The life and times of Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989), troublemaker, fugitive activist, writer and countercultural icon, have continued to resonate over the decades since his death in 1989, most recently in the Netflix film The Trial of the Chicago 7. On Abbie Hoffman’s birthday (November 30), PKM revisits his legacy.
The whole world was watching when Abbie Hoffman strolled across center stage in the late 1960s. By then, he was already a veteran civil rights organizer, having been affiliated with the NAACP (in Worcester, Mass., where he grew up), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Diggers. He had put his ass on the line riding the Freedom Buses in the South, registering neglected people to vote, had worked as a psychiatric aide at the Massachusetts State Hospital for three years, had a wife and two kids.
He was also a charming raconteur, a charismatic hustler, a starry-eyed optimist, a man of unbending political principles but, ahem, flexible personal foibles, so it was no wonder that Hoffman found center stage perfectly to his liking.
In Aaron Sorkin’s recent Netflix film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Hoffman is portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen which, at first glance, seems as wrongheaded as can be. And yet, maybe not. In fact, Cohen may have been the perfect choice to portray Abbie Hoffman. Best known for inhabiting the personas of his prankster characters Borat and Ali-G, he is perfectly in keeping with Hoffman’s Yippie spirit. And, saints be praised, Cohen actually brings Abbie Hoffman to life in this surprisingly captivating film. One reviewer even said Cohen “steals the show,” which no doubt would have made Abbie Hoffman—author of the how-to-make-a-revolution manual Steal This Book—shout, “Right on!”
The center stage was, more or less, thrust upon Abbie Hoffman (and Jerry Rubin)—not that either would have shunned the limelight if it were within reach. In the wake of the police riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago—riots Hoffman, Rubin and six others, including Black Panther Bobby Seale and future Congressman Tom Hayden, were accused of inciting—he milked the attention for all it was worth. He ran a pig as his candidate for U.S. president on the Youth International Party ticket in 1968, tossed dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, sported his then-controversial (but now very fashionably MAGA) American flag shirt, and coined the term “Woodstock Nation” (also the title of one of his seven books; among the others: Revolution for the Hell of It and, of course, Steal This Book).
Though the whole world may have been watching Abbie for the first time after Chicago, his family back in Worcester had seen it all before. Abbot Howard “Abbie” Hoffman was a born rebel.
Years ago, I had a chance to meet and talk with Jack Hoffman, Abbie’s younger brother. It was on the occasion of an exhibition at the Thomas J. Dodd Center at the University of Connecticut called “Steal This Exhibit!”, which was an outgrowth of Jack Hoffman’s gift his own personal effects, which had been gathering dust in the basement of his Framingham home since he completed his own excellent book about his brother, Run Run Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman. (Seven Stories Press, 1994)
“He liked to think he was the Lenny Bruce of American revolution,” Jack Hoffman told me back then. “Abbie used to say that Worcester was famous for two things: the birth control pill and Abbie Hoffman. And many people wished that the birth control pill had come first.”
In his book Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture, Abbie Hoffman described the ad hoc nature of his street theater philosophy: “In The Theatre and Its Double, Antonin Artaud called for a new ‘poetry of festivals and crowds, with people pouring into the streets.’ No need to build a stage, it was all around us. Props would be simple and obvious. We would hurl ourselves across the canvas of society like streaks of splattered paint…For us, protest as theater came natural. We were already in costume.”
One of his most notorious stunts—tossing dollar bills onto the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange—was typical of this philosophy. As he recounted in Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture, the stunt began with a phone call to the NYSE requesting a tour of the place. He gave his name as George Metesky (the name of the notorious “Mad Bomber”) and said that he and fifteen other tourists would comprise their party. He scrounged up $300, which he changed into “crispy one-dollar bills,” and he and his fellow pranksters headed off to Wall Street. He never called the press. “At the time,” he wrote, “we really had no notion of anything called a media event.”
Nonetheless, that’s what it became. As he described it, “We took our places in line with the tourists, although our manner of dress did make us a little conspicuous. The line moved its way past glassed-in exhibits depicting the rise of the industrial revolution and the glorification of the world of commerce. Then the line turned the corner. Suddenly, we saw hordes of reporters and cameras.” Naturally, Abbie and his group “started clowning, kissing and hugging, and eating money…I passed out money to the freaks and tourists alike, then all at once we ran to the railing and began tossing out the bills. Pandemonium. The sacred electronic ticker tape, the heartbeat of the Western world, stopped cold. Stockbrokers scrambled over the floor like worried mice, scurrying after the money. Greed had burst though the business-as-usual façade. It lasted five minutes at most.”
While Abbie’s political theatrics captured the imagination of the young and disaffected during the Vietnam era and earned him an honored place on Nixon’s “Enemies List,” his family bonds were stretched to the breaking point. His father, a progressive in his own right, grew increasingly disenchanted with his oldest son’s manic antics, and the two remained estranged. Jack, too, was yanked in two directions, never doubting his love and admiration for his brother and his principles, but worried about the danger posed to his family from the FBI and other investigative agencies by his association with Abbie.
Terri J. Goldich, who was the curator of the collection as well as the exhibit at the time, said, “I’ve heard the word ‘hero’ attached to Abbie’s name and, of course, that’s looking through a glass 30 years thick. But it’s fair to say it. What he proposed seems so tame now. He never wanted to blow up the FBI Building. He wanted to levitate the Pentagon! People my age remember the media clown, but this exhibit shows the human, the conflicted and contradictory person he was.”
One of the subtle healing aspects of the Hoffman collection is that it allowed the ghosts of the Hoffman family finally make their peace. The collection contains all the familiar bric a brac and flotsam that serves as the glue by which blood bonds are kept intact in an obsessively itinerant America: postcards, letters (“Cook County Jail ain’t Grossingers”), scarves, prayer shawls, dirty socks (with American flags on them, of course), T-shirts, guestbooks from weddings and funerals, family vacation films, and personal photographs, including a nifty color snapshot of John Lennon and Abbie smoking pot in New York City, one of Abbie in a Chicago Police Department uniform, another of Jack in a Celtics jacket that may, or may not, have been a gift of Bill Walton.
“Abbie called the 1960s ‘the second Civil War’,” said Jack Hoffman. “Abbie and my father were an example of that. They fell out over the politics and never talked again. That’s why I dedicated my book to the both of them. It was a shot across the bow for other families. Get back together before it’s too late.”
Even during the seven years Abbie Hoffman lived “underground” as a fugitive from justice (following a drug bust in 1973), he couldn’t resist the center stage. In what has to be one of the remarkable chapters in American dissent, Abbie assumed a new identity, “Barry Freed,” and led a successful campaign to clean up the Hudson River.
When I asked his brother what Abbie would be doing if he were alive, he said, “He’d be wondering how he could place a bet on this weekend’s football games…Hey, revolutionaries needed a break, too. When he was a fugitive, he used to come to Foxboro with us to watch the Jets play the Patriots. Everyone in our section of the stadium knew it was Abbie, but they’d just give us a thumbs up sign. Abbie even went to DC the day they dedicated the new FBI Building, just stood around watching the festivities, right under their noses, one of America’s most wanted fugitives.”
This brought up the number one question Jack Hoffman was asked on his book tours: “Do you think the FBI had a hand in Abbie’s death?”
“The people who ask this question are not the kids, but the older ones, the ones Abbie’s age,” said Jack. “That’s how they feel about their government, that it’s capable of killing its own citizens. I’ll say this. The FBI shed no tears when Abbie died, but they didn’t have anything to do with it. They’re not that organized.”
As we were given a tour of the Dodd Center, and shown where the Abbie Hoffman Collection was safely and snugly stored for perpetuity, Jack Hoffman told me, “You know Abbie’s FBI files stood taller than me…15,000 pages…and they destroyed another 30,000 pages…They told me that Abbie’s file is the 18th most popular file among the public records at the FBI. Six other agencies had files on him too.”
He continued: “A lot of people helped Abbie out when he was a fugitive. Some, like Bill Walton and Grace Slick, have admitted it, but I won’t name any more names. There’s a certain sanctity about that time that remains with me. Abbie really wanted to move on. He was not nostalgic by nature, he was involved in political activism all through the 1980s. He was proud of the work he did for the environment, against CIA campus recruitment, against drug testing…”
Listening to Jack Hoffman, one can’t help but feel the pain that still lingers for an older brother gone before his time.
Remembering My Brother Abbie Hoffman
FINAL NOTE: UConn’s Dodd Center is the appropriate home for the Hoffman Family Collection. It has found kindred spirits among the Alternative Press Collection, one of the largest, best organized and maintained repositories in the country for radical and ephemeral publications originating in the 1960s as well as just about anything of a kindred spirit published since. In addition to the national and international flavor of the holdings, the collection contains a veritable trove of alternative press holdings for Connecticut, including partial runs of New Haven’s View From The Bottom and Hartford’s Other Voice, a precursor to the Advocate. In all, the Alternative Press Collection contains more than 7,000 newspaper and magazine titles, 5,000 books and pamphlets, 1,800 files of ephemeral from American activist as well as assorted posters, broadsides, buttons, calendars, manuscripts and many other oddities besides Abbie Hoffman’s dirty socks and T-shirts.