Fifty years ago tomorrow, thousands of antiwar protesters marched on the Pentagon. Armed troops formed a barrier outside the building; hippies stuck flowers in their weapons. Demonstrators dressed as cheerleaders chanted "Beat Army! Beat Army!" Other protesters tried to storm the structure, with a handful managing to get inside. And some of the political pranksters who would later form the Yippies led a ritual to exorcise the demons from the Pentagon and then levitate it into the air.
Abbie Hoffman claimed in Revolution for the Hell of It that his crew had come out to measure the building some time before:
"What do you think you guys are doing?
"Measuring the Pentagon. We have to see how many people we need to form a ring around it."
"It's very simple. You see, the Pentagon is a symbol of evil in most religions. You're religious aren't you?"
"Well, the only way to exorcise the evil spirits here is to form a circle around the Pentagon. 87-88-89…"
The two scouts are soon surrounded by a corps of guards, FBI agents, soldiers and some mighty impressive brass.
"Are you guys serious? It's against the law to measure the Pentagon."
"Are you guys serious? Show us the law. 237-238-239-240. That does it. Colonel, how much is 240 times 5?"
I suspect the dialogue didn't go exactly like that, but it's a funny story anyway. When the day of the demonstration arrived, the levitators chanted "Out, demons, out!" but did not in fact form a ring around the building, prompting Norman Mailer to declare that "exorcism without encirclement was like culinary art without a fire."
The protest was captured in The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, a short documentary by the French directors Chris Marker and François Reichenbach. (Marker is probably best known for La Jetee, the science-fiction film that inspired Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys.) Antiwar veterans marching in formation, Castroites carrying "Avenge Che!" signs, Nazi counterdemonstrators, a preacher in a hydraulic crane denouncing communism: They're all here. And of course there's footage of the hippies trying to levitate the building—though not, alas, of the building actually leaving the ground. I guess the camera must have been pointed in a different direction when that happened.
Marker later reused some of that footage in A Grin Without a Cat, his mammoth 1977 documentary about the global New Left and its times. Besides the bigger canvas, there was a substantial change in tone between the two pictures. The Sixth Side of the Pentagon was made by a couple of radical partisans who believed the march had marked a shift from "protest" to "resistance." A Grin Without a Cat was made by a guy who still dreamed of a utopian society but had seen a lot of defeats and betrayals in the last 10 years.
Bonus links: For a Washington Post story on the anniversary, go here. For an oral history of the exorcism of the Pentagon, with appearances by everyone from Kenneth Anger to the Fugs, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For another Friday A/V Club with Yippies in it, go here.