Abbie Hoffman and American Youth Culture

Article by Daniel Rowe. Edited by Emma Carmichael. Additional Research by Ellie Veryard

‘The sixties are gone, dope will never be as cheap, sex never as free and rock and roll never as great’ A. Hoffman

Abbie Hoffman

Abbot Howard “Abbie” Hoffman was a political and social activist, whose much publicised confrontations made him an emblematic as a leader of anti-establishment behavior during the 1960’s. In popular memory Abbie Hoffman has come to epitomise the radical rebellious ‘sixties’ youth culture that has been so seared onto public consciousness through popular culture. In collective memory Hoffman is remembered for his activist stunts; as the man who attempted to levitate the pentagon, organised a protest to throw dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, or more simply as the man wearing the American flag shirt in Forest Gump. Although in many ways this image of Hoffman is valid, it freezes him in his post 1967 form, ignoring his early life and political positions. This early period can arguably tell us much more about youth activism and culture than the post 1967 Hoffman can. Despite Hoffman’s later rise to the forefront of sixties activism on issues including; the psychedelic hippie movement, anti-Vietnam war movement and Gay Liberation movement, Hoffman spent much of the  ‘sixties’ engaged in far less visible and far more common forms of protest.

Born in 1936 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Abbie Hoffman was the eldest of three children and was raised in a middle class, Republican voting, household. Being brought up in a relative backwater, Hoffman had little knowledge or experience of the 1950s rebellious beatniks, of Greenwich Village. Though Hoffman would exhibit certain rebellious tendencies in school, it was most often aimed at individuals, rather than the wider society. At university, Hoffman maintained this curious mixture of youthful rebellion and conservative conformity, dressing in leather in imitation of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, while at the same time serving as captain of the conservative tennis club.

After graduating from university Abbie Hoffman still courted respectability, working by day as a hospital psychologist in his hometown and later as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company. Although he would volunteer for the Student’s Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Hoffman’s work in this regard was hardly unusual or surprising for a college graduate from Massachusetts. Hoffman did begin to show increasing signs of activism in 1960, however, as he volunteered to work on the campaign of a pacifist candidate who challenged Edward Kennedy’s election for the Senate. In this respect Hoffman’s early positions on civil rights and protestation against nuclear weapons politics echoed the casual and relatively moderate beliefs of many left leaning activists of his generation.

In 1965 Abbie Hoffman’s involvement and influence in the counter culture would begin to shift. In the year in which he moved to New York City and took LSD for the first time, Hoffman became far more involved and active in the psychedelic hippie movement of the Manhattan’s East Side. An involvement which grew following Hoffman’s attendance of the 1967 Human Be-In a love and peace gathering in New York’s Central Park. It would be these experiences that served as the catalyst that radicalised and transformed his activism. Using the Digger’s theatrical protests for inspiration, Hoffman began to assume hitherto suppressed leadership qualities within the hippie community. He began to organise counter culture style protests that exhibited Hoffman’s own brand of humour. Many of these pranks became infamous and generated high levels of publicity from the conventional media. The highest profile of these pranks included the giving away of free clothes at Macy’s, New York’s largest and oldest department store and causing significant commotion by throwing fistful of dollars onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. In 1967 Hoffman’s growing enthusiasm for leadership within the counter culture movement coincided with his new high profile contribution to protests against the Vietnam War.

A demonstration against the Vietnam War

Although protests against the Vietnam War had begun as early as 1964 it was the gradual escalation of the war after 1965 that radicalised the counter culture. After the success of the 1967 Spring Mobilisation, an event that witnessed simultaneous mass rallies in New York and San Francisco, the National Mobilisation Committee to End the War in Vietnam planned a follow up week of demonstrations for October. The centrepiece of the planned demonstrations was to be mass rally at the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a march to the Pentagon. As part of this planned march, Hoffman announced his intentions to encircle the Pentagon with protesters in order to exorcise the building of evil. In his typical tongue in cheek fashion, Hoffman announced that this exorcism would result in the building being levitated three hundred feet above the ground. The resulting media attention that the planned levitation drew was exactly the reaction and publicity that Hoffman had envisaged. By 1967 it is clear that the hedonism, generational antagonism and disdain for authority that Hoffman is primarily remembered for were becoming particularly apparent. In the wake of 1968 and the Democratic National Convention at Chicago, these characteristics would become more pronounced.

By 1967 Abbie Hoffman and his supporters had found their identity through the anti-war movement and developed a humorous and memorable protest style. This development of identity and distinct style was formally recognised with the formation of the Youth International Party in 1968. Co-founded by Hoffman the Youth International Party or Yippies, incorporated the playful anti-authoritarian, antiwar positions espoused by Hoffman and would become one of the most well known counter culture movements.

The Yippie leadership envisaged the Democratic National Convention at Chicago as their first major protest demonstration. The somewhat chaotic leadership planned a Festival of Life to take place in a Chicago park. These grandiose plans envisaged a festival uniting rock and roll, anti-war teach-ins and poetry readings. These plans were suppressed though by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and the Chicago Police Department. In the end, the Chicago convention witnessed a series of violent confrontations and riots between political protesters and the police. In the wake of these violent riots Abbie Hoffman and seven other activists were charged with conspiracy and attempting to incite riots. The infamous Chicago Eight trial witnessed seven defendants being convicted of crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots and sentenced to five years in prison. These charges were eventually dropped after a 1972 appeal overturned all previous charges based upon judicial and prosecution errors. However, more than fifty years after the trial, the extent to which Hoffman and his fellow defendants were responsible for inciting the riots still provokes fierce debate amongst historians.

Woodstock

Abbie Hoffman continued his activism after 1968 with the release of several books advocating his brand of rebellion and anti-authoritarianism as well as a controversial appearance on stage in 1969 at the Woodstock music festival.This activism was halted in 1973 when Hoffman skipped bail and went into hiding rather than face prosecution on drug charges. Hoffman came out of hiding in 1980 and published a number of articles and books. Hoffman took his own life in 1989, a suicide probably driven by his continued struggles with bi-polar disorder.

In many ways Abbie Hoffman remains an enigma, partly because of his indistinct role in the 1968 Chicago riots and also because of the difficulty judging which of his public utterance were serious or were simply aimed at scandalising orthodox society. In this role it is clear that Hoffman took no small amount of glee from tormenting the establishment, something which was heightened by his gift for PT Barnum style theatrics. Despite his well-cultivated rebellious public image, Hoffman maintained a wealth of contradictions. Throughout his radical phase he maintained cordial relations with his parents, even going to great lengths to send a thank you note to his mother when he was in hiding.

In examining Abbie Hoffman it is tempting to view him as so many have done before, as emblematic of broader youth culture trends of the 1960s. Though it is true that Hoffman inspired many and was one of the most visible figures of the youth anti war movement he shouldn’t be seen as representative of wider youth culture. But it was precisely Hoffman’s atypicality within sixties youth culture that was responsible for his publicity. Very few of the baby boomers embraced the hedonistic lifestyle espoused by Hoffman. Similarly, most anti war protesters were unprepared to engage in riots or attempts to levitate the Pentagon.

In recognising Abbie Hoffman’s influence on 1960s counter culture we should avoid falling into a trap which is all too common; allowing leaders of the counter culture to be subsumed into a monolithic conception of 1960s youth culture. Youth culture in America is far from a monolithic movement and in the 1960s it was composed of a dizzying plethora of opposing groups on both the left and the right. A majority however were not politically active beyond the grass roots, they conformed to societal pressures and listened to the music of individuals such as Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, without adopting the more radical views of the counter culture.

Furthermore, this lesson of not assessing youth culture as a whole, based purely upon youths most visible and public faces, is something that seems just as relevant today, in the wake of the London riots and student fee protests.

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