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An Effective Rebel

A talk about Abbie Hoffman and the new film of his life


Abbie Hoffman didn’t just put a face to the American cultural revolution of the 1960s—he gave the movement its first bona fide folk hero. The self-declared “Groucho Marxist” of the Youth International Party leapt into the headlines as one of the infamous Chicago Seven in the decade’s most celebrated political trial. Hoffman and his gang turned the trial into a Situationist spectacle, somersaulting into court one day, wearing police uniforms, patriot costumes and judicial robes the next. His genius for creating media events—nominating a pig for President at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, publicly declaring that he had shtupped the teenage daughter of Vice President Spiro Agnew, threatening to dose public water supplies with LSD—has never been equalled.

But the decade that followed was not kind to Hoffman. Faced with 15 years in prison for his involvement in a 1974 cocaine bust, Hoffman jumped bail and went underground for six years. When Hoffman finally came out of hiding (after serving 11 months on a plea bargain), he found his beloved Woodstock Nation little more than a fond memory and the spotlight long gone. For two years, 1984-86, he toured college campuses debating Yippie-turned-entrepreneur Jerry Rubin, but to diminished audiences and, arguably, at the expense of his friendship with Rubin. Abbie Hoffman finally succumbed to mounting depression in April 1989, seeing himself off with a lethal dose of alcohol and phenobarbitol.

Gone but far from forgotten. The Independent recently spoke with longtime Hoffman friend and fellow activist Stew Albert. Albert currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

Tell us a little about the first time you met Abbie Hoffman.
I was introduced to Abbie after flying into New York from California on a red-eye special, early one morning at the New York Stock Exchange, by Jerry Rubin. We proceeded to go up the balcony with a number of other people and throw money at the stockbrokers, who were very anxious to catch the money and piled up on each other trying to get at it in what might be called a prophecy of their recent period of greed.

Abbie told you one time that “the cultural revolution has got to get away from the star-tripping celebrity game,” but in 1968 you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone who was more of a surrealist cheerleader for cultural revolution than he was.
Abbie didn’t even put his real name on his first book, Revolution for the Hell of It. It really all changed when he and Jerry Rubin and the others were indicted in Chicago. Suddenly his name was in the papers practically every day and he became quite famous. What he tried to do then was exploit his fame as a way of popularizing his ideas … but there was always a contradiction in it because his basic values were very anti-celebrity. So it was always a problem to reconcile the situation and sometimes he was able to do it and sometimes not. …

How did you feel you fit into his life during this darker time for Abbie Hoffman—when he wasn’t the media darling, after the cocaine bust, when he was underground, and the manic depression…?
It was frightening. It was frightening to see someone who had been such a life-affirming figure go through fits of depression and extremely irrational behavior. It was a surprising experience, and a very sad one.

Did you still have pretty good communication with him?
I saw Abbie a number of times when he was underground, yes. In Canada and New York, the Catskills, and from time to time I would get phone calls from him.

The Yippie vs. Yuppie debates with Jerry Rubin must have been very disheartening for him, especially once they started to draw blood. I thought it a big mistake that they did that. I think it was hard on both of them and made them both very angry at each other at times. Probably it permanently damaged their friendship. First I was against it, before they started, and then I tried to tell them to use professional wrestlers as their models and not take it that seriously. And they would kind of agree, but by the end I believe they were quite serious about it. It turned into a real grudge match.

You liked Steal This Movie.
The reason I really like it is that it catches the spirit of Abbie, the Yippies and the ’60s very well, and it’s probably the first Hollywood movie—not a documentary—to do that. I’m actually really surprised. It’s not the kind of thing I ever expected I would see.

Having seen the recent protests in Seattle and at the various party conventions, you have to admit that organized protest today has a grimmer edge to it, or maybe a less playful edge, and sure as hell a less surreal edge to it.
My family has been talking about that, actually. We all observed that, and actually had conversations with some old friends, and, yeah, we’re all really glad that there’s a revived movement and that young people are willing to go out in the streets and take on the cops and have that kind of commitment, but there needs to be more imagination and whimsy in the movement. And I hope this movie will help stimulate a little of that.

Abbie’s lasting contribution to the spirit of revolution?
That you can be serious without being boring. That the key to being an effective rebel is to have a powerful imagination and a great sense of humor and a willingness to create new tactics. … Running a pig for president like the Yippies did, or throwing money at the stock exchange. This kind of imagination, of not ever letting anyone take us for granted as to what we would do next. Coming up with new stuff all the time. That’s the legacy of Abbie, and that’s the legacy that is offered to the new generation of protesters.

Stew Albert will be the speaker and guest of honor at the Missoula premiere of Steal This Movie, starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Janeane Garofalo, 7 PM Saturday at the Wilma. Tickets are $10.

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