THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
America’s Foremost Political Outlaw on Activism, Ronald Reagan, Revolution, And Square Dancing in the Ice Age
22nd October, 2020 0
Back in April of 1984 when I was a struggling 29-year old journalist who had been publishing The REVIEW for five years, I received word that political activist Abbie Hoffman was scheduled to speak on the campus at Saginaw Valley State University. At that time Rosalie Riegle Troester was the faculty advisor for SVSU's student newspaper, which our production team was handling much of the layout and pre-press work for, so when I received word that upon arriving in town Hoffman wanted to to do an interview "with the guy that's doing that underground newspaper", as you can well-imagine, I was more that ecstatic.
At that time Hoffman had only resurfaced for 3 years after being forced to live underground for six years as a wanted political fugitive by the United States government. His political focus had changed from anti-war resistance to environmental activism targeted at protecting the Great Lakes; and by that time the political passion of the Yippie Movement had morphed into the self-involved apathy of the Yuppie Generation; Ronald Reagan was in the first term of his presidency; and another undeclared war was brewing in Nicaragua and Honduras.
Five years after this interview, one of the most informed, articulate, and humorous activists in the lexicon of American politics was with us no more. Sadly, Hoffman committed suicide in 1989 - broken, dis-spirited and despondent over the plague of apathy that was permeating the country with what he perceived to be an orchestrated shroud of darkness and disengagement.
With the recent release of Aaron Sorkin's brilliant new film The Trial of the Chicago Seven on Netflix and renewed interest about this transitional period of American history, it gives me great pleasure to re-publish this in-depth interview conducted with Abbie Hoffman that was originally published in our 94th issue back on April 30, 1984.
Robert E. Martin • Editor & Publisher • Review Magazine
Abbie Hoffman is both man and myth. Mention his name and immediately his image is framed as a consummate figurehead of 1960’s revolutionary politics. But to a generation of youth today Hoffman is either unknown or vaguely remembered - a campy curiosity like Haight Ashbury and the ‘Summer of Love’; a one man cult film who named his autobiography, ‘Soon to be a Major Motion Picture’.
Hoffman’s life Is often screened by students seeking insight and amusement into his tactics of ‘Provo Politics’, amazed at the political antics he staged, such as trying to sneak into Tricia Nixon’s wedding with The Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick to put LSD in the champagne bowl.
Yes, Abbie Hoffman is as outrageous as America itself and without doubt, he is a true American revolutionary that still take the war George Washington led for Independence to heart. He is an American citizen who takes his own responsibility seriously and has fought tyranny in many forms throughout the years.
As a graduate of clinical psychology from Brandeis University, Hoffman studied under the renowned developmental psychologist, Abraham Maslow. He rapidly became involved in early ‘60s political organizing by leading one of the key chapters of SNCC (The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) on the California campus of Berkeley, which led early student protests against the war in Vietnam, as well as for minority civil rights.
In the late sixties, Hoffman became best known for organizing the Youth International Party otherwise known as the Yippies, which were based around theatrical demonstrations such as burning money at the New York Stock Exchange in order to symbolize the carnage of capitalism in Vietnam.
In 1968, Hoffman attended the Chicago Democratic National Convention along with Tom Hayden, Rennie David, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner and John Froines, gaining attention and further political notoriety during the celebrated Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial.
In 1975 Hoffman was forced to go underground when charged in New York on a cocaine offense. To this day he maintains it was a set-up to counter his organizing and political efforts. During his underground period, which lasted until he surfaced in 1981, Hoffman organized local minority barrios in New York City and has since been deeply involved in the environmental movement.
This interview took place during and immediately after a press conference held at Saginaw Valley State University on Friday, April 13th, 1984.
REVIEW: What specifically concerns you these days with hazards to the environment?
Hoffman: Many things. Lake Ontario has over 450 toxic chemicals that have been identified in the water and I can sit and watch them flow outside my front door. Right now we’re teaching people on polluted rivers to take their own water samples to check for substances, increase their consciousness, and keep on top of it because people affected don’t have millions of dollars like the EPA does.
I’m also involved in the battle against transportation of high level nuclear waste. Michigan is one of four states nationwide with statewide restrictions against this transit. President Reagan is anti-states’ rights and anti-home rule on this issue and is pushing to overturn the state bans.
Spent uranium fuel is the most toxic substance known to man and a million times more toxic once used than when it’s in a nuclear reaction; but Michigan residents should know the Supreme Court ruled against Ohio and New York two weeks ago and now any lines along interstate highways are legal for companies to transport nuclear waste upon.
This means we will see an incredible increase, probably from 200 trips a year to 6000. Ironically, all experts agree this transit is the most dangerous part of nuclear power. I’m convinced the next 3-Mile Island will take place on wheels. People concerned should get behind Congressman Ted Weiss of Manhattan who has sponsored a bill for attachment to the Highway Waste Act of 1984 to stop this.
REVIEW: Are you encouraged at all? Do you see any progress on the environmental front?
Hoffman: Well, the environment is number one on Reagan’s Hit List; but then again, America is the first country to turn its back on nuclear power, as evidenced by the pushback for the Midland Nuclear Power Plant. No new nuclear power plant has gone on-line since late 1977. People realize that nuclear power is bad economics, unsafe, full of graft and corruption. I mean, Midland makes even the Diablo Canyon project look good.
I’m very involved with the St. Lawrence alliance and the United Great Lakes Coalition and lend myself out to these groups as a hired gun to go help at grass roots organizational levels. People are still active. I was just involved in a Delaware River petition drive where 800 people were arrested. But I think the approach they are taking is what will happen in Michigan. Citizens there have been pushing for a statewide utility board with elected representatives to monitor utility company rates. Right now in most states utilities are outside the democratic process.
REVIEW: How would you differentiate east coast and west coast politics?
Hoffman: Well, I come from the New England area, States have a very regional sense of identity there. The west does as well. The Great Lakes states don’t seem to have a sense of unity. You don’t hear people say, ‘I come from the Great Lakes!’ Why? I don’t know. Great Lakes United, which I’m involved with, is an organization of grass roots groups like the UAW; and it’s not just comprised of environmental groups. We’re trying to bring more unity to the Great Lakes. There’s about 120 organizations involved with it now.
I think one of the reasons Michigan has seen such economic and environmental havoc is lack of this regional identity. So right now we’re trying to stop the Army Corps of Engineers plan to break up the ice on the Great Lakes in the winter for shipping. You know, when you break up ice the waves do not dissipate it but have a pressure cooker effect. Ice the size of automobiles and refrigerators clams against the shoreline, rips up vegetation, you name it.
REVIEW: What is the difference between students today and students in the 1960s?
Hoffman: The difference between the sixties and today is that students now are conspicuous by their absence. I see kids in front rows when I speak at universities, but don’t see them on the front lines. They have important things to do, though, like watch General Hospital and play PacMan all day. Another element is demographics. There is not so many young people today as there was with the Baby Boomer generation, so they don’t count so much. My generation is still setting tones in fashion and politics.
Middle age is the standard and young people today are middle age. Dropping out of school today is like dropping off a cliff. Kids are hellbent on planning a career.
Another difference from 20 years ago is that Vietnam brought self-interest to students. The ‘60s brought about a cultural revolution; it was a unique period. Students normally through history are conservative; but young people today are part of the sixties. It is a venerated period - you know, they still sing the same songs and listen to the same sixties bands.
This generation is more placid, less questioning. I’ll go and speak at these colleges and leave and then they bring G.Gordan Liddy in and we both get the same applause.
I don’t think students are raising the question of the role of the student in society. Reagan mines the Nicaraguan harbor and Nixon couldn’t even get away with mining Haiphong harbor in Vietnam until the last year of the war because the outcry would have been so great.
By mining Nicaraguan harbors we run the risk of blowing up a Russian ship or the ship of a neutral country. But there is no outcry. If students get drafted to go to Central America, then you’ll see the outcry. It probably will be greater than the sixties because young people now know you can fight city hall. In the sixties we didn’t know. We had no experience with social movements. But the same dynamics are there and the only element missing is self-interest.
REVIEW: You’ve been an activist on many different levels. Why are you so centered around the environmental movement now?
Hoffman: Well, I live with the birds and fish, you know? My philosophy today is think globally, organize locally. The environment affects all of us. I’m writing speeches on the environment for Jessie Jackson and support his campaign. Beyond that, however, I’m also working on an airlift to Nicaragua and have been invited to teach there for six months in the Fall. I think the Reagan war budget is offensive. Our voices and priorities have been mixed up by Ron and that’s why it’s important to defeat him. He represents political pollution. We have to come to terms with who’s making the decisions. Before Ron was elected the environment was second to the economy as a national issue. Today It has slipped to 4th or 5th.
REVIEW: Don’t you think people feel ineffectual today?
Hoffman: The rights our forefathers fought for count only at those dissident moments when they are needed. Moments of tension. The FBI doesn’t follow me today because they only needed to when students were active. At one time six agencies were on my ass. Only with Watergate did the media question the government and people then became more tolerant of me and suspicious of the government.
REVIEW: Do you still use drugs?
Hoffman: I don’t think drugs are as important now. But America is a drug culture. There are thousands of drugs and people take them, whether they are legal or not. My position has always been there is drug use and drug abuse. 80% of the people taking drugs are not abusing them; but it’s the 20% that do abuse drugs that form the problem. And abusers abuse everything - they abuse kids, the environment, and a whole lot of other things.
I think the answer is to take a clinical approach and we are taking a criminal approach in this country. But I haven’t used drugs for a long time, largely because I wasn’t getting any new insights and the experience was the same. I think marijuana should be decriminalized. Right now we have this huge underground economy. Pot is the second largest cash crop in the country. Decriminalization would allow us to tax this underground economy. As I say, it’s a clinical not a criminal problem.
But drugs cost too much, so sadly, the Right Wingers have all the best drugs these days.
REVIEW: Do you plan on running for political office?
Hoffman: I have been running for seven years and my Mom thinks it would be a step down. I will say apathy among youth is a horrible thing. One thing I’ve learned is that you lose a huge part of your education if you don’t get politically involved. You only learn about power unless you are born with a silver platter or pull it out from under someone who does. You have to challenge power to learn the rules of power and how it is played.
REVIEW: Are you planning on writing any new books?
Hoffman: Yeah, I’ve got a new one coming out called Square Dancing in the Ice Age. It’s a collection of all my articles written as a fugitive. I’ll be the most published fugitive in American history. And then I’ve got a book I’m working on called Doing Democracy. This will be a handbook on organizing and I’ll be excerpting it in Parade Magazine - you know, that left wing supplement that appears in Sunday papers.
One thing I do know, though, is that in America if you do anything long enough, no matter what it is, and you become famous from it you eventually get venerated and respected. They start to call you, Mister, you know?
REVIEW: How do you perceive our action in Nicaragua?
Hoffman: It’s a case of all the old interventionists from Vietnam wanting to show they can do it right this time. You have Brig. General Jack Johnson in charge of poor Honduras. He was one of the chief military officers under General Westmorland in Vietnam. The ambassador in Nicaragua was a CIA attaché in Vietnam. And then you have Kissinger. People need to realize we are at war with Nicaragua. Mining the harbors was a very drastic step - an act of war.
I’m very familiar with life down there because I spent my first years underground in Central America and Mexico. It’s ironic because many Sandinista leaders went to school in the USA back in the sixties, so it wasn’t just the youth of America we were corrupting with education.
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)