Abbie Hoffman: American Dissident and Political Organizer Extraordinaire
By Eliot Katz
One of the most well-known and influential American activists of the 20th century, Abbie Hoffman liked to call himself an American dissident and community organizer. As historian Howard Zinn has noted, Abbie’s “community” at key moments in history extended to the entire country.
Abbie also liked to call himself a Jewish Road Warrior and he viewed his work in part as helping to carry on the radical Jewish tradition. In his autobiography (originally published as Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture and posthumously reprinted as The Autobiography of Abbie Hoffman), Abbie wrote: “Jews, especially first-born male Jews, have to make a big choice very quickly in life whether to go for the money or to go for broke….Wiseguys who go around saying things like ‘Workers of the world unite,’ or ‘Every guy wants to screw his mother,’ or ‘E = mc2,’ obviously choose to go for broke. It’s the greatest Jewish tradition.” (p. 14)
Abbie was intensely skilled at recognizing the political openings offered by different social contexts. As he put it in a 1987 speech to students at the University of South Carolina, “What kind of tactics you use to achieve social change depends on the historical moment.” (The Best of Abbie Hoffman, p. 403) And as someone who had been influenced by the ideas of Saul Alinsky, Abbie understood that one key to fighting any City Hall is to speak in a language the people of that city understand.
Abbie moved from his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts to 11th Street and Avenue C in New York City’s Lower East Side at a particularly ripe historical moment–the fall of 1966 in the middle of the emerging counterculture. In the early 1960s, Abbie had worked in the free speech and civil rights movements, and he moved to New York to open Liberty House, a store that sold crafts made by black cooperatives in Mississippi. Recently divorced, Abbie met his second wife, Anita Kushner, soon after arriving in New York City. In early 1967 they moved into an apartment on St. Marks Place between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Here is how Abbie described this move with Anita: “We had no way of knowing that we had just taken a $101-a-month front-row seat to the cultural revolution. The local counter-cultural institutions were all in a ten-block radius: Paul Krassner’s The Realist, Ed Sanders and his Peace Eye Bookstore, resident poet Allen Ginsberg.” (Autobiography, p. 92)
Abbie believed that political change and cultural change were inexorably intertwined. At Brandeis University, he had studied with Herbert Marcuse and learned how human psychology helped shape social dynamics. He had read C. Wright Mills, who argued for a New Left in which young people would play a prominent role and in which cultural forces would need to be addressed alongside economic ones. He’d studied Marshall McLuhan and grasped the powerful ways in which the medium of television was affecting public consciousness. In the social context of the last half of the 1960s, Abbie saw his main role as helping to move the blossoming youth counterculture into the broader social protest movement, especially the movement against the Vietnam War. As Zinn describes it, Abbie “helped turn the antiauthoritarian instincts of the younger generation into political resistance to racism and war.” (p. 306, Afterword to The Autobiography of Abbie Hoffman)
It was from the countercultural vortex of the Lower East Side that Abbie–in collaboration with Anita, Krassner, Sanders, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kirshan, Bob Fass, and others–formed the Yippies! and helped pioneer the use of humor, theater, and imagination as effective activist tools. With his unique blend of creativity and political insight, Abbie helped organize some of the most memorable protest actions of the 1960s, including dropping dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, the “levitation” of the Pentagon, and the Festival of Life protests outside the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago. Although later investigations blamed a “police riot” for the violence in Chicago, the “Chicago 8” (Hoffman, Rubin, Dave Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Bobby Seale, Rennie Davis, Lee Weiner, and John Froines) were arrested and put on trial. The ACLU called the legendary Chicago Conspiracy Trial “the most important political trial of the century,” and largely because of the way Abbie and Jerry turned the trial into brilliant political theater unprecedented in American courtroom history, the trial is also one of the most dramatized trials in American theater and film.
It was during Abbie’s years living on the Lower East Side that he wrote his classic books, Revolution for the Hell of It, Woodstock Nation, and Steal This Book. In his autobiography, Abbie offers a “must-read” description (see especially pages 87-100) of those Lower East Side years of the late Sixties, describing a thriving alternative culture filled with lively street theater, community medical clinics, volunteer lawyers, free food in the park, great rock & roll clubs, antiwar rallies, and local projects to plant trees and stop police harassment based on race or hair length. Abbie concludes: “It was a theatrical period, filled with rebellion, naive optimism, moral purpose, giddy sex, and cheap dope. (Believe me, you can do a lot worse!)…So we met, the times and me, down there on the Lower East Side. It was a nice fit; a great time to be alive.” (100)
While the 1960s were the years in which Abbie made his most renowned mark on American culture, his lesser-known political and environmental work from the late 1970s through his death in 1989 proved his community organizing skills beyond a shadow of a doubt, and may yet end up proving just as influential since many of the young people who worked with and learned from Abbie in those later years are still active in various ecological, peace, health care, and global justice movements.
In 1973, Abbie was caught by undercover cops while acting as a middleman in a cocaine bust, details of which have never been totally clear. In 1974, rather than face trial and the risk of a long prison sentence, Abbie fled underground. In Mexico, Abbie got together with Johanna Lawrenson, who would become his third wife, his trusted “running mate,” and his talented co-organizer. Abbie and Johanna traveled the U.S. and the world, with Abbie taking on a variety of pseudonyms, disguises, and fake IDs. He also wrote and published dozens of articles for magazines, as well as three books, To america with Love, Square Dancing in the Ice Age, and Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture. While underground, Abbie also exhibited increased symptoms of manic-depression that would cause him (and occasionally some of his friends) considerable pain in those underground years and in the future.
In 1976, Abbie settled with Johanna in the scenic 1,000 Islands on the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York, at the Canadian border, in a cottage that had been built by Johanna’s great-grandmother. Even though Abbie was still hiding from the law, when the Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to dredge the St. Lawrence River for winter navigation, Abbie and Johanna realized what an environmental disaster that would be and they decided to act. With local residents, they formed Save the River! and they began organizing door-to-door, which often meant traveling by motorboat among the islands in this traditionally Republican area. Using the name Barry Freed, Abbie had to work for the first time in years as a political organizer without the benefit of his name or fame. Save the River! was victorious, and even Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan took a celebratory photo with fugitive “Barry,” announcing at a large public gathering that they all owed a debt of gratitude to Barry Freed for his important work.
Abbie re-surfaced from the underground in 1980 in a national television interview with Barbara Walters and he was sentenced to three years, ultimately serving a year in jail and work release at a drug rehab program called Veritas, followed by two years on parole. Older, wiser, and as committed as ever to social justice, Abbie’s activism on behalf of progressive causes never wavered. But his activist style evolved, as any good community organizer’s would, in trying to stay relevant in changing times. Abbie maintained his great sense of humor, but without a large counterculture to work with, Abbie’s organizing in the 1980s began to rely more heavily on reasoned discourse and long-range organizational considerations.
In the 1980s, Abbie led delegations to Nicaragua to show solidarity with the Sandinistas and to protest Reagan administration support of the right-wing Contras. In New Hope, Pennsylvania, he helped form DelAware to try to prevent a pump from being installed to divert large amounts of water from the Delaware River to a nearby nuclear power plant. In 1986, Abbie was arrested with Amy Carter (the former president’s daughter) and over sixty others at the University of Massachusetts for a protest against CIA recruitment on campus. Fifteen of those arrested, including Abbie and Amy, decided to go to trial, pleading not guilty by using the “necessity defense.”
At this CIA-off-campus trial in Northampton, which should be far better known than it is, the defendants claimed that their minor crime of trespassing was needed to stop the larger crimes of CIA covert actions in Central America and elsewhere. As witnesses, they called in Howard Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg, Ramsey Clarke, and former CIA agents to describe for the six mainstream New England jurors the interventionist history and immoral practices of the CIA. In the social climate of the Reagan years, Abbie decided on a courtroom strategy markedly different than his theatrical tactics in Chicago. Wearing a jacket and tie, Abbie represented himself and delivered a moving and well-reasoned closing argument in which he told the jury: “I grew up with the idea that democracy is not something you believe in, or a place you hang your hat, but it’s something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles and falls apart.” Invoking the best of America’s radical and common-sense traditions, he urged the jurors to return a verdict of not guilty which would say to the students “what Thomas Paine said: ‘Young people, don’t give up hope. If you participate, the future is yours’.” (Best of, 386-387) In a verdict that surprised many, the jurors did indeed return a verdict of “not guilty,” demonstrating that fair-minded, mainstream Americans, even during the relatively conservative Eighties, could be convinced by rational argument and honest information that the CIA was indeed committing serious international crimes in their names, and that it was therefore justifiable for concerned citizens to oppose those egregious policies through principled stands (or, in this case, principled sit-downs) of civil disobedience.
I had met Abbie briefly in the early 1980s, but got to know him and Johanna in 1987 and 1988, when Abbie served as the major adviser for two student activist projects that I helped work on: National Student Convention ’88, a conference which brought over 700 students from around the country to Rutgers University to discuss creating a new independent, multi-issue, and democratically structured national student activist organization somewhat modeled on SDS; and Student Action Union, one of several smaller groups that grew out of the convention and that at one time had chapters on over two dozen campuses. Because my partner at the time, Christine Kelly, was one of the lead organizers and Abbie’s main contact in these groups, I was lucky to have had the chance to see the immense dedication, time commitment, and invaluable strategic advice that Abbie gave to these projects. Since it was important that these youth endeavors be seen as student-led, Abbie’s help was usually behind the scenes, out of the spotlight. As a dedicated adviser, Abbie spent countless hours on the phone discussing potential resolutions to debates and obstacles that would arise. He wrote long letters brimming with organizing tips and helpful contacts. He helped recruit hundreds of students and other experienced advisers to join our initiatives. And he did college speaking engagements to help us raise funds. (He died with Student Action Union brochures packed in his suitcase for a scheduled campus trip.)
In his Eighties work, Abbie was committed to passing along skills and lessons honed through his decades of activism. He was also committed to using ideas and language that would resonate with the era. In a speech Abbie gave at the National Student Convention in February 1988, a speech that remains one of my favorite of Abbie’s writings, he compared the political tone of the late 1980s with the late 1960s: “In the late sixties we were so fed up we wanted to destroy it all. That’s when we changed the name of America and stuck in the ‘k.’ The mood today is different, and the language that will respond to today’s mood will be different. Things are so deteriorated in this society that it’s not up to you to destroy America, it’s up to you to go out and save America.” (The Best of Abbie Hoffman, p. 416) In that speech, Abbie also talked about the need to create long-lasting activist groups, to develop democratic organizational structures, to use majority decision-making rather than consensus when complex questions arose (because consensus could be difficult to achieve with FBI agents and schizophrenics in the room), and to be willing to work for social change both inside the system and out in the streets.
Near the end of his life, Abbie was splitting his weeks between Johanna’s apartment in New York City and a room in New Hope, PA, where DelAware was centered. He died in his bed in New Hope on April 12, 1989 from an overdose of phenobarbital and alcohol. I would argue strongly that his suicide was a result solely of the personal pain from his depression, and not a sign of political pessimism as some writers tried to claim at the time. Despite the fact that Abbie’s depression resulted in moments of deep emotional pain, despite lingering physical pain from a bad car accident in 1988, and despite occasional expressions of frustration with the state of the American left, I don’t believe that Abbie ever lost hope in the potential of young people to create a better world. His work with us proved otherwise. In that National Student Convention ’88 speech, Abbie noted that young people have a particular quality that’s essential for instigating political change: impatience. In a Walt Whitman-like catalog, Abbie told the gathered students: “There have to be enough people that say, ‘We want it now, in our lifetime.’ We want to see apartheid in South Africa come down right now. We want to see the war in Central America stop right now. We want the CIA off campus right now….This is your moment.” (Best of, p. 418)
Abbie had the quickest and sharpest political wit that I’ve ever seen in a political figure of the left or the right. How I would have loved to see him alive into the 21st Century to debate the Bill O’Reillys and Sean Hannitys of the world on the current military disaster in Iraq and the Bush administration’s serial violations of civil liberties and human rights.
Although the Bush years have taken us on a pothole-filled detour to the furthest edges of the American right, U.S. public opinion is thankfully once again swinging leftward as I write this piece in November 2007, with about 70% of the country having come to oppose the war in Iraq. And yet, there is still the need for impassioned and intelligent political organizing–still the need for an as-yet-undiscovered mix of inventive activist strategies–to force the new Democratic Congress and the next American president to set a tangibly different course for America’s domestic and foreign policy, a path that honors our most progressive ideals and that addresses such deep-rooted problems as global warming, a still-escalating militarism, growing economic inequality with its attendant lack of affordable housing and health care, entrenched institutional racism, and the continuing assaults since 9/11 on our constitutional rights. Abbie Hoffman helped put imagination and fun into the recipe of American social activism, and his legacy–drawn from his work in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties–will continue to inspire young people to question authority and to believe that, by participating, they can change the world.
–2007, Originally published in Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side