight Street tended to dislike the hippies as much as the hippies loathed them.

“It was free love and free sex,” Gerrans told San Francisco magazine a few years ago. “We’d go into these places and there’d be little kids, babies. These guys were ex-cons having sex with young girls. They were all stoned. There were dogs in there, dog crap on the floor. To me, there was no redeeming factor with these people.”

Gerrans touches on a problem that chroniclers of the Haight-Ashbury story – myself included – are having to come to terms with. Sexual assault was rampant, and countless girls and women suffered. “Free love” during the sexual revolution has been subjected to a badly needed historical rewrite, and there is now a greater understanding that many women were abused.

Diggers said rape was common.

Even in 1967, material published by The Diggers, a group that provided free food around the neighborhood, warned: “Rape is as common as bullshit on Haight Street."

Sexual assault was not the only violent crime to plague the area. In early August 1967, at the height of the Summer of Love, two men linked to the drug trade turned up dead.

The first was John Kent Carter, a flutist and acid dealer whose body was found in his Parnassus Heights apartment, which was festooned with psychedelic art. He’d been stabbed several times, robbed of $3,000 and a gun, and his arm was removed above the elbow. Two days later, police arrested an acid head called Eric Dahlstrom, who had Carter’s gun, cash, and even his arm.

Days after that, a drug dealer called William E. Thomas, an African-American who went by the name "Superspade", was shot in the head and stabbed in the heart. His body was found stuffed in a sleeping bag and hanging off a cliff in Point Reyes.

“The hippies of Haight-Ashbury are singing a sad song today of guns, murder and mobsters – evils they say are bred by ‘The Establishment’,” wrote United Press International in an article on the killings. “They are shaking their shaggy heads over the murders of two known drug peddlers, armed threats to other LSD dispensers and the disappearance of still other sources of the dream drug, perhaps due to mobster muscle.”

Aside from the crime and punishment angle, there is another reason to choose Haight-Ashbury as a setting for a crime novel. A murder mystery is all the richer when it takes place in a world that captivates the reader. The setting should be enticing and frightening, even enchanting. To me, with its blend of architectural and natural beauty, counter-culture creativity and rebellion, and sex and drug-fuelled menace, no place is more enchanting than Haight-Ashbury.