By John Kendall Hawkins
- Abbie Hoffman, his war cry from Fuck the System (1967)
The System Is the Solution
- AT&T ad, circa the 70s
One of the funniest bits I can remember reading about Abbie Hoffman was the time he tried to get himself arrested at a police station and the cops wouldn’t bite. His friend, and fellow Yippee, Paul Krassner said, “We went to the 9th precinct. Abbie wanted to get busted to show solidarity between the hippies and the ethnic groups. But they wouldn’t arrest him.” The Yippies had a sit-in outside the police station, where Abbie carried on, telling cops: “I want to be arrested because I’m a nigger. You’re arresting my black brothers. Arrest me.” He was invited inside the police station to talk.
Inside the station house he jumped from desk to desk, and demanded to be arrested. They laughed at him. So he leapt off the desk, “going, ‘Na, Na!’” and kicked out the glass from a trophy case and ran. One cop yelled, “You goddamn bastard, now you’ve had it.” They chased, but he got away. He called days later to arrange his arrest. About 40 cops were waiting for him at the rendezvous point, when a van pulled up “and about seven guys come running out who look exactly like Abbie Hoffman with the big Afro and they run into the crowd and the goddamn cops are chasing all of them!” Then, Hoffman called to them, “Yoo Hoo! You Hoo! Here I am!” And disappeared.
Vintage Abbie. Seven cops holding up seven Afro wigs — like they scalped ‘em.
In Steal This Book, his street survival manual, Abbie had advised the reader to keep on hand a few costumes for street theater and escapades. You never knew when a ‘nice’ suit bought at Salvation Army might come in handy to score a free meal at a decent restaurant (bring your own cockroach or broken glass). Costumes had played their role in spoofing justice at the Chicago 7 trial in 1969, when Abbie and Jerry Rubin had come to court one day wearing judges robes — and, when told to take them off NOW!, they revealed cops uniforms underneath. The judge was a Hoffman and Abbie had even called him Dad and offered to set him up with some Hoffman (LSD). The whole trial was a trip, including the outrageous bounding and gagging of a black man.
But serious contemplation was also at work behind Abbie’s modus o; it wasn’t all hippie razzmatazz. This week we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the sentencing of the Chicago 7 and for Abbie’s later writing of his introduction to his timeless paean to freedom, Steal This Book, which Abbie called “a manual of survival in the prison that is Amerika.” With all the proliferating criminal breaches of privacy and freedom by the System since 9/11, as described in copious detail by Edward Snowden’s revelations in Permanent Record, Abbie’s description of Amerika has never been truer. On February 19, the Chicago 7 were found guilty of inciting a riot during the DNC convention of 1968, as well as, for their courtroom antics, 175 counts of contempt of court. The convictions were later overturned on appeal.
In his introduction, Abbie simplifies his Yippie war cry with a three-part approach to take in the counterculture revolution against the System — i.e., the Military-Industrial (MIC) system that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about in his farewell speech. First, we must Survive. Abbie writes, “Revolution is not about suicide, it is about life.” And that really is the serious thread of practical philosophy that informs Steal This Book. There are ways of surviving, essentially off the grid, if you’re willing to live the lifestyle — and a lot hippies did. Free food, free clothes, free communications, free books, free accommodation all there to be had.
The second part is Fight. “We cannot survive without learning to fight,” he writes, and “The purpose of part two [Fight] is not to fuck the system, but destroy it.” The System is definitely not the solution. And, again, with the prospect of a Democratic party offering no real alternative to the economic plight many Americans find themselves in — and people getting themselves ensconced in debt slavery by taking one of those candy-colored credit cards they practically give away (and you thought sub-prime mortgages were a potential global economic disaster) to pay their bills. Remember how much fun it was to play personal pyramid scheme by paying off one credit card with another? Fuck the system. Destroy the MIC.
Finally, there’s Liberate, which is essentially a guide on how to live free in four cities: New York, Chicago, and San Francisco and LA. But it’s the attitude of community action that comes through that makes it worth reading. Steal This Book is not anachronistic, it’s alive and well, and remains a feisty little blueprint for expressing your freedom in a locked-down world.
Abbie took ‘taking the mickey out of’ the MIC to heart. He didn’t just talk the talk, he strat the strut. Just a year before he and the Yippies ran Pigasis for the presidency in their Festival of Life outside the DNC convention, Abbie had had a go at the Industrial (or corporate) side of the MIC by leading revelers to the NY Stock Exchange and raining dollar bills down on the brokers below. As Larry Sloman describes it,“The brokers started scrambling, pushing each other, grabbing for the money. When the avalanche subsided, they actually looked up at the gallery and demanded ‘More’!” As the straight press chased him with the 5Ws, Abbie shouted over his shoulder, “Guerilla Theater,” laughed, and hopped into a getaway cab.
In October 1967, during a mass protest march on the Pentagon, Abbie took the mickey out of the Military side of the MIC when he convinced officials he could levitate the Pentagon and entered into negotiations as to how high. Said Daniel Ellsberg, working on the Pentagon Papers at the time, “Levitating the Pentagon struck me as a great idea because removing deference from any of these institutions is very important….” Abbie’s friend, Sal Gianetta described the scene: “Ab was adamant that the fucking building was gonna go up twenty-two feet… If the fucking building went up twenty-two feet, the foundations were gonna crack, so there was discussion about foundations and cracks, it was fucking unbelievable.” Abbie and the officials negotiated the levitation down to three feet and “they sealed it with a handshake.”
Just before the event, Abbie had contacted John Garabedian, a reporter for the New York Post, who relates how Abbie informed him that
hippie chemists had invented a new wonder drug which combined the best properties of LSD with a drug called DMSO…[and] on the day of the march to the Pentagon…hippie chicks would fill squirt guns full of this love potion…and squirt them on the soldiers or anyone else of an evil or war like frame of mind thereby causing them to want to stop making war and immediately make love.
Talk about love as a battlefield.
Ironically, the military developed this idea later. It became the Gay Bomb, winner of the Ig Nobel Peace prize in 2007. It, too, would have caused the enemy soldiers to ‘turn on’ each other and orgy-up the battlefield. Presumably, the idea was scrapped when an ear got whispered into and some General Studly suddenly realized, like a freight train, that with a shift of wind the blowback could be devastating. More Pentagon levity.
After Abbie went underground in 1974 to avoid going to trial for dealing cocaine, he continued, as Barry Freed, to be an advocate for change and to defend communities from the destructive powers of the System. Living in upper state New York, he helped fight against the dredging destruction of the St. Lawrence River system by the Army Corp of Engineers. However, having to keep his head down and his psyche out of the limelight didn’t suit Abbie and, word is (p.277), he became gloomier and more depressed as time went on. Being without his wife, Anita, and son, america, deepened his suicidal ideation. Still, his work with Save the River was extraordinarily important.
Abbie showed he still had a working protest finger in 1986 when he and Amy Carter (and others) defended their arrests following disruptions of CIA recruitment efforts on a college campus in Massachusetts, successfully arguing in court with a ‘Necessity Defense’ that their minor criminality had the far greater public benefit of shedding light on the criminal activities of the CIA in Central America. This event was a welcome alternative celebration to the crap provided to the public during the televised Iran/Contra hearings, during which Oliver North successfully marketed himself as a hero.
Not long before Abbie committed suicide, he was still at it, trying to rouse the troupes, in a series of debates with his old Yippie pal Jerry Rubin, who’d gone over to the other side. In his last Yippie versus Yuppie debate, in Vancouver, in 1988, the two tangled over the same ol’ question: Can the System be effectively resisted from the outside, or must change come from inside? Rubin made some good points, noting that “male chauvinism helped take down the movement,” and that Yippies “were not open to self-criticism,” but when he calls the Babyboomers Yuppies taking over the reins of government, Abbie rightly points out that Rubin is just a “born-again capitalist” and that Yuppies are not new; they’re a throw-back to the so-called Status-Seekers of the 50s, making Rubin a regressive, not a progressive.
As if to demonstrate how much air has gone out of the 60s party balloon, during the Vancouver debate one female student ran up on stage and attacked Rubin with a cream pie, disrupting the event. It was almost comical watching the woman make her escape, nobody giving a shit; even the camera seemed indifferent. It was hard to tell who it was more embarrassing to — Abbie or Jerry. The entire debate is worth watching. It’s available here.
Looking forward to the horror show ahead in November, what with Democrats seeming in disarray — Warren fading fast, Bernie looking ancient, Biden looking done, and Buttgieg on the ascent: You can almost see Trump handling any of them on stage with his nincompoop’s invective in October; you can smell re-election; you can almost predict the world’s end can’t be far behind. Wouldn’t it be nice to have Abbie here for some guerilla theatrics; to maybe lead Congressmen in an Augustus Boal tactic or two — Legislative Theatre, making laws as psycho-drama, senators acting out citizens without health insurance, representatives acting out young people crushed by student debt, Pelosi tearing up the military budget, and Abbie presiding like some genius clown shaking us loose from the gravity of the situation.