I was sitting outside at RISE with a young Irish-Jewish American friend who asked me, when I showed her a particular chapter in Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine, “Who is Abbie Hoffman?”
It was a pleasure to send her the following excerpts from his autobiography.
There are lots of secret rules by which power maintains itself. Only when you challenge it, force the crisis, do you discover the true nature of society. And only at the time it chooses to teach you. Occasionally you can use your intellect to guess at the plan, but in general the secrets of power are taught in darkened police cells, back alleys, and on the street. I learned them there.
For [my parents] my life has been pretty much the ultimate in Jewish nightmares.
Jews, especially first-born male Jews, have to make a big choice very quickly in life whether to go for the money or to go for broke. It is the great genetic gamble we’ve all been granted. Wise guys who go around saying things like, “Workers of the world unite,” or “Every guy wants to screw his mother,” or “E=mc squared,” obviously chose to go for broke. It’s the greatest Jewish tradition, but unfortunately most take the other road and aim for the upper-middle class of whatever society they find themselves in at any given moment. Most are “better” Americans, just as fifty years ago they were “better” Germans. They keep their noses clean and never get drunk.
I had never spoken in public before. I was totally possessed. The rush of being in the center of commotion, armed with conviction. I recognized I had an ability to make outrage contagious.
Later, when I, as well as others, marched on Washington or Chicago, we carried with us the lessons that the local power structures had fought us tooth and nail—that racism was ingrained in the system. We also realized that the lessons came in spite of our formal education. (My critique of democracy begins and ends with this point. Kids must be educated to disrespect authority or else democracy is a farce.)
I, too, wanted to develop my own style of speech. I wanted to abandon my university rhythms and manner. My whole education taught me to lecture in a way foreign to my innate feelings about activism. Yes, I knew how to present rational arguments, to carefully research positions, to allow “on the one hand this, on the other hand that”—the false equilibrium of ideas—to use a vocabulary as rolled and steamed as a Tudor lawn.
Say all you want about the CIA, but they sure had damn good acid.
Those years, 1963-1965, were filled with the cry of a movement at its purest moment. People who had never sung a note in their lives gained perfect pitch overnight. People ventured into the streets, faced down police dogs, endured beatings, and grew stronger. The war against racial inequality was by no means won, but legal segregation was defeated. That it was. It was accomplished by people like those in the pews that night. Knowing I was one of them feels very good now.
Once we acknowledged the universe as theater and accepted the war of symbols, the rest was easy. All it took was a little elbow grease, a little hustle.
There’s a big difference between sitting around in a room bullshitting with your friends and making things happen.
The goal of this nameless art form—part vaudeville, part insurrection, part communal recreation—was to shatter the pretense of objectivity.
It’s so easy. All you need is a little nerve and a willingness to be considered an embarrassment. Then you just keep pushing it….
I never tried to play on the audience’s guilt, and instead appealed to feelings of liberation, a sense of comradeship, and a call to make history. I played all authority as if it were a deranged lumbering bull and I the daring matador.
Even in Mississippi where we were truly frightened most of the time with people shooting at us, living with the constant thought that we might lose our lives, it seemed like people enjoyed their “work.” All I did was admit it felt good. There’s no incongruity in conducting serious business and having fun. This pissed off the straight left no end.
By 1970, my “plan” to stop the war was to disrupt life on the home front. I did not see going to jail as the best use of my time.