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.
By John Kendall Hawkins
I had intentions of watching Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, and then writing a review, keened up, like most of his aficionados, with the anticipation it might be his last film, and eager to see how QT handled the Sixties, with limited retrospection, given that he was only six years old at the time of the events depicted. But I was disappointed by his “take” on the era, and I don’t quite know why. Afterall, he hadn’t even been born when the events of Inglorious Basterds were set, and that turned out just fine — the edgy Hester Prynne engravings and the gorgeous, ravenous flame-licking fires. I never had so much fun watching Evil perish. We all did. But this was different.
I could say it was the ending, how I was tired of a certain trademark same-same (I’ll leave it at that), but that’s not it. It wasn’t the dialogue, or that Charlie Manson only made a strumming cameo, or that there were no signature pocket watch scenes. The acting was fine; I liked the story; and the frisson of the zeitgeist was well-achieved. But I started to get bummed out at the Dumpster scene, how Tarantino handled it — a throw-away scene gratuitously inserted like the black cat in Zero Dark Thirty. There was a whole counterculture Tarantino left behind in that Dumpster. And I started to worry about what he might do to the beloved Star Trek movie he’s rumored to be directing next.
The Dumpster scene reminded me of Abbie Hoffman and Steal This Book, his handbook that lists the myriad freebies available if you need (or want) to survive on the street — “free” food, housing, and transportation are featured, as well as handy tips for living the revolution-for-the-hell-of-it lifestyle. Nostalgia kicked in. The rambunctious war years, of course, but also the Chicago 8 that became the Chicago 7 after a gagged and bound Bobby Seale (he was Black, you see) was taken away for a separate (but equal) trial. Another fun, connect-the-dots fact that came up was the coincidence of Abbie having the same name as Albert Hofman, inventor of LSD, and Julius Hoffman, his trial judge. It came together quite cosmically, if you were tripping.
Everybody knows now that it was an era of Free-Lovin.’ And great music, too, with Jimi and Janis (RIP) for starters, and no need for Madonna’s ironical virginity or Cyley Mirus’ leather-tight twerks. We suspected we had the Deep State on the run, with our love, but our criminal naivete was then just a misdemeanor. We were sure we could break free of our psychic bonds and and and self-actualize. Communes filled with Marxist banter, primal screams (Imagine that), and an environment of Infinite Love that made you feel like you were, together, taking back the night from Das Kapital.
Then bad acid, man, began hitting the freedom streets I recall, and a hard, hard rain began to fall, and I mean fall. I seem to remember race riots, Jane Fonda in a tank top, someone crying out ‘You don’t need to be a Weatherman to blow yourself up.’ And Abbie’s DNC riots seemed to get Dick Nixon elected. And the war went on and on. And the Yippies had a falling out with The Man and with each other. The Beatles called it quits, Dylan was in hiding. Bummer days.
And conspiracy rumors were already orbiting that Stanley Kubrick had been hired by the US government to stage the whole moon-landing (which I watched live at a Catholic kumbaya summer camp, drinking ‘bug juice’ and eating cookies, in a kind of junior transubstantiation). And every Lefty agreed that Woodstock was a disaster (and still is) — if for no other reason than that Jimi’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, an otherwise horrible song, wasn’t made the song’s national exclusive version.
Next thing we knew we were in the Seventies, Kent State, Patty Hearst. Watergate, and we were beginning to ask ourselves if our precious, exceptional Democracy was in danger. After Nixon dicked out of town, a mood shift developed; Carter came in, people wanted peace — even the Middle-easters — and few people wanted to continue the struggles requisite of a healthy democracy. They wanted love, but not a free love; it now had the tinge of sadness and weary resignation and military build-up. Halliburton got busy with Marshall plans of the future. Never boring, always surprising. People began to get mowed down by gun violence Left and Right, and even when Senators got mowed down, they were afraid of getting eaten alive by the gun lobby and ran from the issue.
We are a long way from the heady days of muckraking journalism — sure-sounding pilots Alexander Cockburn (Beat the Devil), Sy Hersh (still at it) , Hunter S (Gonzo has left the building)., Jack Anderson (enemy of the state), etc, navigating the always-muddy, ever-changing river — and have settled into a stenographic, profit-driven MSM that fails to inform us properly, resulting in an often-laughable media today that Donald Trump sadly and sometimes-rightly refers to as “fake news.” The hypothesized media influence of the Russians in the 2016 presidential perhaps made ‘plausible’ by the Fourth Estate’s dereliction of duty in the World’s Premiere Democracy™.
It’s easy to be discouraged today, given the state of the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches, moving rightward and surely fascist — or far worse. Another round of Trump from 20/20 should bring us the epiphanal vision we need. It’s easy to feel with Leonard Cohen, “It’s over, it ain’t going / Any further.” In the post-post-modern near future, with a new Cold War coming ironically as the Ice caps melt, it’s easy to feel our species has gone too far, catastrophic victims of a pandemic leached into our collective consciousness — just in time for the AI revolution.
Well, maybe what Lebowski told Lebowski was true: the Bums lost, the revolution for-the-hell-of-it is over. Time, as Bobby Dylan says, to Ring Them Bells for all of us who are Left. Head for the hall of the Big Sleep, exhausted, like Edward G. near the end of Soylent Green, time to exit to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Oddly and inconveniently thinking of something Timothy Leary once said in Steal This Dream of Abraham Maslow: “[He] was a very influential transitional person between medical psychiatry and humanist inner-potential, do-it-yourself psychiatry. The paradox was, as everybody knows, that Abe himself was a very depressed person. Abe told me once he never had a peak experience.” Ain’t that a kick in the head. Time to let it go once last time, guided by the better angels of my nature. You almost had to drop acid to be there. And not there.
John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia. He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times. His blog: http://tantricdispositionmatrix.net/wp/.
Some fifty years ago Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and an army of Yippies held their “Festival of Life” outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Replete with folk songs, protest marches, and the nomination of the oinker Pigasus as an alternative candidate for the presidency, the radical – and democratic — festival was designed to be a provocative demonstration against the carnage of Vietnam and the politics that supported it. Millions of television viewers, still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy just months earlier, watched with renewed revulsion as cops moved into action, gassing and beating gesticulating protesters and benumbed bystanders alike.
In a park not far from the mayhem, Hoffman and Rubin spirited a large rally, complete with fiery speeches and Dylan tunes. In an era rife with colourful characters, Hoffman was the Dennis Rodman of political activists. He revealed the myriad ways of ‘how to live out on the street’ in his book, Steal This Book, which his tie-dyed acolytes proceeded to do – stealing thousands of editions of the street-survivalist playbook and turning them into petty thieves at the same time (maybe the cleverest marketing stunt of all-time). His credo was summed up with “Revolution for the hell of it.” He had a genius for infuriating the elites from Left to Right of the political spectrum, and yet he remained a popular hero.
He seemed most effective going up against the Military-Industrial Complex. In 1967, he helped lead 50,000 protesters in an attempted telekinetic exorcism of the Pentagon. According to an account in Larry Sloman’s often-hilarious oral biography of Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Dream, the Yippee actually negotiated the height of the proposed levitation with military representatives. As Sal Gianetta, a pal of Abbie’s remembers: “That meeting was two and a half hours or so and probably 20 percent of that meeting was devoted to this fucking serious talk about levitating the Pentagon. This is our military, right? I swear to you, Ab came down from twenty-two feet to three feet, the military agreed to three feet and they sealed it with a handshake. That’s how Ab was, he could capture you in that fucking bizarreness. Oh, it was joyful!”
Earlier in the year, he, Rubin and others had climbed the Stock Exchange balcony and literally brought brokers literally to their hands and knees by raining dollar bills on them. “One should always be able to yell `theatre’ in a crowded fire,” he’d once said, and treated the era as a large-scale production of the Theatre of the Absurd.
Halfway around the world, another revolutionary production was taking place — the “Prague Spring”. The Czechoslovakians were by 1968 ready to return to the democratic republicanism they had briefly enjoyed post-World War I. Though they lacked a Hoffman, they owned a deep legacy of subversion; and, in 1968, had a formidable cast of reformers including Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel. Together they fomented change and the Communist Party head Alexander Dubcek, seemed happy enough to oversee it. The proposed press freedom and limited political participation seemed innocuous, but the Soviets thought otherwise, and sent occupation troops into Prague that August. The Iron Curtain would remain down until the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
The events of August 1968 in Chicago and Prague have always presented some strange ironies and parallels. While Left-leaning protesters raged against the military-industrial complex and its oligarchic web of money-greed in the US, in Prague, Right-leaning protesters (in relative terms), such as Havel, fought for a more open humanistic society. America, capitalist to the core, had kept the Red threat at bay by laying down socialist safety nets such as the Social Security Act and the Welfare State, funded by a redirection of wealth from the pockets of the middle class. Meanwhile, the Soviets had slaked the thirst for democratic reforms by offering thimblefuls that tasted like freedom, but which were never “the real thing.” Not that it would matter.
Not long after the summer of violence, Hoffman, Rubin, and other protesters were arrested for conspiracy to commit rioting and tried as the Chicago 8 in a farcical courtroom drama that saw Black Panther Bobby Seale bound and gagged (later tried separately), with Abbie taunting presiding Judge Hoffman by dressing up in various costumes, and generally turning the proceedings into a Marx Brothers romp. After their eventual acquittal, Hoffman went underground to avoid imprisonment on criminal drug charges. When he re-emerged in 1980 to serve a brief negotiated jail sentence by way of a sympathetic Carter Administration, the US was entering a Reagan era presided over by the so-called “Me” generation.
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 CIA in Central America.
In 1985, he had a radio debate with his estranged friend Rubin, by then a stock broker. They mostly traded tired barbs and banalities, but also discussed the future of political activism in America. Rubin reasoned that change could only come by working from within the system, while Hoffman scoffed at Rubin’s “cop-out” and maintained justice and equality would always have to be wrested forcibly from power elites.
When Hoffman committed suicide in 1989, he missed out on the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the hopeful celebrations, but he was also spared the years that followed, which have brought “casino capitalism” to the world. And when Rubin, in a minor act of yuppie defiance, was killed jaywalking in 1994, he missed out on Bill Clinton’s trip to China. With Rubinesque logic, the Babyboomer president explained to the world that working “with China” to establish a stable middle class of consumers would be the most efficient way of bringing about humanistic changes. Around the world the mainstream media applauded the beginnings of ‘globalization’, while tired activists shook their heads.
In central Europe, the dilemma of how to best effect social change remains. Despite – and arguably because of their sophistication and intellectual antagonism – nations such as the Czech Republic remain in a muddle of political ambivalence seeming unsure of what to do. But the Czech Republic is not alone with the dilemma. As governments everywhere cut health, education and welfare costs and make their nations safe for foreign investors, popular dissatisfaction with the human quality of our lives continues to grow, along with the gap between haves and have-nots.
What’s missing is visionary leadership and the spirit of levity. “Democracy is not something you believe in, but something you do,” Hoffman once said. “If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles.” Enter populism and the growth of authoritarianism, the Surveillance State and the end of privacy, climate change exacerbated by population growth, Trump, fake news, fake Resistance, fake everything.
One wonders if Hoffman saw it all as worth it in the end, as he made his way underground for the last time.