By John Beckman and Theo Zenou / Special To The Washington Post
The most politically relevant film of 2021 takes place in 1969.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” directed by Aaron Sorkin, snagged nominations in all the major categories at Sunday night’s Golden Globes, though only Sorkin won for best motion picture screenplay. The movie dramatizes one of American history’s most infamous legal cases: a high-noon showdown between the Nixon-era establishment and the loosely-affiliated activist left. By putting participatory democracy on trial, the case raised enduring questions. When does protest cross into anarchy? When does people power descend into rioting? And why does it matter?
Abbie Hoffman — the defendant portrayed in the movie by Sacha Baron Cohen — took these questions deadly seriously. In the wake of the Capitol riots, his legacy has never been more vital. Hoffman was a principled and creative activist who got millions of young Americans interested in the democratic process. For him, protest was about bringing people together in joyous communion; a far cry from the violence of the 2021 Capitol insurrection.
Hoffman was, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, a “holy clown.” He found his calling as an activist in the early 1960s, when he was a University of California Berkeley wrestler and psychology major protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee. He fought for civil rights in Mississippi with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and enlisted young radicals on New York City’s Lower East Side to join his free-love, free-money, antiwar mission. In October 1967, he and his new wife, Anita Kushner, dressed as Uncle Sam and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper during an antiwar protest with over 200,000 other demonstrators, many armed with smoke bombs and water pistols. When they arrived at the Pentagon, they tried in earnest — or in jest? — to “levitate” the building.
On New Year’s Eve of that year, Hoffman co-founded the Yippies during a pot-smoking session with Jerry Rubin, later a co-defendant at the Chicago Seven trial, and Paul Krassner, a stand-up comic and underground legend. The Yippies stood, cheekily, for the Youth International Party (YIP). Their motto: “Energy, excitement, fun, fierceness, exclamation point!”
Like other ’60s activists, the Yippies opposed the Vietnam War, advocated the redistribution of wealth and espoused the cause of racial equality. But following a lineage that ran through Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the San Francisco Diggers, the Yippies electrified their sense of social justice with performance art, absurdist comedy and elaborate practical jokes. In Hoffman’s words, Yippism “blended fun with struggle.”
For instance, Hoffman took over the New York Stock Exchange. To lampoon Wall Street, he and others showered the trading floor with dollar bills. What happened next unfolded like a morality play: a money-grubbing frenzy among professional stockbrokers that screeched the ticker-tape to a halt. Hoffman’s antics were calculated to grab headlines; and they did! In the process he put powerful institutions in their place, often exposing their base motives, in this case mindless greed.
The Yippies didn’t have a multimillion-dollar public relations budget, and didn’t need one. They found ingenious ways to disseminate their subversive message of “fun and freedom.” Their zany stunts turned them into counterculture icons, derided by the establishment media but idolized by the youth.
Yippie antics peaked in the summer of 1968, outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where they staged a “Festival of Life” as a counter-convention. They wanted their wild party to mock Hubert Humphrey, the pro-war Democratic presidential candidate, and celebrate the joys of free community. They pamphleted America’s campuses with invitations to an “international festival of youth music and theater”: LSD, pranks, loafing, sex and MC5’s proto-punk rock. The Yippies also nominated their own presidential candidate: Pigasus the Immortal, an actual pig. While kids fraternized under the stars, they could also learn about the deep workings of civil society. The festival offered a gamut of workshops on draft resistance, commune building, guerrilla theater and underground media. It would mark the dawn of a “Free America.”
But things didn’t go as planned. During the week leading up to the convention, left-wing protesters from all over the country poured into Chicago. Afraid riots would erupt, Mayor Richard Daley, seconded by the governor of Illinois, turned his city into a mini-police state. The authorities were so on edge that thousands of National Guard members stood watch at Chicago’s water reservoirs, against the Yippies’ idle threat to spike the water supply with acid, a plot point they’d cribbed from “Wild in the Streets,” that summer’s hit movie.
Violence finally erupted on the evening before the convention, in Lincoln Park, where the “Festival of Life” was underway. The police, eager to enforce an 11 p.m. curfew, came bashing into the crowd. An all-out brawl ensued. Hundreds, among them Hoffman and Rubin, were clubbed and tear-gassed by officers. Americans witnessed the lurid spectacle on the evening news.
Hoffman, Rubin and six others were charged with “crossing state lines with intent to incite a riot.” In other words, they were being held legally responsible for the violence that had transpired in Lincoln Park and elsewhere in Chicago.
The trial in 1969 was a direct consequence of Richard Nixon’s election. He had beaten Humphrey by promising “law and order.” Prosecuting the activists was Nixon’s opportunity to show voters he meant what he had said on the campaign trail.
It backfired spectacularly. Nixon and his Justice Department didn’t account for Hoffman’s wit, eloquence, even scholarly brilliance, and his refusal to back down in the face of authority. Being held in contempt of court did nothing to scare him off; it only provoked him to turn the proceedings into the ultimate Yippie performance — his magnum opus — and one of the hottest tickets in America. The trial was not televised, but it was the subject of intense coverage and captivated the nation. All throughout it, Hoffman fanned the flames with a bumptious college lecture tour.
Hoffman, with Rubin cast in a supporting role, used guerrilla theater to win public opinion over to his side. One of the trial’s observers aptly described his strategy as a campaign to win “allegiances” through laughter. For instance, on the day that Mayor Daley testified, Hoffman strolled up to him and said, “Why don’t we settle this right here and now, just you and me? The hell with all those lawyers!” The hard-nosed mayor had to laugh. By cracking jokes, the Yippie radiated confidence and threw the prosecution off-guard, exposing their stodginess, their partisan motivations and the many cracks in their fabricated case.
Hoffman clashed repeatedly with the judge, a blatant right-winger who also happened to be named Hoffman. (No relation, though Abbie liked to rile him up by calling him “Dad.”) It was obvious to everyone the judge was biased in favor of the prosecution; and openly racist. In the trial’s darkest moment, he had one of the defendants, Black Panther Bobby Seale, literally bound and gagged. (Seale was later tried separately.) For months on end, Hoffman went toe-to-toe with his vicious namesake, which endeared him to the press and, ultimately, the public.
The piece de resistance came on Dec. 29, 1969, when Hoffman testified. He used the opportunity to convey his Yippie philosophy. He explained he was part of a long tradition of American protest that stretched back to the early days of the Republic and revolutionaries like Paul Revere.
For Hoffman, dissent, free speech and the right to offend were essential to a healthy democracy. At its very best, this “fun” brought people together and got them to experience the world differently. Hoffman said under oath: “Fun was very important … It was a direct rebuttal of the ethics and morals that were part of the religion of the country … Fun was becoming quite subversive.”
Some on the right position this year’s Capitol riot in the same family as left-leaning protests of the past. And yet, the contrast to Hoffman could not be more stark. Yes, like the Yippies, the Capitol rioters showed up costumed, live-streaming their antics, reveling in the surrealism of the moment. But they were in no sense Hoffman’s peers. The rioters were trying to nullify democracy, and overturn a fair election by violent means.
By contrast, the Yippies were committed to democracy not terror, people-power not the mob, “having fun” not rioting. And, ultimately, they had faith in our electoral institutions. In fact, at the Chicago Seven trial, Hoffman quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural address that “the people had a revolutionary right to dismember and overthrow their government.” He was asked under oath, “How do you overthrow or dismember, as you say, your government peacefully?”
“In this country,” he replied, “we do it every four years.” Abbie Hoffman was speaking in 1969. But his words resound in 2021.
John Beckman is professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of “American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt” (Vintage, 2014). Theo Zenou is a doctoral candidate in U.S. history at Cambridge University.