The Badass Hall Of Fame: Abbie Hoffman
Activist and prankster Abbie Hoffman had a very particular plan for what to do when the crowd reached the Pentagon. He wanted to exorcise the building of all evil, levitate it from the ground, turn it orange and immediately end the war in Vietnam. Abbie led the invocation, while Allen Ginsberg chanted Tibetan mantras to help the exorcism along.
Abbie later claimed that he got the Pentagon an inch or two off the ground, but his point wasn’t a literal exorcism but rather bringing political theater into the realm of protest. He was a new kind of activist, a showman who had a natural born understanding of the media. Abbie knew instictively how to package his messages in ways that were playful, fun, funny and - most important of all - get the attention of TV cameras.
He was born to middle class Jewish parents in Massachusetts during the Great Depression; Abbie wasn’t quite of the hippie generation and he was a little too young to really be a beatnik. He became politically aware in college and politically active not long after, getting involved with the fabled Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to support the Civil Rights movement in the south.
Things got weird with SNCC in 1965 as the group became more radical; it eventually kicked out all white members, including Abbie. He ended up spending time with the Diggers, a group of San Francisco anarchists who focused on community activism and political theater (Peter Coyote was one of the founders of the Diggers); Abbie brought their ideas back to New York - a move which actually pissed the Diggers off quite a bit.
Before levitating the Pentagon, Abbie led a group of protesters to the Stock Exchange on Wall Street and they threw dollar bills onto the trading floor from the viewing gallery. The result was predictable - the traders scrambled to the ground, fighting to pick up every dollar. This simple action showed how thoroughly Abbie understood political theater.
After the levitation of the Pentagon Abbie co-founded a movement called the Yippies, or the Youth International Party. The idea, hatched on New Year’s Eve 1967 was simple - the press had created the term ‘hippies,’ so some of the more prominent hippies would create their own term. Yippie was anarchist in spirit and form; there was no membership or leadership - you were a Yippie if you wanted to be a Yippie.
[caption id="attachment_16276" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Chicago PD arrest Yippie presidential nominee Pigasus."]
Yippie tactics were largely theatrical; in 1968 they ran a pig named Pigasus as their candidate at the Democratic National Convention (Pigasus was arrested by the Chicago PD). They were obsessed with pop culture and rock and roll and comedy; one member, nicknamed Pogo after the comic strip, coined a protest chant that went ‘No More Mindless Chants.’ In many ways the Yippies were the analog precedent to the modern digital Anonymous movement - political action with a sense of humor. Many labeled them ‘Groucho Marxists.’
Shit soon got real. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, another founder of the Yippie Movement (who would go on to be a prominent Yuppie in the 80s), were brought before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Rubin attended one hearing dressed as a Revolutionary War soldier, while Abbie was arrested before entering another because he wore an American flag shirt (this truly shows you how different the culture of today is from the culture of the 1960s - it was (and probably technically still is) illegal to wear flag clothing because it was seen as a desecration. But today many very patriotic people wear shirts that look exactly like the one Abbie was arrested in).
And shit got realer in 1968. The Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. The Vietnam War was at its peak, the counterculture was gaining traction, the conservatives and the government were fighting back in a big way. The Yippies planned a youth festival in Lincoln Park during the convention, and other groups began planning large protests of the convention itself. 10,000 people came to Chicago for peaceful protests and festivities; they were met by the paranoid fascism of Mayor Richard Daley and 23,000 police and National Guardsmen. A riot broke out.
The violence was incredible, and it was televised live; America’s youth were being beaten in the streets by cops in riot gear, the kinds of images associated with Soviet terror regimes. The Walker Report, which investigated exactly what happened in the streets that night, called it a ‘police riot,’ one caused by the police themselves.
As the dust settled something unbelievable happened - eight protest leaders, most of whom were not working together, were charged with crossing state lines to incite a riot. Abbie Hoffman was one of the accused conspirators, as was Jerry Rubin. The Chicago 8, as they were known, were soon whittled down to the Chicago 7 after Black Panther Bobby Seale, who hurled invective at the presiding judge, was actually shackled and gagged in an American court room. Seale’s trial was severed from the main case.
[caption id="attachment_16277" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="The Chicago 7. Abbie is on the right, Jerry Rubin in the middle with the bandana."]
The trial was a circus, largely thanks to Abbie. The judge was Julius Hoffman, who wasn’t related to Abbie but whose name allowed endless jokes. Abbie and Jerry Rubin showed up one day in judicial robes; when ordered to remove them they revealed Chicago PD uniforms underneath. The system, personified by Judge Hoffman, simply did not understand how to deal with these radicals, but the radicals perfectly understood how to turn the entire event into theater - which the media ate up.
All defendants were eventually found not guilty of conspiracy, but Abbie and some others were convicted of crossing state lines to incite a riot; eventually that fell away on appeal, leaving everyone acquitted. Over the course of the trial Abbie racked up months worth of jail time for contempt of court (1 day for blowing a kiss to the jury, 14 days for laughing at the judge, 7 days for renouncing his last name, etc), but that was all thrown out on appeal as well.
In many ways the trial was Abbie’s peak. He had become a huge cultural figure, and his voice echoed loudly throughout the youth movement. He personified a new modality for protest, one that could be enraged at injustice while still celebrating life and having fun. He was courted by Hollywood and he met with Madison Avenue advertising execs who wanted to market an Abbie doll - pull a string on his back and one of Abbie’s famous zingers or sound bites would come out of his mouth*. It was the beginning of the system’s co-opting of the youth movement, the way that the status quo would eventually defuse the righteous anger of the youth.
There's a famous Abbie Hoffman story that no one can seem to agree on; it's not captured on video, so all we have to go by is eyewitness testimony. During the Woodstock concert in 1969, Abbie took the stage while the Who was playing or preparing to play and began talking to the crowd about the trial of White Panther John Sinclair. At some point Pete Townsend hit Abbie with his guitar, and reports vary on whether it was on purpose or by accident.
Abbie wrote books - Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture was his memoir; Woodstock Nation was his manifesto. His most famous book was Steal This Book, a how-to guide on scamming, living free and subverting the system. Bookstores wouldn’t carry it because so many people took the title at face value. I have stolen a couple of copies myself over time; in a bit of irony I think Abbie would have appreciated, a first edition hardcover goes for $550 on eBay.
All of this ended up making Abbie a huge target. One of the lessons that grew out of the protest movements of the 60s was that anyone who put themselves in a leadership position would end up dead or destroyed through government programs like COINTELPRO. In 1973 Abbie was arrested for intent to sell and distribute cocaine; until the day he died he insisted that the suitcases of coke in his office had been planted by the police.
[caption id="attachment_16275" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Abbie arrested for wearing an American flag shirt."]
Facing a serious jail sentence and sort of exhausted by the life of a media star, Abbie had plastic surgery to change his appearance and went underground for seven years. During that time he lived as Barry Freed and worked on environmental issues in upstate New York; he also wrote a travel column for Crawdaddy Magazine.
Abbie came out of hiding in 1980 and was sentenced to a year in jail; he served four months. The 80s were a strange time for him as the idealism of the 60s had soured and even his friend Jerry Rubin has become a spokesman for the capitalist system. The two toured in a debate series called ‘The Yippie vs The Yuppie.’
But he was soon back into the protest swing of things in his old stomping grounds, getting arrested at UMass Amherst. He was protesting CIA recruitment on campus and he again turned his trial into political theater; since UMass rules prohibit any law-breaking organizations from recruiting on campus, Abbie proved in a court of law that the CIA engages in illegal and violent operations, including supporting the Contras.
Oliver Stone gave Abbie a cameo in Born on the Fourth of July, his biopic about anti-war activist Ron Kovic, but Abbie never lived to see the film. Diagnosed bi-polar in 1980, Abbie took his own life in 1989 at the age of 52.
I like to think that Abbie would have been down in the trenches at Occupy Wall Street today as an 80 year old man with a filthy mouth and a penchant for one-liners. Some people have claimed that Abbie invented the soundbite; while that may not quite be the case he did blaze a path for protesters and dissidents to get their message across in the media. Of course in the years since then the media has figured out how to neutralize such messages, which is why we need a new Abbie Hoffman so much right now.
We’re living in a post-Abbie Hoffman world. Our culture was profoundly shifted during the late 60s, and it was people like Abbie who did the shifting. On top of that, Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies inspired many people to get into political activism because it could be fun. Isn’t having fun as good a reason to change the world as any?
Nothing I write here can adequately sum up the humor and ballsiness of Abbie Hoffman. I’m including some quotes from him that I like, and some recommendations on further reading and viewing.
I only regret that I have but one shirt to give for my country. - said after he was found guilty of desecrating the flag by wearing a shirt with a flag pattern
The first duty of a revolutionary is to get away with it.
Free speech means the right to shout 'theatre' in a crowded fire.
Understand that legal and illegal are political, and often arbitrary, categorizations; use and abuse are medical, or clinical, distinctions.
Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.
Kids must be educated to disrespect authority or else democracy is a farce.
Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit.
Larry Sloman's oral history biography of Abbie, Steal This Dream, is recommended reading. This transcript of Abbie's testimony at the Chicago 7 trial is often hilarious. I love this part:
I reported on a meeting that morning with Chief Lynskey. I had asked the Chicago cops who were tailing me to take me to Chief Lynskey who was in charge of the area of Lincoln Park. I went up to the chief and said, "Well, are you going to let us have the Festival?"
He said "No festival under any circumstances. If anybody breaks one city ordinance in that park, we clear the whole park."
He said, "You do any one thing wrong and I will arrest you on sight."
He said, "Why don't you try to kick me in the shins right now?"
And I said NBC wasn't there.
To America With Love: Letters From The Underground is a compilation of correspondance Abbie wrote to his wife Anita and son america (the lower case a is to avoid jingoism while being patriotic) while on the run. It's worth reading, as is Revolution for the Hell of It, which is one part guidebook to revolution and one part memoir (Abbie spent a lot of time mythologizing himself).
While Steal This Book is hugely outdated, it is a fascinating relic of the times. Steal This Urine Test, Abbie's 80s book that spoke out on the War on Drugs, is out of print but worth searching out.
Vincent D'Onofrio played Abbie Hoffman in Steal This Movie, which frankly just sucks. Abbie shows up in Forrest Gump, but like the rest of the counterculture in this conservative kneejerk movie, he doesn't come across that well. There have been a couple of Chicago 8 movies and documentaries, but few of them are worthwhile. I like Chicago 10, which uses archive footage and animation to tell the story of the police riots and the trial. It's linked below.
* More than anything else, THIS is what I want to see happen as Mad Men moves towards the end of the 60s.