20 Pot Busts Made At Lennon Vigil

Fans had gathered at Strawberry Fields section of New York's Central Park on Friday — 20th anniversary of ex-Beatle's death.

NEW YORK — Twenty people were arrested on marijuana charges Friday at a vigil marking the 20th anniversary of John Lennon's assassination.

The New York Police Department said they arrested one attendee for allegedly selling marijuana and 19 for allegedly smoking it.

Two other people were issued summonses, police said: one for carrying an open alcohol container, and one for possessing marijuana.

The arrests were discreet, the New York Daily News reported. Plainclothes officers approached the suspects, tapped them on the shoulder and led them away.

But Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the arrests were unnecessary. He said the event had a "large police presence ... consistent with [Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's] hard-headedness regarding this event.

"As one of the people at the event said to me, 'If we were all wearing Yankee uniforms and hats, I guess we would have been able to have a chance to stay past 1 a.m.,' " said Siegel, who was at the vigil. "Unfortunately, that's a reflection of a growing sentiment in New York that if you are in a group that is favored by Mayor Giuliani, and your viewpoint is consistent with his, then you get special privileges. This is a group that is not in that category, despite that the crowd was mellow and tolerant."

"It sounds like Mr. Siegel supports breaking the law," Giuliani spokesperson Sunny Mindel said Monday (December 11). "One can only judge from his comments that he endorses ... smoking pot and urinating on the Dakota. That's quite a show of respect for John Lennon."

Because of the milestone anniversary, this year's informal ceremony was more scrutinized than those in the recent past, hence the increased police presence. The city refused to allow attendees to stay past Central Park's 1 a.m. closing time.

That afternoon, fans from all over the world and of all ages gathered in Strawberry Fields, the section of Central Park bequeathed to the ex-Beatle's memory in 1985, to sing songs by the Beatles and songs from Lennon's solo career. In the center of Strawberry Fields were a number of guitarists banging out such tunes as "The Ballad of John and Yoko" and "Help" (RealAudio excerpt). They were surrounded by a crowd of nearly 300 people, singing along.

Strawberry Fields is a short distance from the Dakota, the deluxe apartment building on Central Park West where Lennon lived and where he was murdered in 1980. Gatherings such as this one have been held near the Dakota each year since shortly after his death. On Friday, a makeshift shrine was assembled in front of the building; alongside bits of Beatles nostalgia was the shrine's centerpiece, a placard emblazoned with photos of Lennon and the inscription "It Was Twenty Years Ago Today" — the first line from the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, had asked in a letter to the New York State Division of Parole that those wishing to celebrate her husband's life do so on his birthday, October 9, and not on December 8. (The main purpose of Ono's letter was to encourage the parole board to deny parole for Lennon's murderer, Mark David Chapman. Her appeal was successful).

Helene Iulo, 48, said she had attended each December vigil since 1980, as well as ones held on October 9. "It's a different atmosphere on [Lennon's] birthday. Everybody comes to celebrate," she said, explaining why she thinks the gatherings on the anniversary of his death should go forward. "We're here now not to celebrate, but to remember good times and certain things that are beneficial in our lives that came from him."

Iulo took issue with Giuliani's refusal to allow the vigil to continue past 1 a.m. "Coming here every year, we've never had a problem. I welcome the police. They're very nice. But particularly tonight, I think it's important that people are allowed to stay past 1 a.m."

"I don't think he should get involved," Lauren Schneider, 15, said about Giuliani. "Nobody's going to get murdered." She was part of a quartet of adolescents at the vigil.

"My dad's a fan of all old music," said Holly Matlin, 15, "and ever since I was little he's been teaching me about it."

"My mom is one of those crazy, 'Oh my God, Paul McCartney looked at me' people," said Liz Platt, 14.

Tom Murray, a 50-year old British photographer, said he photographed the Beatles in 1968, and that he felt that "America has a thing about guns," and that he had come to the Dakota in 1980 as soon as he heard that Lennon had been shot. "I think that John felt safe in New York, unfortunately."

With respect to Giuliani's edict, Murray said, "What is wrong with people being here for one night only, the 20th anniversary of Lennon's death?"

David Peel, who attends Lennon-related events in New York, is given to warbling pro-marijuana songs, such as "Have a Marijuana" and "The Pope Smokes Dope." Peel was namechecked by Lennon in his 1971 song "New York City" (RealAudio excerpt).

(Lennon was arrested for possession of marijuana in October 1968 in an apartment in London, where he and Ono were staying. He pleaded guilty the next month and was fined 150 pounds).

On Friday, Peel strummed his guitar 10 feet away from the throng of people singing "Love Me Do" and "Give Peace a Chance." He extemporized a tune, repeating the line "John Lennon's music is forever" over and over.