Remembering Abbie Hoffman

Abbie Hoffman at the Mobilization for Justice & Peace in Central America & Southern Africa, March and Rally, Saturday, April 25, 1987, Washington, D.C. – photo: Allen Ginsberg

A guest posting this weekend by our good friend Eliot Katz on Abbie Hoffman (on the occasion of what would have been his 83rd birthday):

As most of Allen’s readers will know, Abbie and Allen were long-time friends who deeply admired each other’s work. In his autobiography, Abbie describes his 1967 move to NYC’s St.Marks Place this way: “We had no way of knowing that we had just taken a $101-a-month front-row seat to the cultural revolution,” including with “resident poet Allen Ginsberg.” Later in his autobiography, he writes about Allen: “Jews don’t have saints, they just have Ginsbergs every once in a while.”

I first met Abbie briefly at the 1982 Naropa celebration of Kerouac, where I did a young poets midnight reading with Andy Clausen and Danny Shot. Abbie was on a fascinating panel about Kerouac and politics at that Naropa conference, a panel with Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and William Burroughs. At one point, while panelists were discussing how Buddism influenced Kerouac’s views, Allen said that he thought Kerouac was trying to get beyond the idea of winning or losing. Seemingly thinking both about electoral politics during the Reagan era and also about activist campaigns to end injustices or to even out playing fields, Abbie thought for a few seconds and added, “yeah, but first we have to win.”
[Editorial note – also check out Abbie at Naropa in ’82 – here]

I later got to know Abbie better—and also Johanna Lawrenson, Abbie’s wife, talented co-organizer, and “running mate,” with whom I still work on some Abbie-related projects – in 1987 and 1988, when I helped work on two national student activist projects for which Abbie was our main outside advisor: National Student Convention ’88, and Student Action Union. Abbie’s speech from that 1988 student activist convention (held at Rutgers) is one of my favorites among his writings. It was published in the paperback edition of The Best of Abbie Hoffman, a book, which includes extensive selections from his early books, and some important later writings and speeches, that I consider must-reads for young organizers, since Abbie was committed in his later years to passing along his considerable skills to younger generations. (Allen also came to our 1988 convention at Rutgers to do a poetry reading that helped us draw more student activists from around the country.)

For some years after Abbie’s tragic death by suicide (after increasing manic-depression) in 1989, I used to help Johanna organize an annual Abbie Hoffman birthday bash in various NYC clubs, (with proceeds donated to local and national activist groups). One year, the featured performers were Allen Ginsberg and the great British political songwriter, Billy Bragg. A few weeks before the event, since Allen was scheduled to introduce Bragg after reading his own poems, I remember going up to his 12th Street apartment to play him Bragg’s music, which impressed him enough for him to say that it reminded him of Dylan, (which seemed about the highest compliment Allen could give to a songwriter). A few years earlier, I had heard Abbie introduce Billy Bragg at Roseland as the Phil Ochs of the time.

Billy Bragg

Abbie Hoffman, Boulder, Colorado, June, 1986 –  photo(s): Allen Ginsberg

Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989) was one of the most well-known and influential American activists of the late 20th century. He dedicated his life to social change, to creating a more democratic,egalitarian, and compassionate world, (especially compared to the one we find today, with too many far-right leaders rising internationally, and with a president of the U.S. who is a malignant narcissist, a pathological liar, and a self-admitted sexual predator). Abbie liked to call himself an American dissident and a community organizer, and at key moments in U.S. history, as the late people’s historian Howard Zinn once noted, Abbie’s “community” extended to the entire country.

In the social context 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. Abbie liked to say that trying to create social change without using culture is like trying to ski without snow. It was from the countercultural center of NYC’s Lower East Side that Abbie – in collaboration with Anita Hoffman, Ed Sanders, Paul Krassner, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan, Bob Fass, and others – formed the Yippies! and helped to pioneer the use of humor, theater, and imagination as effective activist tools. Some of the Yippies, in turn, had been influenced by a 1965 essay that Allen had written [“Demonstration or Spectacle as Example, As Communication“, included in Deliberate Prose] suggesting adding music, theater, and creative signs to an upcoming peace march in Berkeley.

With a unique blend of creativity and political intelligence, Abbie Hoffman helped organize some of the most memorable protest actions of the 1960s, including dropping dollar bills onto the floor of the NY Stock Exchange, the “levitation” of the Pentagon, and the Festival of Life protests outside the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago to oppose the Vietnam War.

Although later investigations blamed a “police riot” for the violence in 1968 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, with another new film, by Aaron Sorkin, reportedly in the works, even now, (with Sacha Baron Cohen scheduled to play Abbie). Of course, Allen Ginsberg also played a key role in those Chicago 1968 protests—during which he is remembered for his Buddhist chanting in Grant Park to try to reduce public tensions and for his lively testimony at the ensuing trial

While the 1960s were the years in which Abbie made his most well-known mark on American politics and culture, his lesser-known activist work from the late 1970s through his death in 1989 proved his organizing skills beyond any doubt, and may yet end up proving as influential as his 1960s work, since many of the young people who worked with and learned from Abbie in those later years are still active in various environmental, peace, health care, and social justice movements.

Abbie Hoffman Boulder, Colorado, June, 1986 –  photo(s): Allen Ginsberg

1974-1980 were Abbie’s underground years, living on the run after a cocaine-related arrest whose details have never been clear. It was underground that Abbie got together with Johanna Lawrenson, and it was also underground that Abbie continued to do vital activist work. While he was living under the assumed name of “Barry Freed” with Johanna, in the scenic 1,000 Islands on the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York, near the Canadian border, in a cottage that had been built by Johanna’s great-grandmother, 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, with local residents, they formed Save the River! and began organizing door-to-door, often by motorboat, among the many islands in this traditionally Republican area. With “Barry” organizing effectively without the benefit of his name or fame, Save the River! was victorious, and even while Abbie was on the FBI’s wanted list, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan took a celebratory newspaper photo with the unrecognized Barry Freed, telling a large public gathering that the area owed a debt of gratitude to Barry for his important work!

Daniel Patrick Moynihan and “Barry Freed” – photo: Johanna Lawrenson

“photographs show Abbie Hoffman through the years”

After re-surfacing from the underground in 1980, Abbie served 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 organizer’s style would, in trying to stay relevant in changing times. Abbie maintained his great sense of humor, but without a large counterculture to work with, his organizing in the 1980s relied more heavily on reasoned discourse and long-range organizational considerations. In writings and speeches like those at our 1988 national student activist convention, he urged young people to develop democratic,long-term organizational structures, and to use majority decision-making rather than consensus when complex questions arose—both because he felt majority decision-making was more democratic and effective for maintaining long-term group unity, and because it could be difficult to reach consensus when there were undercover FBI agents and schizophrenics in the room! – (a lesson, I would argue, that could have helped a terrific group like Occupy Wall Street stay around longer).

In the 1980s, Abbie led delegations to Nicaragua to protest Reagan administration support of the right-wing Contras. In New Hope, PA, he helped form DelAware to try to prevent the placement of a pump that would have diverted large amounts of water from the Delaware River to a nuclear power plant. In 1986, he was arrested with Amy Carter (the former president’s daughter) and over 60 others at the University of Massachusetts for a protest against CIA recruitment on campus.

Abbie Hoffman and Eliot Katz, CIA off-campus protest, Rutgers University, 1986

Fifteen of those arrested, including Abbie and Amy, decided to go to trial, pleading not guilty by virtue of the “necessity defense.” At this CIA-off-campus trial in Northampton, which should be much better known than it is, the defendants claimed that their minor crime of trespassing was needed to stop the larger crimes of anti-democratic CIA covert actions in Central America and elsewhere. In the social climate of the Reagan years, Abbie decided on a far different courtroom strategy than his previous theatrical tactics in Chicago. Wearing a jacket and tie, and after the testimonies of a range of progressive policy experts, Abbie, representing himself, delivered a moving and 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’.” In a historic verdict that surprised many, the jurors returned a verdict of “not guilty,” basically declaring that it was reasonable for students to stand
up (or, in this case, to sit down) to oppose international covert and criminal activities of the CIA.

Abbie had the quickest and sharpest political wit that I’ve ever seen, both on a stage and in
personal conversation. How I would have loved to see him alive into the 21st Century to debate the Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs of the world; to go on cable TV news shows to dissect the extremist, inhumane policies of the Trump administration; and to offer advice to today’s activist groups working for progressive ideas like the prevention of climate catastrophe through proposals like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, an end to racial and economic injustice, and an end to militarism and nuclear weapons

In recent news about Abbie, already noted on this blog, Johanna Lawrenson has sold Abbie’s archives to the University of Texas in Austin, where the library has begun to organize and exhibit his materials publicly for the first time for the benefit of political scholars and organizers looking to learn from his legacy. 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 for the better.

Happy birthday, Abbie!

7 comments

  1. Thanks, Eliot, for this moving tribute to one of the great political organizers of our time–and for his words delivering hope to youth in need of self-direction during these horrific years marked by a president and party whose hallmarks are corruption, cruelty, betrayal of allies, and crass self-interest. Abbie was one of the better angels of our nature as humans.

  2. Dear Mr. Katz,

    Please get in touch with me. My late husband, Jacques Levy, was a good friend of Abbie’s and participated in the Trail of the Chicago 7, knew Allen etc.

    You may have heard of a song Jacques wrote with Roger McGuinn, “Dear Abbie.” Jacques was trying to contact Abbie in those crazy times.

    More to be said.

    Thanks for your piece. I appreciated it.

    Best regards,
    Claudia Levy

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