“For What It’s Worth” is often considered an anti-war song, in actuality, Stephen Stills was inspired to write the song because of the curfew riots in Los Angeles in November 1966, specifically on the Sunset Strip.
Beginning in mid-1966, the same year Buffalo Springfield had become the de-facto house band at the Whisky a Go Go, a series of early clashes took place between the L.A.P.D. and young people (mainly students at nearby UCLA) on the Sunset Strip.
Local residents and businesses had become annoyed by the crowds of young people going to clubs and music venues along the Strip and blamed them for late-night traffic problems. These locals lobbied Los Angeles County to pass local ordinances to curtail loitering, and asked for them to create a strict curfew on the Strip after 10 p.m. This did not sit well with the crowds as they insisted that the new laws infringed upon their civil rights.
On Saturday, November 12, 1966, fliers were distributed on the Sunset Strip inviting people to join demonstrations later that day. Several of Los Angeles’ rock radio stations also announced a rally outside the Pandora’s Box club on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights.
That evening, as many as 1,000 young demonstrators, including future celebrities such as Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda (who was handcuffed by police) gathered to protest against the curfew’s enforcement.
Although the rallies began peacefully, problems arose as the night went on. The unrest continued the next night, and occasionally throughout the rest of the year, forcing some clubs to shut down. It was against the background of these disturbances that Stills recorded “For What It’s Worth” on December 5, 1966 as a single on Atco Records. Not only did it peak at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the spring of 1967, but it quickly became a well-known protest song.