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Yippies Steal the Show

Meet the Yippies
When I attended the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in November 1999, 50,000 protesters showed up to dance on the streets, chant slogans against corporate power and raise awareness about various issues ranging from the environment to sweatshops. What I most admired about these young people was their creativity and the ways in which they tried to get their message across to the media. There were huge giant puppets of President Clinton and Bill Gates, people dressed as endangered sea turtles and parades with men in suits who called themselves "Billionaires for Bush."

I thought all this street theater was ingenious. What I was totally unaware of then was that such tactics had actually been pioneered in the 60s, when television's unmatched cultural power helped launch the decade that shook America to its core. And the person who played the media the best was a frizzy-haired maestro named Abbie Hoffman. Hoffman was the leader of a group known as the Yippies, who became renowned for their outrageous pranks.


Bad Luck

I'm embarrassed to say that before this dispatch, I had no idea who Abbie Hoffman was. I had no comprehension that he was one of the most influential and beloved icons of the 60s. I was completely ignorant about all the original stunts his group pulled that garnered them headlines across America. But I at least knew about the 60s. I used to think I was cursed for not having been able to experience the Summer of Love, Woodstock and the various protests that made the 60s the most exciting time to be a young person in America.

In the 60s, young people underwent both a political and cultural revolution. On a political level, elite college students were becoming concerned about racism, women's empowerment and the Vietnam War. Culturally, the "hippies" were gathering steam with their unshaved beards and long hair, love beads and "flower power" dresses, and a fondness for psychedelic drugs. What made the Yippies so unique was that they merged the political side of the revolution with the cultural. Hoffman evolved from a "flower child," to a "flower child with thorns," and started the Yippies to try and instill a political consciousness in hippies.

"The media is the message." That was the credo the Yippies lived by. Abbie Hoffman had started off as a civil rights activist in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, until he was kicked out by the black power wing. Television had played an important role in arousing Americans' conscience during the Civil Rights struggles in the South. Now Abbie wanted to use television to organize the next step of the revolution.

The Yippies, who came up with the name first and the acronym "Youth International Party" later, pulled their first famous act at the New York Stock Exchange. They floated down dollar bills and then laughed hysterically as millionaire stockbrokers scrambled madly after the money. They wanted to celebrate the "death of money" and expose the greediness of American society. From then on, the Yippies would put soot bombs at Con Edison Headquarters to warn about pollution, plaster SEE CANADA NOW signs on Army Recruiting Booths and mail 3,000 marijuana joints to random strangers from the phone book. Abbie's antics made him a media celebrity along with the Yippies' other leader, Jerry Rubin, best known for dressing in a Revolutionary War outfit and blowing bubbles at a House Un-American Committee hearing. Many groups in the sixties were so earnest and self-righteous that the Yippies provided some of the only examples of radicals with a sense of humor.

Roz Payne, a professor and filmmaker, provided some consultation for the movie "Steal This Movie," a biopic of Abbie. I myself was captivated by the movie's portrayal of a revolution based on joy and love. Roz ended up disliking the final product and disagreed with its portrayal of her good friend. "I didn't feel that it captured his personality as I knew it. He was very generous, kind and creative." Roz became acquainted with Yippies when she was living in New York City. A "red-diaper baby" with a union-organizing mother from Poland, Roz says she was political from birth and found the Yippies intriguing for their "guerilla theater." "I liked the theatrical part of it. It drew attention and made a point."

Contrary to Abbie often being portrayed as a comic buffoon, Roz insists he was a very serious, committed activist who gave away more money than he made. She had met him in New York, when Abbie had opened a "Free Store" for low-income people and set up a place for the homeless to come. He sold goods from cooperatives in the South who were trying to escape poverty. Roz recalled how one time, Abbie warned her about trucks coming to her state of Vermont that were carrying nuclear waste. Roz contacted the governor and was able to get the truck to turn back. "He was always making connections. He understood political organizing and the political ramification of things," she said.

Another example she gave to show that Abbie was more than just a gifted prankster was the story of when Abbie pulled together a makeshift hospital during Woodstock. Many people had taken bad acid and more were afraid that they had taken bad acid. Abbie put Roz in charge of security while the performers' tent was made into a hospital. They had also gotten the Woodstock people to give them 500 free tickets, to distribute to those too poor to attend the concert. To accomplish this, they performed a "hold-up" using eggbeaters and accused the organizers of "ripping off their own people."

As the Yippies gained more attention, however, the focus shifted towards pulling off even more outrageous activities rather than setting up "counter institutions" like the Free Store. Media dependency and addiction were setting in. Some began accusing the Yippies of provoking violent confrontations with the police, though others believed the police unleashed the violence. In October of 1967, in what would become one of the most important protests of the 60s, the March on the Pentagon mobilized 100,000 various anti-war activists. Roz, who also worked with a group of filmmakers called Newsreel, attended this "absolutely fabulous" event. Little did she know that she would be taping some of the most compelling images in American history. "We didn't think of it that way," she said. "We just wanted to use the films for educational purposes to raise awareness."

Re-enactment #1: Neda tries to levitate the house and rid us of the bad luck we've been having on the road
At the protest, the Yippies had declared their intention to "levitate" the Pentagon, and to exorcise it of all the evil spirits that were killing Americans and Vietnamese women and children thousands of miles away. Roz put on the footage of the levitation and I could hear through the phone the chanting of "Ommmmmm." US marshals surrounding the Pentagon moved in and started arresting demonstrators. One famous photo shows a protester putting a daisy into the gun of a policeman. The March was only the prologue to what would become increasingly more violent confrontations with the police.

 Re-enactment #2: Yippies at the Pentagon protest put daisies in the guns of marshals. Irene tries to do the same
At midnight on March 22, 1968, the Yippies held an all-night party at Grand Central Station, the place they considered the hub of the bourgeoisie's 9-5 working life. The Yippies spread the word in the media that they were celebrating the spring equinox (first day of spring) and 6,000 came. Some frolicked with balloons and chanted "Yippie." Others though, began shouting more extreme slogans like "Burn baby burn" and cherry bombs were set off. Cops invaded the party and started beating people with their sticks as the crowd shouted the Nazi salute "Sieg heil!"

Perhaps the event that represented the height of Yippiedom was the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The Yippies were in their element as they proclaimed their candidate for president to be a pig they named Pigasus, to show how awful the human choices were. They threatened to slip LSD into the Chicago water system, leading Mayor Daley to install a 24-hour security team. Abbie offered to leave the city for $10,000 and the Chicago Tribune yelped, "Yippies Demand Cash From City." Abbie and Jerry Rubin were then arrested and tried as part of the Chicago 8. Roz said that some of the Yippie women organized a group called WITCH, claiming that they had "subpoena envy" since all those on trial were male. The Chicago trial cemented the celebrity of Abbie and Jerry, but as the Vietnam War waned to a close, the momentum of the movement faded.

The Yippies, a media creation designed to subvert the idea of organization, never had a formal membership. "It was more a state of mind than a real group," said Roz. It was also intensely targeted and infiltrated by FBI spies as part of the COINTELPRO program that spied on just about every activist in America. "We always wondered who the informers were," said Roz, whose own file runs 1400 pages. The FBI's relentless hounding of Abbie and his being wanted on drug charges (possibly a set-up by the FBI) sent him underground for several years. He later committed suicide.

Roz, whose daughters were playmates of Abbie's son America, said of those exciting days, "I loved it. I wish I was younger and could start over again." These days, she gets to relive her youth through her students by showing them the documentaries and talking about her experiences. I'm so jealous and wish I could take her class myself. She believes that same youthful revolutionary spirit could revive itself, but thinks it's more difficult without an overwhelmingly personal and urgent issue such as the Vietnam War. The issues now are all over the map, from animal rights to the environment to anti-war protests. Even though many young folk don't know Abbie Hoffman and have no idea who the Yippies were, I see their legacy and traditions living on in the new generation of activists. During a recent conference to determine how to halt global warming, Greenpeace demonstrators dressed up as Santa Claus and handed out lumps of coal to delegates, claiming they would soon be homeless because the North Pole was melting. From somewhere above, Abbie Hoffman was probably smiling and wishing he had thought of that.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Commune with a refrigerator full of cheese!
Nick - Hangin' in the Haight with Wavy Gravy
Stephen - The summer Woodstock REALLY rocked!
Stephen - Taking a stroll down not so easy street
MAD - Drugs: Take a stand against life in the $60 billion fast lane